Harvey Weinstein, the film mogul whose patterns of sexual harassment and assault have been a public secret in the industry, was recently convicted of rape by a jury of seven men and five women in the New York Supreme Court. At the Athena Film Festival on Saturday, a panel of “silence breakers” in the entertainment industry reacted to the outcome that they called “unfathomable” and spoke about the work they’ve done to shift the culture—emphasizing how much work we have yet to do.
The panel, entitled The Silence Breakers, was moderated by award-winning arts and entertainment journalist Tatiana Siegel of The Hollywood Reporter. It featured several women who have called out sexual harassment, including Sarah Ann Masse, a filmmaker who is part of the British-American comedy duo We Are Thomasse; Drew Dixon, a hit record producer whose credits include Estelle’s “American Boy” and Whitney Houston’s “My Love Is Your Love”; Jasmine Lobe, an actress and writer for the Observer; and Sheri Sher, a co-founder of the all-female deejay and rap group Mercedes Ladies.
Masse and Lobe have gone on record with allegations of assault by Weinstein, while Dixon and Sher have both provided detailed allegations of assault by Russell Simmons, the co-founder of Def Jam Recordings and a pillar of the hip-hop scene.
The four broke down stereotypes and responded to questions faced by women in the entertainment industry who choose to speak out against men who are considered famous and powerful leaders.
According to the panelists, accusers are often discredited for maintaining relationships with the people they allege assaulted or harassed them. Dixon provided a personal example regarding her experiences with Simmons.
“I would go out of my way to smile sheepishly [at Simmons] to signal, 'I'm not a problem, I'm not talking about this, please don't blackball me,' because they don't cease to be the arbiters of power and opportunity just because they raped you. They're more so, frankly, after,” Dixon said.
However, the panelists noted that the Weinstein trial could set a new precedent on that front. Although some of his accusers stayed in touch with him after he abused them, that fact was not used in court to discredit the women’s experiences—a key difference between Weinstein’s trial and others that preceded it.
The women added that on top of their fears of getting “blackballed,” they still held a sense of loyalty to the men who they once considered mentors. Lobe said that even after Weinstein asked if he could masturbate in front of her, and after other women started coming forward with similar stories of harassment, she still felt an impulse to defend him, at least until he issued a statement against her.
“I was still protecting Harvey Weinstein in a way. I was still trying to make it not that big of a deal because on some level I still couldn't believe that this was happening, and ... he kind of was like a mentor to me in certain ways and groomed me. I still had that old part of me that almost wanted to make him proud of me, which is just so messed up,” Lobe said.
The panelists also highlighted how the decision to speak out becomes even more complicated when race is a factor. Dixon noted that Simmons created wealth and opportunities for many Black people in the music industry, creating a “loyalty conundrum” for her as a Black woman.
Sher concurred that no one would out Simmons as an abuser as long as he was uplifting Black artists by “bringing hip-hop to the mainstream.”
When the women were asked about what ultimately compelled them to come forward, their answers spanned a spectrum of emotions ranging from anger to hope. Dixon said she was partly prompted by her fury that Simmons called other women liars as they came forward with allegations. Masse said that she hoped to show other women that they are not alone in their experiences. Lobe was encouraged to share her story by the slew of women who came forward alongside the cultural shift of the #MeToo movement, and Sher said that her mother had told her to tell her story prior to her passing.
Ultimately though, Sher emphasized that she came forward for the sake of her own well-being and encouraged others to do the same when they’re ready.
“Hold your truth, and your truth will set you free. It's not for [anyone else], but it's to free yourself of the virus that's been eating you up inside and keeping you back from where you're supposed to be,” she said.
To encourage more survivors to come forward, the panelists cited the need for legislative change. Masse brought up the Child Victims Act, which provides a one-year window for people who were abused as children to report crimes that had formerly been outside the statute of limitations, and its counterpart the Adult Survivors Act.
In response to a question about the fear of being falsely accused amid the #MeToo movement, the panelists explained that false allegations are extremely rare in the big picture of sexual violence. Although Dixon acknowledged that men of color are disproportionately affected by false allegations, she said that men who treat women with respect generally need not worry.
“Men don’t need to walk around being paranoid; they need to walk around being respectful,” Dixon said.
When Siegel asked about the path forward for gender equality and sexual respect, the women all said that career retaliation against accusers remains a roadblock. Despite her track record as a hitmaker, Dixon said she hasn’t been called lately for producing gigs. Masse and Lobe said they still struggle to get auditions for acting roles.
Powerful men such as Weinstein and Simmons used their staggering wealth to create far-reaching networks of influence in their industries that perpetuate career retaliation. Masse, who is looking to start a “survivor-run production company,” said that the first step toward dismantling those networks is to create a culture in which people cannot protect abusers without putting their own careers and reputations at risk.
All the panelists emphasized that opening up professional opportunities to survivors is crucial to turning the cultural shift into tangible change.
“The industry has to know that protecting these predators to protect their bottom line will cost them money … because the economic burden on people like us has been extraordinary. We’ve lost so much time, we’ve lost opportunity, we’ve lost our health,” Masse said.