'All that anger's unleashed': How sexual misconduct stories convince other victims to come forward

Harvey Weinstein Film Academy
Harvey Weinstein arriving at the 2015 Oscar ceremony.

When the Los Angeles Times published a story this week detailing sexual harassment accusations against the filmmaker James Toback, the investigation was remarkable, in part, due to the sheer number of women speaking out. In his first story, reporter Glenn Whipp wrote that 38 women had shared stories about Toback, most of them speaking on the record.

That number would soon climb. After the first story was published, a flood of additional women contacted the newspaper about Toback, who has denied the accusations. By Thursday, four days after the first story ran, Whipp said he had been contacted by 310 women with their own accounts.

While the number of women speaking out about Toback has been immense, what unfolded in his case has echoes in the seismic shifts rattling industry after industry this month. Ever since the publication of sexual harassment and assault allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein, an avalanche of complaints has surfaced against other high-profile men across media, entertainment, politics and other fields.

There is a reason for this flood of accusations: When people speak out about being sexually abused and harassed, other victims see what happens next.

“The more cases like Weinstein, where victims are able to see that the community is on their side and is willing to believe them when they come forward, I think that has a long-term positive impact and encourages many more people to come forward,” said Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), an anti-sexual-violence group.

Berkowitz said many victims of sexual violence make a careful decision about whether to tell other people or contact law enforcement. “The one big factor in that is whether they think they will get a fair hearing and a reasonable chance at justice,” he said.

For victims of sexual violence observing the Weinstein case, “many of them are feeling a sense of justice being served,” Berkowitz said. “That it took a long time but he’s getting what he deserved in response to his actions.”

Weinstein’s fall came after other powerful men faced charges of sexual misconduct that, in some cases, cost them their jobs. The star Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly was ousted from the network earlier this year, following Roger Ailes, the network’s co-founder, out the door.

Other allegations have turned out differently. Some of the women who spoke out during the presidential campaign last year and accused President Trump of unwanted touching or kissing have questioned why Weinstein lost his job while the man they accused ascended to the Oval Office.

But in recent weeks, Weinstein’s case has had a massive effect since the New York Times and New Yorker first published accusations against him. Scores of women have taken part in the #MeToo campaign on social media and related their own stories. The outpouring on social media has been followed by allegations made against other men, a growing list that includes journalists, studio chiefs, musicians, celebrity chefs and many others.

“Women had this anger bottled up inside of them all this time, anger they felt they couldn’t do anything about, they were in fear, then suddenly, all that anger’s unleashed,” said attorney Gloria Allred, who represents women who have accused Weinstein and other high-profile men of misconduct. “They give voice to it. And they feel like we’re not going to suffer in silence anymore. We’re tired of living in fear. We’re going to speak out.”

In recent cases, after accounts of unwanted advances or aggression are made public, more stories detailing similar behavior soon follow. When these stories emerge, women can be reminded of what they experienced with someone high-profile or “maybe a person who was in power in their lives with them, in business or the arts or sports, whatever area of life they’re in,” Allred said.

This door can swing both ways. Berkowitz said that last year, the biggest spike in calls to the National Sexual Assault Hotline came after the Washington Post published the Access Hollywood video in which Trump was heard boasting in graphic terms about kissing women and grabbing them by their genitals. A series of women soon accused Trump of incidents they said had occurred over several decades. Trump denied the allegations, calling the claims “pure fiction” and his accusers “horrible, horrible liars.”

After Trump won the election, Berkowitz said calls to the sexual assault hotline declined. While it is hard to blame that on any one thing, “it happened in such close proximity to the election,” he said.

“One of the things that encourages people to reach out is when they feel empowered, when they feel like they’re going to be understood,” Berkowitz said. “There might have been some reaction to the election there.”

Something like #MeToo offers “the flip side of that,” he said, with the social media campaign “encouraging so many people to get help.” Berkowitz said that the number of people who have used the telephone hotline or the online hotline has spiked this month since the first Weinstein stories and is on pace for a record high.

This same dynamic – allegations of misconduct inspiring other victims to tell their stories – often plays out in cases involving allegations that are not splashed across cable news and the front pages of newspapers, Berkowitz said.

“We see that a lot with much less high-profile cases that are big within a local community,” he said. “When a teacher or a soccer coach or a priest is accused by one or two people, then suddenly many others they have abused feel emboldened, feel safe to come forward.”

Perceptions of sexual violence have shifted in recent years, both in terms of the public response and media coverage, Berkowitz said.

“The American culture has gradually been evolving more towards the reaction we’ve seen with Weinstein,” he said. “There’s a much greater recognition of the scale of this crime and how widespread sexual assault it is, how many victims there are.”

For people who hear these stories, Berkowitz said, that evolution means they know “this is really something that affects a huge percentage of the population, and most likely someone they know.”