Tuesday, October 31, 2017

My Harvey

When I first started reading about the numerous allegations piling up against Harvey Weinstein, I didn’t understand at first how this could be going on for over twenty years and no one had come forward before now. That so many women could have such similar experiences with one of the most powerful men in Hollywood and yet it continued to happen. If there were to be no legal repercussions, why at the very least did older women not warn younger women to not go into those hotel rooms, not to be alone with this sexual predator? Why was he allowed to get away with it for so long?

Initially, I resisted the #metoo hashtag circulating on Facebook. Why was it that women had to stand in solidarity in our victimhood? Why are we so obsessed with the woman as victim narrative? I don’t see myself as a victim, and I don’t want to be made to wear that badge because we live in a sexist, patriarchal world. Of course I empathized with the women who had been victimized, but I resisted what felt to me like a celebration of our presumed weakness. I couldn’t imagine being in a room with a powerful man who could make or break my career crossing all the boundaries that lay between us until I felt I had to make a choice between my ambition and my soul.

And then I remembered that actually I had been in a room like this one. A year ago. And I didn’t know how to process it until I started reading these women’s stories. I actually didn’t really understand how to think about what had happened to me until I read in The Atlantic Brit Marling on Harvey Weinstein and the Economics of Consent. I didn’t realize my situation at the time because I had simply accepted it as the status quo. And that’s my really horrifying realization in all of this. Not that Harvey Weinstein is a sexual predator, because frankly and unfortunately, I’m not surprised. But that I have been in a room similar to the one these women describe, and I didn’t even realize it.

A year ago, I was hired to adapt a novel into a screenplay by an older female producer. She let me know before offering me the job that she had sent the book to several more well-known and established screenwriters, one of whom was a female writer/director I greatly admired. Lucky for me, those other writers passed. This producer fancied herself a sort of mentor and liked the idea of giving a young woman writer with potential a shot, and I was grateful for the opportunity. I had only ever had one of my feature scripts—a co-write—optioned, and never anything produced except for short films I made myself. This was a very important project for her and she had a reputable director interested. To make myself more appealing while trying to get the job, I lowballed a figure because I knew part of my appeal was being a writer without a quote.

I was paid half up front and was to get the other half upon delivery, but when I ran out of money and needed to pay my rent, I asked the producer if I could get the rest of it now. It wasn’t a lot of money and I knew the guy funding the film was loaded. She said yes, but that her financier wanted to meet me, so I could go pick up the check in person at his office.

As I headed into the financier’s office building, a man passed me in the hall and looked me up and down, smiling as he checked me out. I continued into the building and was led into a conference room by the pleasant young woman working the front desk. A few minutes later, the financier entered the room. It was the guy who had checked me out in the hall. We shook hands and I sat down. He was talkative and energetic. He asked me questions and then talked over my answers. He seemed to want to tell me about himself, to show off his philanthropic work, and I responded attentively like a good student, nodding and smiling and making all the right noises. He asked if I liked the book—he hadn’t read it. I said I thought it would make a good movie. I wasn’t really sure what this meeting was about but apparently he just wanted to put a face to the person to whom he was writing the checks.

He asked about my other work. I told him about my blog, this blog. I told him the title. His face lit up. He suddenly seemed very interested in what I had to say. He asked what made me so comfortable writing about sex. I told him about the shameless way I was raised by a feminist mother. I told him the foundational story of my childhood, that my mom bought me a vibrator when I was twelve. This isn’t privileged information—literally everyone who knows me knows this. And it’s not a story designed to titillate. I sometimes tell it to relative strangers in business meetings because I feel it cuts through a lot of small talk and gets to the heart of something that helps people understand who I am as a person and an artist.

He leaned in, a glint in his eye. He asked if I knew how he and my producer had met. I said no. He dialed her number on the conference room telephone in the middle of the table and said, “Hey, tell her how we met.” She giggled and said, “Oh god.” She hung up and he told me they had met at a sex party. Neither of them knew it was a sex party, of course, and they ended up chatting in the kitchen while everyone else got it on in the living room. He watched me intently as he told this story. I laughed politely and smiled a lot, and still wondered what this meeting was about. Was I going through some kind of test before I was going to get my check? He seemed electrified by the fact that we were now talking about sex, and I suddenly felt like maybe we were headed in the wrong direction. I could feel myself getting hot under my cashmere sweater, an ill-advised choice on what I had assumed would be a chilly fall day and had turned instead into a stifling LA one. But I didn’t want to take it off, embarrassed about the possibility of sweat stains.

