Wanna See my White Bits?

Yesterday in the midst of a wave of Harvey Weinstein-centric Twitter rants from various people, one of the quite reasonable men I follow tweeted in response to the male actor Terry Crews who had revealed his own harassment at the hands of a male Hollywood executive. The tweet essentially said – and I’m paraphrasing – “I now think I understand what women mean about harassment. A man said it, so he’s immediately believed, but a woman fears to say it because she knows she’s less likely to be taken seriously.” Nailed it. But why is this still the case in 2017?

Twenty years ago I was a cute little American twenty-seven year old who had moved, quite suddenly following a hasty divorce, to Wales, courtesy of my employers who knew the best thing for me was to help me get out; out of my judgmental as hell Southern city wherein my ex and his family were doing their best to pin the blame on me, almost entirely to throw people off the scent of the fact that my ex had taken to preferring both my clothes and my male friends. Wales was new and different and mysteriously dark and broody as a country; basically the same traits I’m attracted to in men. But it also contained something for which I was not prepared and which I now see today as a symptom of the plague in our society that allows, enables and cultivates men like Harvey Weinstein.

I had only been in the country maybe five months when I was invited to a supplier day hosted by supermarket giant Tesco. We were the new kids in town, as suppliers go, but I was making our mark and getting us recognized and I relished the opportunity to get out and meet people from within my own industry from whom I could learn. The day was designed as a competition of fun outdoor pursuits and we were broken into two teams. Fatefully, I was placed on the team of a man I’ll call Ward who was a Director of a large, prestigious PLC from the same product sector as the company for which I worked. I knew them by reputation and was immediately taken with his humor, outrageousness, and candor. He was based near London, he told me, but the bulk of their operations were in Wales and were headed by a man named Mark, and at the same time he was imparting this knowledge on me, he was looking me up and down and saying out loud, “Yes, Mark will like you very much.”

Fast-forward a few more months, I had forged a casual, but fun friendship with Ward and he would often call while driving or bored to see what I was up to or – more importantly – how business was going lest I should infringe on their territory. It was coming up to Christmas, and Christmas parties back then were new to me as they were a mostly UK phenomenon when it came to big, boozy work dos, but I was soon invited to more than a few and then, I found, was also expected to arrange one for my own office. We booked ours in a hotel near Cardiff that hosted joint parties in a large, nice ballroom and I put on the obligatory black dress, heels and my signature bright red lipstick and headed out for what I saw as a necessary indulgence for my team. As we entered the hotel that night, I noticed written on the marquee the name of the companies with whom we would be sharing the room, one of them being the one for which Ward worked, except the Welsh division. I knew his friend Mark of whom he spoke so frequently would be there, as he – unlike Ward – was a board level executive and in charge of the bulk of the operations in Wales.

The bar was long and like the party, communal, so at one point while going for a refill I asked someone from this other company where I could find this Mark. “He’s right there, the ponce in the purple tie,” the man responded and gestured. I went over to introduce myself and was immediately devoured by the intention of his look; this was not a sweet, fun little man who hid his flirtations behind his humor like Ward. This was a man who knew what he wanted and was only too happy to make those desires clear.  As it turned out, Ward had not told him anything about me at all, and again Mark made no effort to hide his displeasure that his friend Ward had not shared the news of this recent U.S. import. To say I was the sudden and intense focus of this man’s attention for the remainder of the evening would be a gross understatement. He was married, but he didn’t care; his wife was there, but she had might as well have been on another planet. He engaged me in small talk, asked how often I went to London (the next day for a meeting, I told him, actually), where I lived, if I had a boyfriend and generally dissected every part of my life that would give him the information he needed to determine whether or not I was ripe for the picking.
The next day I was on the 6:55 train to London as it pulled away from Cardiff Central, seated facing forward in first class when someone approached me from behind and said quite directly and unceremoniously, “Switch with me, won’t you? I can’t sit backward, It makes me sick.” It was him, and this “accidental” train encounter was only the beginning.

He was wealthy and strong and smartly dressed and thirteen years my senior, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t enchanted. He showed up wherever I was, called me randomly, remembered my favorite drink, sent me flowers when I bought a new home and was generally ingratiating himself to every aspect of my life. Yet at twenty-seven, I was still entirely naive to his true intentions or perhaps more importantly, in retrospect, ignorant to this most practiced routine. I had a prolonged Christmas break that year with my family visiting for more than ten days. I had not given one thought to Mark or anyone outside my immediate world, and going back to work in January was tough. But on maybe my second day back and in the very early days of email, I dialed up to get online in my office and saw in my inbox a one-liner from Mark: “I just got back from Barbados. Wanna see my white bits?”

The innuendo I had ignored or written off as my imagination could no longer be pushed to the recesses of my innocent mind. He was abundantly clear in what he meant and when I did not answer, followed up his email within fifteen minutes with a phone call. He was very blatant and very graphic. I saw him a week later at a trade show, but by then had a boyfriend who was traveling with me. That didn’t stop him. He found out where I was staying and we returned to our room on our first night there to find two-dozen red roses, addressed to me.

