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Harvey Weinstein and the Imaginary Boyfriend

The overwhelming number of accusations against the film executive have raised the specter of sexual predators, and also revealed many of the ways that the preyed upon cope

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Since I was 18 years old, I’ve had a fake boyfriend named Scott.

I was on my way to his apartment late one night about four years ago when a drunken stranger lunged at me on the street. “Beautiful!” he slurred. “Can I come home with you? Please let me come home with you.” I evaded his grasp (easily, because he could barely stand), though I’m amazed I was able to move at all since my entire body was trembling. “I’m on my way to my boyfriend’s house!” I yelled at him. “Scott’s!”

In truth, I was standing just across the street from my apartment and my roommate was out of town. I knew I couldn’t go home right then, because then this man would know where I lived, so I walked in a long loop around my neighborhood for about 10 minutes. He followed me for several blocks—almost every woman I know has adapted a sixth sense for knowing when they’re being followed—and when I was sure I had lost him, I went home alone. I locked every door and window. I checked twice.

I mentioned Scott once in a supermarket. I’d been picking up a few things on my way home from the gym, and I had noticed that a shifty man seemed to be following me around the store. He finally approached me in the frozen-food aisle. He asked my name, gave me an uncomfortable compliment about my yoga pants, and asked me out. I found him creepy but, for some reason, worried about offending him. Enter Scott. “Ah, sorry, I’m seeing someone,” I said. I wasn’t, but I didn’t feel like letting him know that. He didn’t ask my boyfriend’s name, but of course, if he had, I would have had it on the tip of my tongue.

There was a real, historical Scott. He was a friend in high school. One day we made a half-joking pact that we could use each other’s names if we were ever single and needed to fend someone off with the suggestion of a fake significant other. It makes me jealous when I think how often I’ve had to invoke his name over the years, and how little he’s probably had to use mine. Has he ever stammered my name out of his mouth in cold fear, as I have stammered his so many times?

I thought of Scott this week while reading the nauseating accusations against Harvey Weinstein, and particularly while reading Ronan Farrow’s extensive report in The New Yorker. Whether we’re harassed on the street or in the workplace, by a stranger or a powerful colleague, so many women have developed the same unspoken tactics for dealing with predatory men, and a depressing number of us have not felt able to speak out in those instances when sexual harassment has, in an instant, crossed a line into assault. (Weinstein has now been accused of unwanted sexual advances as well as rape.) One of many, many women who has spoken out against Weinstein is the Oscar-winning actress Mira Sorvino, who in Farrow’s piece described a detailed account of the unwanted sexual advances Weinstein made towards her in 1995. That September, in a hotel room at the Toronto International Film Festival, Weinstein had begun massaging Sorvino’s shoulders and, when she resisted him, he chased her around the room. She told him it was “against her religion to date married men.” She managed to escape the room. But several weeks later, as she told Farrow:

“… her phone rang after midnight. It was Weinstein, saying that he had new marketing ideas for the film and asking to meet. Sorvino offered to meet him at an all-night diner, but he told her he was coming over to her apartment and hung up. ‘I freaked out,’ she told me. She called a friend and asked him to come over and pose as her boyfriend. The friend hadn’t arrived by the time Weinstein rang her doorbell. ‘Harvey had managed to bypass my doorman,’ she said. ‘I opened the door terrified, brandishing my twenty-pound Chihuahua mix in front of me, as though that would do any good.’ When she told Weinstein that her new boyfriend was on his way, Weinstein became dejected and left.”

I have found so much pathos—so much recognition—in the smallest details of these women’s stories. Like Sorvino’s decoy boyfriend, or Weinstein’s former assistant Emily Nestor telling Farrow that she “dressed very frumpy” for a meeting with Weinstein because she’d heard the rumors. The most recent detail to bowl me over came toward the end of a stomach-turning testimonial actress Katherine Kendall gave in Wednesday morning’s episode of the New York Times podcast The Daily as she recalls trying to escape from a horrifying private meeting with Weinstein, during which he exposed himself and asked for a massage. When she declined, he asked, “Will you at least show me your breasts? Will you lift up your shirt and show me your breasts?” Again, she declined. Weinstein then turned to a negotiation tactic, saying that he would only let her leave the room if she let him walk her to a taxi. She let him. He hailed a taxi. When it pulled up, to her absolute horror, he got in after her.

“Then I got out at a bar, on the Lower West Side,” she recalls, “and I went straight into the bar, and I asked the bartender to talk to me like he knew me. I said, ‘Just please start talking to me like you know me. Please, just talk to me. Just please talk to me.’” She could see Harvey still in the taxi, watching her through the window of the bar. After about 20 minutes, he left.

Just start talking to me like you know me. Please, just talk to me. Please talk to me. The deluge of stories about Weinstein has, in the past few days, had such a gut-wrenching effect on nearly every woman I know. I think it’s because while our stories may not exactly mirror those of Weinstein’s victims, we recognize in their accounts so many of our own unspoken daily survival strategies. Asking a friend or unthreatening stranger to pretend they’re our boyfriends, even if it makes us sick to submit to the idea that we need male protection, that we cannot take care of ourselves. Dressing “frumpy” when we know we will be around a leering man, as though it’s somehow our responsibility to keep their behavior in check. Believing that our story will somehow be more of a shield if we have specific details worked out ahead of time—the boyfriend’s name, exactly where we know the bartender from. I feel silly admitting that I thought I would be safer if I had a name memorized, like an emergency contact’s phone number, to blurt out in a moment of fear: Scott!

And yet that’s why so many women haven’t spoken out about these things until now. Because we live in a culture that made us think the details were silly, excessive, not important enough to say out loud. Of course, in Weinstein’s case especially, it is a matter of power: As a successful Hollywood producer, he had enough of it to make his victims believe that if they took a stand against them, he would sabotage their careers. But there is also a pervasive cultural force that reassures women that their experiences of sexual harassment are trivial if they don’t escalate to outright physical violence. A particularly heartbreaking part of Sorvino’s story is that, according to Farrow, “she struggled for years with whether to come forward with her story, partly because she was aware that it was mild compared to the experiences of other women, including another actress she spoke to at the time.”

But it’s a losing game to compare women’s stories to one another, to listen only to the ones who endured the “worst” or most sensational trauma—that way of thinking leads to the culture of complicity and silence that protected Weinstein for years. Our stories don’t happen in a vacuum; they’re all deeply connected and propagated by the same sexist culture. We need to continue to share both our experiences and our survival tactics with each other. Which is to say that if anyone is in the market for a fake boyfriend, I know a guy.