I wasn't sure why I felt uncomfortable. Maybe because the stakes felt higher than usual. I had been hired by this woman I respected to write a script after it had been passed on by much more established writers. She had made it clear she was taking a chance on me, and here I was talking about sex with her financier. Somehow I knew there was something about this that wasn't totally above board. But hadn’t he pushed the conversation in this direction? He had probed into my other work and gotten fixated on the subject of sex. It suddenly seemed I had unwittingly tapped into an area where I maybe shouldn’t have gone with this particular guy, and now I didn’t know how to get us back to higher ground.

I guess inspired by my mention of being raised in a shameless household, he started telling me about how he had coached his “gorgeous” seventeen year old daughter that she should play with a guy’s balls when they had sex. I didn’t know what to say to that so I stupidly said, “Oh really, I don’t think I’ve ever done that.”
“I’ll show you if I’m ever lucky enough to have sex with you,” he said.

I just stared at him. I felt my face turning red. I started to think back in the conversation to see if I had provoked this comment. Had I said something that might make him feel like us having sex was a possibility? And even if he thought it was, why would he say this out loud in a supposed business meeting with someone he didn’t know? Had I incited this by talking about my sex-positive childhood? Had I said too much? Probably, I usually did. Or was it just the way this guy talked? He stared at me inquisitively, gauging my response. Perhaps testing how far he could go. This was my opportunity to shut the door, to say, “Please don’t say that.” I didn’t. I was just so surprised; I didn’t know what to say.

Later, when I recounted the story of this meeting to my mom and a couple friends, I left out this part. I told them that I’d found the meeting refreshing. I was charmed by the attention of this rich and powerful older man. I was excited by what I saw as a potential business opportunity. He seemed interested in the Slutty Feminist—maybe he wanted to invest in her?

The meeting ended with him asking me what would make me happy. I waved the check in the air and said, “This helps!” He then said he wanted to take me out for a sushi lunch so we could get to know each other better. I said great. Free sushi lunch with a rich financier who likes slutty feminists and might want to invest in my brand sounded good to me!

We went to lunch and it felt like a date. We ate expensive sushi and he told me about how he loved his wife, she was a great mother, but she had a low sex drive and he had a high sex drive and he said they had kind of a don’t ask-don’t tell policy. He also said that the one time he’d taken advantage of this policy and fucked someone else, the girl ended up blackmailing him, and his wife was furious at him for putting their family at risk. I wonder now if there was a part of this story he wasn't telling me, and if perhaps it wasn’t that she had blackmailed him, but that he’d gotten sued and settled. Now I’m curious about the girl’s side of the story.

He told me about the time he and his buddies went to Vietnam where he met the most beautiful young girl he’d ever seen and his friend was making out with her when his other friend broke the news that this beautiful young girl was actually a beautiful young boy.
“I would’ve had sex with her. She was stunning,” he said, grinning.
He told me he wouldn’t make the first move on me, that I would have to initiate if I wanted “anything to happen”. I stared at him. The words I should have said stuck in my throat. I tried to think of how I might switch gears into talking about business, but my brand was my business, right? And my brand was the Slutty Feminist, wasn’t it? And the Slutty Feminist was just talking about the subject of her work at lunch with a rich businessman so it was all above board, yes?
“That will never happen,” is something I never said. Instead, I told him about the stand up gig I had coming up and he asked what he had to do to get a private show. I laughed and said, “That’ll cost ya!”

He said he wanted to make our lunches a monthly engagement. I said okay. I called my mom after lunch, excited that I might be forming some kind of ambiguous relationship with someone who liked investing in the arts, someone who might want to invest in me. I left out the part about tickling balls and beautiful Vietnamese boys. I left out the part about how, deep in my gut, I felt unsettled.