It went on like that for almost a year, the two of us often being in the same country at the same time because of business cycles and clients, until finally in November during a trip to NYC, I gave in. There began an affair that lasted off and on for fifteen years. Hardly a fling. So if I was a willing participant and we carried on for so long – and even still talk today – how and why am I writing about this in the context and light of the Harvey Weinstein revelations? I wasn’t Mark’s first; more probably his fifteenth or sixteenth, and there have been plenty more since. Before I embarked on my misguided foray with him, I watched him bed a young girl from a competitor company, simply to get her fired because she was gaining ground with and taking the business of one of his largest clients. She thought he was going to hire her. Hardly. Then there was the time he invited me to his office once for a “meeting,” and then proudly walked me to my car and kissed me in front of the glass-fronted facade with probably half of his staff staring. On another visit to his office, I held the door for his personal accountant who had been meeting with him and had his hands full of books as he departed. He looked me up and down and said, quite candidly, “How does he do it?” His meaning was clear.

Yet when his name was mentioned in the social circles in which I circulated, it was always mentioned by men with awe. “Aww, he’s quite the lad, isn’t he? He gets plenty, he does, and who can blame him? I’d do the same if I had his money and could get away with it.” It was like he was their idol.

I moved back to Wales four months ago. He is still here. He is still doing it. Everyone still knows. Everyone still treats him like a solid member of society who is beyond reproach. I, on the other hand, can easily count on two hands the number of sexual partners I’ve had in my life, yet I’ve had two different people say to me in recent weeks, “You’re brave to come back here, aren’t you? I mean, you were his mistress for so long…”  He’s shtupped every blonde in the British Isles; I’ve had longterm relationships and generally been too busy having a career and raising my son to do anything of the sort. Yet he’s the dude and I’m, well, a slut.

If he were the only married man ever to approach me, I would maybe give this entire subject a miss, condemn Harvey Weinstein and move on. But he is not; far from it. His best friend since childhood knew about our liaison and thought he would give it a try, too. He called me on my direct office line one day and literally gave me a sales pitch on why he was a preferable choice for me over Mark. Then there was his investment banker who all but offered to sell a kidney if I would acquiesce, followed not long after by his trusted lawyer whom he had recommended to me to give advice on a business deal.

When I left Wales, it didn’t stop. Perhaps I was more mature and savvy and picked up the signs sooner, having by then been practiced in the art, or maybe it was becoming more prevalent and accepted – especially in advertising – which is how it seemed. Whatever the case, it continued and has happened at three of the last five agencies where I have worked, with one CEO going so far as to have me booked into a hotel in the room next to his in order to ease his access and attempt. All of them married, all of them playing the part of the devoted father, son, husband, boss, whatever. And all of them a hero to some other man, somewhere. Thanks to Mark, I see them coming from miles away now and give them wide berth. But thanks to technology, they have more points of entry, means of getting and staying in touch and most of them are undeterred unless and until I threaten castration. Which at this point isn’t so much a threat as an inevitability the next time it happens.

So you want to know how men like Harvey Weinstein prosper and pervade? Money and influence coupled with a male-dominated society that celebrates female conquests. All of the men I’ve encountered in this vein are wealthy and make copious amounts of money for their companies and by extension, for themselves. No one is going to bite the hand that feeds or slap the hand that signs the check. Moreover, the men who are “stuck” in unhappy marriages, but have managed to restrain themselves from such behavior are so envious of their conquering heroes that they hang on every word of the macho recountings of their various indiscretions. It’s a celebratory cycle of infidelity that is fueled by bored, over-achieving men who are always looking for the “next” challenge, and more often than not, it’s wearing a skirt.

So of course the inevitable extreme of this behavior is predation and the assumption that you can have whatever or whomever you like, regardless of the protestations of your prey. Indeed, that challenge may fuel the determination and excitement, as several of Weinstein’s accusers suggest it did for him. So where does it end? I have no idea, but for the entire Hollywood establishment to scream in unison, “No, never!” as though they are Scarlett O’Hara about to faint on a couch makes me want to regurgitate. Of course, they knew because people always know. Mark’s wife knew and knows and looked the other way because she has four homes, a boat and six cars. His staff knew because he’d slept with half of them, too. One past boss is notorious for it to the extent that when he one night asked me to have dinner, a good friend of mine who had worked with him for years overheard, stepped in and said, “Actually, we already have plans tonight,” and then proceeded to inform me over dinner of his vast and lengthy history of predatory behavior.

There is no opportunity for us to turn the tables because whether we like to admit it or not, it is still very much a man’s world. So the best we can do is tell our stories, bring the horrid actions and the seemingly benign behaviors which came before and normalize it into the public consciousness. I can in no way exonerate myself, and I have to live with the knowledge that my giving in sent a signal that such behavior is okay, acceptable. We can, though, ask that the women who are married to these men, and the men and women who work with and for these men, but who look the other way for the sake of their comfort and status, put their selfish needs aside and act as bravely as those women who have been the victims and who are now speaking out.

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