Harvey Weinstein, David Marchant and the Cycle of Enabling Sexual Assault


Late last week, the New York Times broke the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment story, one that was a long time coming, and one that will be reverberating throughout Hollywood for years. It’s alleged that Weinstein – an extremely powerful producer and studio head since the 1990s – has engaged in a pattern of sexual harassment, manipulation and assault for much of his career, having assistants organize hotel room “meetings” with actresses, models and young employees of his company, during which he would proposition, harass and occasionally assault his victims. Days after the Times story broke, the New Yorker published an equally staggering investigative piece from Ronan Farrow, which detailed additional assault and rape allegations. Actresses ranging from Gwyneth Paltrow to Rose McGowan to Angelina Jolie to Rosanna Arquette have since come forth with their own Weinstein experiences.

Unfortunately, this kind of behavior is not new among powerful men. As allegations against Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, Bill Cosby and yes, Donald Trump, have recently attested. What is most infuriating about these cases is that there were people (aside from the victim and predator) that knew what was happening. Like Cosby before him, Weinstein’s behavior was an open secret in Hollywood for decades. Long before this story broke, even I had the distinct impression that Weinstein was a creep and potential rapist, thanks to my avid consumption of celebrity gossip. And if a blog-reading nobody like me was aware, I have to assume that Hollywood’s A-listers and executives were, too. But Harvey Weinstein is emblematic of the insidious nature of crimes like sexual assault and harassment: it’s about power, and the more powerful you are, the more likely you are to get away with it.

Weinstein’s behavior was enabled by the culture around him: executives worried about their bottom lines, actors and directors concerned about their careers and reputations. Many are quick to dismiss “Hollywood” as the problem. But we know that powerful men get away with these kinds of behaviors in other industries, too – including academia. Take the recent allegations of sexual harassment lodged against Dr. David Marchant, well-known Antarctic scientist and chair of the Earth and Environment department at Boston University. Just last week, Meredith Wadman of Science published a disturbing, in-depth account of the abuses young female graduate students have allegedly suffered during research expeditions to Antarctica with Marchant. As in the case of Weinstein, these events stretch back decades, and Marchant’s behavior was even witnessed by others aside from the victims. And yet the culture of academia made them feel powerless to speak out.

In Wadman’s article, three women describe frightening physical abuse and harassment by Marchant: he would push them, throw rocks at them, make comments about their bodies, call them “slut,” “whore” and “c-nt,” and intimidate them on a daily basis. On numerous occasions, the women allege Marchant threatened their academic careers, vowing to block their access to research and funding for future work. One women, using the alias Deborah Doe, explains:

“‘…He would crow that he could say absolutely anything he wanted to because we were ‘in his domain.’

Marchant told her that if she completed her Ph.D., he and another scientist would ensure she never got NSF funding, Doe alleges. (NSF is the major source of funding for Antarctic field research.)

‘I distinctly remember standing there, aghast, in my red down jacket and black wind pants, watching my career and life plans dissolve as Dr. Marchant smiled triumphantly at me,’ she writes.”

And this type of behavior is unfortunately all too common for women doing fieldwork, particularly younger trainees – those just beginning their careers, much like the young actresses and models that Harvey Weinstein preyed upon. Wadman cites a 2014 survey by PLOS One in which “71% of 512 female respondents reported being sexually harassed during fieldwork.” This is not okay. And yet it keeps happening.

In the article, it is clear that other female colleagues and former students do step in to defend Dr. Marchant, explaining that he never harassed them and has always been a professional, kind and generous mentor. But their statements belie a peculiar kind of myopia: it’s rare that perpetrators of sexual harassment victimize every person they meet. Like Harvey Weinstein, they choose their victims carefully. Being generous and supportive to some women doesn’t excuse your alleged harassment of others – harassment that has, incidentally, been corroborated by witnesses. “This is one of the only real regrets I have in my whole life,” Adam Lewis, a graduate student who witnessed the alleged harassment firsthand, tells Wadman. “I had the chance to stand up for people. And I didn’t.”

While the investigation at Boston University is ongoing and the results uncertain, this should be our takeaway: we need to stand up for victims of harassment and assault. We need to listen to, believe and support them – and we need to fight back against perpetrators of abuse. We need to do this loudly, and we need to do it early – not 10, 20, 30 years too late, and not once the abuser in question has already been called out (as in the case of Weinstein) and is safe to condemn. “We” means men and women, particularly those in positions of power. We need this to stop. We must be brave.

Read Meredith Wadman’s full article in Science.