When I think about the women who went up into Harvey Weinstein’s hotel rooms and drank champagne and allowed themselves to be massaged, I get it. I get why some women stood there while Harvey jerked off in front of them. When I’m honest with myself, I can see exactly how that could've happened. Because they wanted something—a role, a paycheck, a career—and here was the most thanked person at the Oscars after God, and on some level you might assume that someone so rich and powerful was right, no matter what he did to you. 

As Brit Marling says in her wonderful piece on Harvey: “The things that happen in hotel rooms and board rooms all over the world (and in every industry) between women seeking employment or trying to keep employment and men holding the power to grant it or take it away exist in a gray zone where words like “consent” cannot fully capture the complexity of the encounter. Because consent is a function of power. You have to have a modicum of power to give it.”

Looking back on this lunch and the meeting that preceded it, I’m embarrassed about how I acted. I feel ashamed that I didn’t set a boundary for myself, that I allowed this guy to believe there was a chance of sex with me if it meant I might get some career or financial boost out of it. I feel like an idiot because on some deep level I knew exactly what was happening. I knew this guy wasn't interested in my work, he just wanted to fuck me. I knew that and yet it felt good to feel some illusion of power in the situation, when in actual fact, he had all the power. Because as a young, broke, attractive woman in this world, sometimes it seems the only real power we have access to is the ability to make powerful men want to fuck us.

Which is why it adds insult to injury to tell the end of this story. I finished the script and felt really good about it. I think it was the best script I’d written up to that point. I’d poured my heart and soul into it. It was personal yet true to the original story. I knew it was good. I handed it in and waited. And waited. For two weeks, I heard nothing. Finally, the producer called.
“Something has come to my attention that I feel very uncomfortable about and it’s the reason I haven’t called you sooner,” she said ominously. She then accused me of “pursuing a relationship” with the financier, and said she felt betrayed. I was confused.
“He asked me to lunch,” I said. We had one lunch. These lunches happen all over LA every second of every day. LA is built on these getting to know you lunches.
She said she could have picked nine other writers, but she chose me, and I should have been impeccable. She told me she felt like throwing the whole project in the trash. She said this was a huge fuck up, she didn’t know if she could trust me. She made it sound like I had seduced and fucked her husband. I didn’t understand what was going on. I started to cry. She kept going. She said what I had done downgraded my efforts from an “A to a C.”

“You’re not a teenager, you’re a grown woman,” she yelled. I sobbed. I felt so ashamed. I didn’t even know why, but on some level I felt she was right. I had failed at my responsibility: to draw a clear boundary with a horny man who couldn’t help himself. I deserved this. I pleaded, told her I had made a mistake.
“A huge mistake,” she corrected.
As I cried, she yelled. She said I had used the relationship for my own gains, hoping to get something out of it when I should have been on best behavior and grateful to her for giving a chance to an untested writer. I tried to convince her I was trustworthy and honest, that I hadn’t meant any harm. I’d never had to argue for my trustworthiness before; it’s not something that had ever been questioned. I felt like an imposter even saying the words. I felt blindsided by the attack and completely unprepared to defend myself.

In retrospect, I might have asked, “What exactly did I do wrong? What could I have done differently?” Drawn a clearer boundary, okay. But the man writing my checks (aka paying my bills) asked me to lunch. Was I supposed to tell him to fuck off? How do you draw a boundary with someone who within fifteen minutes of meeting you says, “If I’m ever lucky enough to have sex with you…”? I had actually practiced what I would say at our next lunch, the boundary I planned to draw—albeit belatedly. My plan to get us back on track, back to what I wanted out of this. That second lunch would never happen. I never heard from the financier again after the producer’s call. I wondered if she’d berated him as forcefully as she’d berated me. Somehow, I doubt it.

When the producer was done yelling, she pivoted to what a good job I’d done on the script. She said the director had some notes, but they both thought it was a very strong first take. I sniffled, trying to pull myself together and shift gears. I grabbed a pen and paper so I could take down a couple of her initial thoughts.
“We both think you’re a strong candidate to continue working on the script.” I thanked her and we hung up. Then I went and stood in the shower and shook like a leaf. I felt like I’d been assaulted.

