I listened to the Weinstein tape three times yesterday and found myself nodding along. Not because I found what was happening agreeable; listening to Harvey Weinstein attempt to beg, bully, and cajole model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez into his hotel room was appalling. But I recognized it as I recognize a cover of an old duet. I knew the notes, I knew the words. Every woman—from Hollywood to Washington to Des Moines—does.
I recognized the way Weinstein began with an order. “I’m telling you right now, get in here.” It reminded me of sitting around a dining hall table with my all-girl dormmates freshman year, replaying the night before. Who kissed who. Who danced with whom. Who drank how much. Who got cornered in the hallway by that quiet guy who was friends with whatshisname, the one who was always wearing the White Sox hat. How his target rebuffed his order, how that angered him.
We’d fall silent at those moments in the night’s postmortem, when the creep spoiled somebody’s fun. We had language for either empowerment or violation; we didn’t know how to talk about that grey area feeling of discomfort when some jerk can’t take no for an answer. The story always ended with the guy calling her a bitch, us wrinkling our noses and declaring him a creep, and moving on in the conversation as quickly as possible.
Gutierrez’s objection, her sweet singsongy plead to Weinstein, also sounded familiar. A woman is supposed to be nice. She’s supposed to be pleasant, helpful, and make people happy. If she’s not nice, at least she can be fun. Nice women say yes to being fun women. Telling a man who wants to fuck “no” is neither nice nor fun.
Men like Weinstein jiu-jitsu socially enforced feminine qualities or “nice” and “fun” into sex. The more power the man has, the more a woman’s failure to be nice or fun can wreak havoc on her life. Most women have known at least one man like that.
In the recording, Gutierrez made herself clear. “I don’t want to go.” Men like Weinstein don’t accept no for an answer. A woman doesn’t have to be an aspirant starlet, or young, or beautiful to know how it feels to say a no that will never be heard. One woman I knew back in Chicago was pinned down in the backseat of a cab by a man with whom she’d once been involved. The cab driver kept going as the woman tried to reason with him and he responded by telling her that what she actually wanted was to do what he wanted. The woman eventually screamed at the cab driver to stop, shoved the man off her, and walked the rest of the way home. The man paid for the cab and followed her until she threatened to call the police.
One of the sociopathic nadirs of the recording was when Weinstein growled, “Now you’re embarrassing me.” It’s almost impressive, the dark magic in the way men like Weinstein can turn a polite refusal into a betrayal. You’re embarrassing me. As though drawing attention to an unfolding violation is somehow itself a violation. There’s no consideration to how disorienting it is for a woman to insist, as hard as she can, that she means no when the other person only hears a future yes. There’s nothing elite or Hollywood-specific about this moment. This happens to women in tech, women who work as housekeepers, women who work on Capitol Hill, women in the media.
Weinstein begins to bargain. One minute. Just sit for one minute. If she refuses, the cost to the woman could be enormous. How many times do nights like this end in violation? How many times do a powerful man’s demands begin incrementally and innocently at first? How many times does it start with “sit next to me” and end with a woman giving in to get it over with?
When none of these tactics worked, Weinstein moved on to the part where the creepy man makes a ridiculous promise to her. He swears on the lives of his children, he says, that he will not grab her breast again. I’ve heard one that involves “mother’s grave,” but I’m sure there are other versions out there, that other creeps have used on other women. Hell, Mr. Mother’s Grave has probably tried other versions on other women. The world’s Weinsteins seem to do this a lot.
Finally, Weinstein accuses Gutierrez of endangering their relationship. Over what? Over five minutes! This man who cared so deeply about her only minutes before that he needed her to sit there with a glass of water while he showered, just to keep him company, suddenly sours.
That’s the big finish that women of all ages and walks of life know. When a man like Weinstein starts, the episode ends with the woman feeling like shit. She feels like shit because she said no and made a man angry, or she feels like shit because she let a man convince her to say yes, or she feels like shit because the man ignored her no and she wasn’t able to fight him off. No matter what happens, the woman fails.
A year ago, right around this time, I wrote about how every woman in America knows the feeling that the Access Hollywood tape starring then-candidate Donald Trump gave them. I wrote how it reinforces the nagging fear that as soon as all the women are out of the room, men talk about how worthless women are, and the other men sit around laughing at them.
Weinstein, like Trump, confirms a nagging stress that every woman knows. She must spend years of her life and massive amounts of energy walking a line between yes and no. She must strategically offer or withhold her body in exchange for minimized harm to herself or her career or her social life. She knows that refusing the wrong person could be devastating, that saying yes, even to drinks, could lead to nights that end with, at best, an angry man slamming a door in her face.