Why the Women in the Weinstein Case Are So Believable

By middle school, girls are taught to not confront or report sexual harassment.

Posted Feb 13, 2020

As his legal problems move from New York to Los Angeles, Harvey Weinstein’s defense attorney will continue to rely on the argument that real victims of sexual assault either fight back or report the assault. If they carry on with their lives after the alleged assault, the argument goes, then nothing important or truly damaging could have really happened. But the scene the defense team evokes, where the woman kicks and claws against the violent rapist and bravely goes to the police afterward, is the Hollywood version of sexual assault, not the reality.

Instead, women have been trained since middle school for how to react to sexual assaults like the ones Harvey Weinstein is accused of – ones committed by seemingly “nice” men. These assaults are just the dramatic culmination of years of sexual harassment and objectification that girls have routinely experienced since puberty, and the actresses’ reactions to these sexual assaults are exactly what girls and women have long been taught to do. 

As a developmental psychologist who studies sexual harassment in adolescence, none of the testimony of the accusers is surprising. Our own research shows that 90% of girls have been sexually harassed by a boy at school. This includes having their body parts rated, having their clothes pulled at, and being touched against their wishes. In nationally representative samples, we see that more than half of all girls are sexually harassed each year, many of them every day. For really pretty girls who hit puberty early, the odds of being sexually harassed are even higher. So the beautiful actresses at the center of these cases have likely had a long history of dodging unwanted sexual attention

Sexual harassment is not only common, it damages girls who experience it. Three decades of research have consistently shown that girls who have been sexually harassed have lower self-esteem, are more depressed and anxious, have more negative opinions about their body and are at greater risk for developing eating disorders, have more suicidal thoughts, are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol to cope, and have a harder time sleeping than girls who haven’t been sexually harassed. They are also more likely to miss school, have lower grades after the sexual harassment, and are generally more pessimistic about their futures. 

And yet, most girls do nothing in response. Even though they report feeling scared, angry, helpless and embarrassed, they rarely tell the harassers to stop. More than 60% of teen girls say they try to “forget about” or “ignore” the harassment, or simply “do nothing.” Only 1 in 10 girls tell a teacher, and these are the people actually in the position to stop the harassment. 

Why do so few girls ever confront or report their sexual harassers? Based on a 2018 Plan International survey of teen girls, more than half of the girls thought it would not make any difference to tell anyone. Few girls think their schools would act to protect them. Indeed, research with teachers nationwide shows that teachers often dismiss sexual harassment as “boys being boys” and rarely intervene. When girls do report it, they are often the ones punished rather than the boys, blamed for wearing the wrong clothes and sent home for a dress code violation.

Lesson learned. Harvey Weinstein’s attorney captured this lesson when she said she never put herself in situations where she would be assaulted. From middle school on, girls learn that we blame the victim.

Girls are also worried about saying anything about sexual harassment. More than 60% of teen girls worry about retaliation, concerned “that the other person would try to get back at me” if they confront or report him. When Harvey Weinstein threatened the actresses with being blackballed in Hollywood, it was part of the same script they had already learned. Other girls are worried about playing the role of the “nice girl.” More than 1 in 3 girls don’t confront or report sexual harassment because they are worried that people will think they are “trying to cause trouble” or “just being emotional.” More than half of teen girls say they would never report sexual harassment because people would not like them if they did.

These are the pressures girls have internalized their entire lives. Girls, from infancy, have been taught to be passive, smile, and make everyone comfortable. Even research with toddler girls shows that they are rewarded for being submissive and sweet and punished for being too assertive

So, by the time puberty and adolescence starts, and boys begin sexually harassing them as part of their daily school experience, girls have learned to smile, pretend it doesn’t bother them, and try to maintain some dignity. At the same time, they are feeling powerless, embarrassed, and sad. The ramifications of this constant barrage of sexual harassment last a lifetime. So when a sexual assault happens, it is just the exclamation point on a longer sentence. And the reactions to the sexual assault are often the exact same – try to pretend it didn’t happen, try to still be liked despite the degradation, worry about retaliation, and feel powerless to report it.   

The fact that these reactions are exactly what Harvey Weinstein's accusers report makes the charges more believable, not less. They are following the exact same script that millions of girls follow every day. 

For more information about how parents can talk to their teens about sexual harassment, see here.

References

Brown & Leaper, 2008; Chiodo, Wolfe, Crooks, Hughes, & Jaffe, 2009; Goldstein, Malanchuk, Davis-Kean, & Eccles, 2007; Hand & Sanchez, 2000; Hill & Kearl, 2011; Plan International & PerryUndem, 2018