I didn't continue working on the script. The project was shelved. I never received any feedback on my months of work, never got a chance to talk to the director. I was relieved to put the episode behind me, but I also felt used. I felt this was my punishment for being a little slut.

I think about the women who stood by silently—the older women, the potential mentors—who knew what Harvey was up to but were too afraid to speak up, afraid of losing their jobs, of jeopardizing their own tenuous position in the pecking order. I do feel for those women. Who knows what kind of awful shit they had to put up with to get to where they are. That’s just being a woman in this business, sweetie. Grow a thicker skin, don’t be so sensitive. What they’re really saying is, turn off your empathy. Turn off your compassion. Turn off your nurturing instinct. Turn off your innately feminine qualities in order to survive in this male-dominated space. No. That’s not what we need. We don’t need more hardened, macho people in this industry. What we desperately need is more empathy, more compassion, more nurturing, more feminine energy. That is what will make this industry stronger. Those women who looked the other way, I feel for them, they too are victims of a patriarchal system, but they are also complicit.

As women, we are really good at twisting ourselves into pretzels, constantly adjusting to fit into a world that wasn’t built for us. These circumstances have made us extremely adaptable, which is a wonderful quality. We know how to do that. Now it’s time to change the culture of Hollywood, politics, the tech industry, the world. It's time to design a world that fits us. So that our daughters and granddaughters don’t have to post #metoo on Facebook.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Those Who Get STDs Together Stay Together?

I’ve been doing stand up and, naturally, my set leans heavily on sex and feminism. The first couple times I got onstage at open mics, I was compared to Eve Ensler—something I would usually take as a compliment, but somehow felt like an insult when the audience consisted of a bunch of dudes. The MC at one mic commented after my set, “What a nice, romantic story. Very Nicholas Sparks.” He was joking of course. I had just finished telling the crowd about my date with the self-proclaimed “female orgasm expert” with whom I had some of the most mediocre sex of my life in the back of his roommate’s van behind the Urth Cafe. I ended the story with, “Spoiler alert: I didn’t climax. But he sure did. Because, you know, he’s a man.” I guess the MC was implying that, because I think some guys are both bad and arrogant lovers, I’m not a romantic. I guess I come off as cynical. Have I become irreversibly jaded about men?

I had just started seeing someone whom I had known, as casual friends, for a long time. We had sex without a condom, so in my usual post-coital panic attack, I immediately went to get tested. The problem with me is that I’m a hypochondriac but I’m also bad at using condoms, so I get tested a lot. On Saturday afternoon, after returning home from hiking and brunching with a friend, I received in my email inbox the results of some of the previous week’s tests. It said I had tested positive for syphilis. I had been tested since my last unprotected sexual encounter and hadn’t had sex with anyone since this new guy, so I was pretty convinced he was the one who’d given it to me. 

Syphilis sounded to me like some pretty medieval shit, so I started looking up the symptoms online (mistake). What would initially start as sores and a rash on your genitals and the inside of your palms could, down the road, turn into blindness, insanity and death. I discovered that syphilis is rampant and has become a national health crisis due to budget cuts to STD prevention clinics

I considered not telling the guy right away, as I knew he was on his way to spend the weekend at a music festival. Part of me didn’t want to ruin his weekend, but the bigger part of me thought that if I had to suffer with this news, then so should he. He was appropriately embarrassed and apologetic when I called to tell him. He contacted the last girl he’d had unprotected sex with only to find out she had also tested positive for syphilis after they’d been together and hadn’t told him. He offered to leave the festival to come be with me, but the clinic was closed for the weekend and there was nothing for us to do but wait, so I told him it was fine, to try to forget about it and enjoy the festival. Meanwhile, I agonized, my imagination spinning so far out of control that I got online and searched, “if I have syphilis, do I have HIV,” which autofilled immediately in the Google search bar, telling me I was not alone in my irrational fear.

Finally, on Monday, we both made appointments to get treated on Wednesday. As I was leaving for my appointment, I received on my doorstep a lovely bouquet of wild flowers from the guy.

