Sex Talks: A mini-series about sexual violence, race and identity in America

Harvey Weinstein with Steven Gätjen at a film festival in Zurich. Weinstein is at the epicenter of fresh national conversation about sexual violence in America. Reports this month shed light on sexually abusive relationships the ex-film executive had with actresses in Hollywood. Credit: Wikimedia

The October 2017 #MeToo campaign emerged days after reports this month in the New York Times and the New Yorker outing then film studio executive Harvey Weinstein for his baseness with women in Hollywood.

Since then, Weinstein was unseated as head of the Weinstein Company, a film studio he started in 2005. He was also removed from the Academy and banned for life from the Producers Guild of America.

Netflix’s “House of Cards” star Kevin Spacey faces new criticism for allegations of this kind. In late October, then-14-year-old actor Anthony Rapp, known for his role as Mark in “Rent,” accused Spacey of laying on top of him at Spacey’s apartment 31 years ago.

In “Sex Talks,” three women and one man shared insights on and encounters with the #MeToo campaign, which steeped social media in mid-October.

Sexual assault remains rife in U.S. schools and workplaces – even on Capitol Hill – among women, men and children. More than 320,000 Americans over the age of 12 are sexually assaulted or raped each year, according to a 2015 Department of Justice survey.

I.  Origins of Me Too


Some media outlets falsely attributed the campaign to the “Who’s the Boss?” actress Alyssa Milano, citing an Oct. 15 tweet encouraging women to post their encounters with sexual violence on their social media pages.

But black New York City advocate and nonprofit founder Tarana Burke created the campaign more than a decade ago.

II.  ‘He could have killed me so easily.’


In episode two, we hear from Amelia Furlong in San Francisco. She works at NARAL Pro-Choice California and volunteers at Exhale, an abortion support group.

Days after the 2016 election, a stranger in a bar in Bainbridge Island, Washington, held Furlong in a chokehold – twice. And last month, it happened again. She wrote a #MeToo Facebook post about the incidents in chorus with more than 12 million other posts, comments and reactions that the Associated Press counted in the 24 hours after Alyssa Milano’s first Me Too tweet.

This is not something you get to have your Facebook community absolve you of.

In light of the #MeToo campaign and the Harvey Weinstein allegations, Furlong said it’s “sinister” that men complicit in sexual violence are looking for a kind of absolution through their social media presence.

“What you’re admitting to online is an extremely traumatizing experience for the survivor,” she said. “This is not something you get to have your Facebook community absolve you of.”

III.  ‘Are people really this stupid?’


#MeToo comes over one year after a 2005 video recording came to light, in which then presidential-candidate Donald Trump admits he groped and tried to have sex with women using his “star” status. “When you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump said in the Access Hollywood video, which was obtained by the Washington Post.

In this episode, I interviewed Jennifer Drobac, a former litigator and now a law professor at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis.

We learn about one of Drobac’s first sexual violence cases in 1992. She was prosecuting Larry Michels, the then-divorced executive of the software company, Santa Cruz Operation Inc. Three assistants accused Michels of coercive kissing and fondling at the office. In one account, he asked a secretary to open his mail while sitting on his lap.

I could not have paid someone to do a better job in making my case for me.

The executive admitted to the San Jose Mercury News that these claims were true but discounted that they implicated him in sexual harassment. The article by environmental reporter Paul Rogers was a linchpin in Drobac’s case.

“I could not have paid someone to do a better job in making my case for me,” Drobac said. “There was documentary public evidence that this man was acknowledging that he’d engaged in this conduct. Now it’s admissions of guilt with a hashtag on social media.”

Our evolution into what Drobac called “a more pervasive media age” has driven Facebook, Twitter and Instagram users to broadcast complicity, guilt or disgust in sexual violence and hyper-masculine culture in this country.

Drobac says some of these kinds of posts, where assaulters are admitting to possible criminal conduct, are public evidence and could used by prosecutors to file a lawsuit.

IV. ‘People are wont to sweep this under the rug.’


In episode four, we hear from Isaac Baker, the founder of the solar energy company, Resonant Energy. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Baker wrote an “It Was Me” post on Facebook on Oct. 19. He speaks out about how the culture of sexual violence gets perpetuated. At times, he wrote, his instincts have been the wrongs ones.

“Hurting others, especially those I care about, has been twice as painful personally,” Baker said, “and I have been continually surprised at how my first instincts have been the wrong ones — the ones ingrained in me by a toxic and patriarchal culture. We can do so much better.”

Resonant Energy has committed to hiring over 50 percent women and people of color, which runs counter to the industry standard.

I have been continually surprised at how my first instincts have been the wrong ones.

“As far as clean energy goes, it’s about 70 percent white males,” Baker said. “And then as far as who are founders of companies – in terms of who gets invested in by venture capitalists – it’s about 98 percent male and then 70 percent white.”

V.  America ‘only cares about a certain kind of woman.’


In this last episode, I spoke to Dr. Sherri Williams, an assistant professor at the American University School of Communication in Washington, D.C.

Williams took issue with a widely read op-ed in the New York Times by American actress Mayim Bialik. Bialik, who plays Amy Farrah Fowler in CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory,” said she never experienced sexual violence in her career because she isn’t perceived as a sexual being.

The op-ed was “off-base, unnecessary and even untrue,” Williams said. “Rape and sexual harassment is not about beauty and attraction; it’s about power and domination.”

Daniel Holtzclaw, an Oklahoma City police officer, was convicted of 18 counts of sexual assault in attacks on 13 women in 2015. In recent weeks, Holtzclaw’s story has been lost in the re-energized national dialogue of sexual harassment in part, Williams said, because the women survivors weren’t traditionally beautiful: they were poor, black and had backgrounds “perceived as negative.”

Sexual harassment is not about beauty and attraction; it’s about power and domination.

District Attorney Lori McConnell said in closing arguments the day of Holtzclaw’s sentence that he targeted women he thought wouldn’t be listened to or believed.

“He didn’t choose C.E.O.s or soccer moms,” McConnell said. “He chose women he could count on not telling what he was doing.”

Williams sees hope in the career of Viola Davis. The Juilliard graduate was the first black woman to hold the ‘Triple Crown of Acting.’ She won an Academy Award, an Emmy Award and a Tony Award.

Her role as Professor Annalise Keating in “How to Get Away with Murder” secured her the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series in 2015. Here’s her acceptance speech about women of color reaching for opportunity.

For more information about sexual assault in the U.S., visit the resource archive of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the country.

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