After the New York Times revealed decades of predatory behavior at the hands of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, something funny happened: Some people directed shock and anger not at Weinstein and the industry that brushed his abuse under the rug, but at the women who kept it an “open secret” for so long.
Despite Weinstein’s private legal settlements and notoriously detailed nondisclosure agreements, stories about his bathrobe interviews and quid-pro-quo sexual advances spread throughout the entertainment industry. So why, many wondered, didn’t women try to fight it?
The “open secret” is a method of protection for women in a society that condones sexism and misogyny. It is necessary because of how pervasive behavior like Weinstein’s can be. Women regularly share names and stories to make sure that we know which boss we shouldn’t be alone with. If every woman walked out of a job where they had a predatory co-worker, no woman would have a job at all.
If every woman walked out of a job where they had a predatory co-worker, no woman would have a job at all.
Weinstein’s story is about power — legal power, professional power and also the power that comes from knowing most sexual abusers will never see jail time. Men like Weinstein manipulate power structures to commit abuse, and their male peers protect them by dismissing allegations against them and shaming the women who speak up. In response, women across industries and demographics must form a network to warn one another about predatory men.
After the Weinstein story broke, culture reporter Gavia Baker-Whitelaw tweeted about the “sisterhood of the open secret.” Open-secret warnings are “really a lot more pragmatic than just sharing rumors,” she said in an interview. The open secret “simultaneously functions as an early warning system for vulnerable women, while also representing how hard it is to report sexual harassment and have it make any difference.”
Baker-Whitelaw also pointed out why men are often “oblivious” to men with histories of abuse. “I’ve heard Weinstein warnings for years. Meanwhile, many established male critics seem shocked??” she tweeted.
“Telling men [rumors] like that is always such a risk,” user Laura Krabappel said on Twitter. “There’s only like a 30% chance they hear it and then quietly pass it along.”
“Oh, absolutely! I mean, these rumors mostly exist as an internal warning system among women,” Baker-Whitelaw responded.
It should be obvious, but to anyone questioning why women wouldn’t go public sooner, it’s because they still need a paycheck and a career, even if the industry is run by a creep — and because women have had historically low success reporting sexual abuse. Better, then, to share names and stories among others you trust, and keep them from experiencing the same fate.
“I’ve heard Weinstein warnings for years. Meanwhile, many established male critics seem shocked??” — Gavia Baker-Whitelaw
Sadly, men like Weinstein — and their defenders — can use the idea of the “open secret” to discredit victims. A cursory scan through Twitter reveals person after person asking women why they kept this information to themselves for so long. They wondered why women backchannel instead of coming forward, and they accused women of being just as complicit.
The trick Weinstein’s apologists are pulling is making it the victims’ burden to protect themselves, rather than placing the onus on the echelon of power to regulate its own abuse. They seem to be asking victims to call out their supervisors, to leave their jobs over toxicity in the workplace, to drop everything and boycott — martyring themselves at their own personal and professional risk.
We ask victims to martyr themselves at their own personal and professional risk.
It’s a horrible decision to have to make: keep something a secret to protect yourself and those you care about, or come forward and likely face more abuse and no real change. But in these situations, that’s the only role available to most women. You either keep the secret and warn where you can, or reveal the secret and get blamed for not revealing it sooner. It’s a vicious cycle.
But the only way the “open secret” will die is when people decide they want to listen to women.