At the clinic, they took my blood again and I was called in to see the counselor. She informed me that I was the first ever cisgendered, heterosexual woman to ever test positive at their clinic. "Can I get a medal for that?" I joked. Then I got called in to see the doctor who said that syphilis infections were up 400% in Los Angeles that month. Then he told me that I didn’t have syphilis, it was a false positive. The guy also tested negative, he too didn’t have syphilis. Turned out the girl he'd fucked before me had gotten it from the next dude she'd been with after him. He was enormously relieved and immediately his whole demeanor changed. He felt understandably let off the hook, and wanted to celebrate. I was also relieved, but still felt emotionally hung over from four days of escalating fear and paranoia, and was slightly annoyed at how quickly he was able to bounce back. I was headed to The Comedy Store to see a friend perform, so we went to Saddle Ranch for (gross) burgers, and when he didn’t offer to pay the bill I became irrationally angry and disappointed. I felt emotionally raw and in that moment like I wanted to feel taken care of. It's the oldest story in the book, but I just wanted him to read my mind and know intuitively what I needed. We usually split the bill—which was fine, I’m a modern woman, whatever—but I felt like after this scare he should've at least offered to pay for dinner.

I didn’t like this version of myself. I had been single for five years, I was used to taking care of myself, codependence made me sick, and I didn’t like feeling like I was relying on someone else. My sudden unexplained grumpiness caused him to leave rather than come to the show with me. I texted him afterwards that I was upset that he hadn’t offered to pay after this whole ordeal. He said he thought I should have bought him dinner as he felt I had been really harsh with him over this syphilis scare and then I hadn’t apologized enough when it turned out he hadn’t given it to me after all. Maybe he was right, I didn't know. All I knew was that I hated this kind of lovers’ quarrel; I had successfully avoided it for so long. Was I really going to morph into this needy person when I liked myself so much more as a single woman not reliant on anybody else? On the phone the next morning, in a moment of impulsive frustration, I said that I thought this wasn’t going to work between us. I felt that my heart had hardened—did I even believe in relationships anymore?

Getting an STD with someone is traumatizing, and it can bring out the worst in people. Sometimes this makes a relationship stronger, and sometimes it tears you apart. Although it turned out we didn't have syphilis after all, I think the whole ordeal made us realize we didn't like each other that much in a crisis. Perhaps he saw it coming. When we first found out we didn’t actually have syphilis, he jokingly asked if I was disappointed that now I didn’t have a legitimate reason to break up with him. I laughed and rolled my eyes, saying that no, I was happy to not have it. But I did wonder what made him ask that—was he reading something into my behavior that even I wasn’t aware of? Was I really trying to sabotage this? Why? Was I protecting myself? From what? What I liked most about this guy was the lack of games, his openness about the fact that he liked me, that I never felt like I had to play it cool. He always texted back, he appreciated my jokes, and—perhaps most importantly—he wasn’t afraid of my angry feminism or my history of sluttery—both things I talked about with abandon on our very first date. Perhaps more than any guy I’ve dated since my ex, he seemed completely undeterred by my brashness. I didn’t have to pretend to be demure around him, I could say things like, “are you having a stroke?” when he couldn’t remember something I said, and he didn’t get offended. Throughout the syphilis scare, I realized I wasn’t just worried about my own health, I was also worried about his—and that felt like something new.

Just before I reconnected with this guy, I'd said to a couple friends in all seriousness that maybe I was just going to be single forever, and that was okay. I liked myself single, I had forged a whole identity around being an unattached woman. I didn’t know what me in a relationship looked like anymore. And I was scared of how being “coupled” might change me for the worse. I didn’t ever want to be in a codependent situation again, it was important to me that I maintained my autonomy. Was that even possible in a relationship? I didn’t know. A lot of the women I admired were single. Was that a coincidence or was there a reason? Was there something in me that wasn’t meant to be inextricably linked to another person? And was this view somehow limiting me from experiencing something potentially great? Could a relationship ever be something that actually fed me emotionally and creatively rather than distracting me from my life and my purpose? I decided that, for a relationship to be worth it, I'd have to like being with this person better than being by myself. Because being by myself was actually pretty good.