Gavin Polone: More Empathy for Victims Is Needed to Prevent Harassment

Photographed By Allison Michael Orenstein

The goal should not only be to catch predators after they have serially preyed on the vulnerable, but also to stop them from preying at all, writes the producer and THR contributor.

The whirlpool of fast-moving accusations against, denials by, and apologies from men who have allegedly misconducted themselves sexually with women and boys is stunning. It is getting to the point where there are more stories of criminality involving men in the entertainment industry than there are in the films and shows they help make. As if we’re all watching a never-ending episode of SVU, we have been laser-focused on who has been accused and whether or not they will be able to wiggle free from the grip of justice. Like with most discussion of crime, of any kind, the spotlight of our attention stays on the accused, not the victim. As a society, we’re more comfortable with feeling outrage and vengefulness than we are with the disturbing and personal pain of victimization. And that is how it was for me, prior to my reading Annabella Sciorra’s telling of her being raped by Harvey Weinstein, as reported by Ronan Farrow in The New Yorker.

I first heard rumors of Sciorra’s rape around 20 years ago. Prior to this year, I had also heard stories about Gwyneth Paltrow, Rose McGowan and two others who told me directly of their run-ins with Weinstein. But what I had heard of Sciorra’s story was the most detailed in terms of her actually being raped and also that those around her pressured her to keep quiet about what he had done to her. I had repeated this rumor to many people over-the-years, including to the editors of this magazine and at least six journalists who called me after my column intimating Weinstein was a rapist came out in 2014. And yet, when I read Sciorra’s narrative of how Weinstein got “on top of [her],” locked her arms over her head and penetrated her, finally ejaculating on her night gown, which had been “handed down from relatives in Italy,” it was as though I was discovering this tragedy for the first time. Before it was gossip, now it was real and disturbing. What could the trauma of that be like, to be violated in such a way and powerless to do anything about it? I had never thought of such a thing on a personal level before, which is both surprising and revealing. It is surprising that I had this reaction at all and it reveals that I am a white straight man in America.

Most men don’t truly consider what it is like to be a woman. White straight men don’t think about being defenseless in society. Frequently, I walk into dark parking lots outside of poker rooms in Los Angeles and Las Vegas and I never think about my personal safety. I certainly never think about being victimized in the way that the accusers of Weinstein, Cosby, Spacey, Ratner and Moore say they were, with no way to fight them off. I just had no reason to experience that feeling…until I did…sort of. Coincidentally, the day Farrow’s article came out, I had been working on a movie in a wooded area of British Columbia. At wrap, around 10 p.m., I didn’t want to wait for the shuttle to crew parking and headed off down a path, away from the set. Within a few minutes I was in a thick grove of trees and enveloped in darkness, causing an unsettled feeling. I remembered the production’s wildlife consultant explaining two days earlier that there were bears and cougars nearby but that they would probably stay away, since we were so noisy. Still, he told us, we should be careful around craft service, since the animals were attracted to the smell of food, and that we should blow the bear whistles we’d been given if we see a bear. I felt for my whistle, which I had left in the pocket of my chair on the set, not that it mattered much, since what I feared was the bear I couldn’t see, who might pop out of darkness and consume me at will. My heart raced and my pace quickened. I imagined a 300-pound bear pouncing on me and biting my neck. I wouldn’t have been able to do a thing about it: lights out. At least I hoped the lights would go out, as being alive during my devouring would certainly be unpleasant. 

I exhaled acutely as I reached the safety of my car. On the drive to the hotel, I made the obvious connection between my fear of the 300-pound bear and Sciorra’s fear of the 300-pound Weinstein. Of course, my five minutes of moderate fear is NOTHING compared to what the 321,500 victims of reported sexual assault each experience every year (it is assumed that much more of such violence goes unreported). It’s NOTHING compared to the fear of violation that most of the women I know have felt many times during their lifetimes; and even when they make it to their cars, there isn’t much of a feeling of safety, as there will be a similar situation ahead of them in the near future, while I will most likely never have to worry about bears again. And, if I were attacked by a bear and survived, I would not have to keep quiet about it for fear of my career or reputation being destroyed. Being a white straight man, I am believed when I decry my mistreatment in any form. In fact, I seem strong to the rest of the world if I stand up for myself. What we have seen in the recounting of these stories is that women and young gay men don’t feel the confidence that I am afforded about speaking out and are told to “keep quiet” about what has happened to them by those who should be representing their interests.

That this imagined bear scenario was the best example I could render of what it must be like to be in an unsafe situation shows the relative inequity between the sexes in today’s world. Yet, even in this moment of empathy, as unequal as it was to Sciorra’s experience, it did pull me out of the mode of thinking only about fixing the problem and looking for results, and into a moment of greater understanding and compassion. As a man who moves through life without considering the relative safety and security I am afforded, compared to the lack thereof for the other half of the population, it’s what I needed. It’s what most men in my position need.

Empathy is something that can help stop sexual assault. Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and others accused of these misdeeds are not psychopaths. They are narcissists who had no empathy for their victims. Those that looked away from what these men were doing, or who covered for or assisted them, also showed a lack of empathy. One can’t attack someone physically to gratify their own desires if they are connected to the feelings of those they are attacking. They can’t masturbate in front of someone without feeling what it must be like to be that person who is forced to watch them. Nor can anyone be a bystander to these kinds of events, if they feel real compassion for the attacked. Too many in modern society have a condition called Empathy Deficit Disorder (EDD), which is strongly associated with striving for money, status and power. EDD is reinforced when successful people are given a pass on their behavior because of the chimera of their importance. But, studies on neuroplasticity have shown that human beings can increase the activity in the inferior parietal cortex region of their brains that governs empathy and understanding and, thereby, change their brain patterns by retargeting their thinking from one direction to another, and then reinforcing that thinking. Meaning offenders can change or, better yet, never become offenders to begin with.

The process of identifying and bringing justice to the perpetrators of sexual assault should continue but, at the same time, it would help if all interested in change could put aside the score-keeping and slogan-making on occasion, and take some time to really think of what it would be like to be a victim, like those we have read about in detail, and then find some personal parallel to reinforce that experience. And as we become more empathetic, we should reward those who act empathetically with our praise and attention, and move away from those who act selfishly, at an earlier point, not just when the news breaks about the bad deeds most had known for years. Because the goal should not only be to catch predators after they have serially preyed on the vulnerable, but also to stop them from preying at all.

Gavin Polone is a producer and a frequent contributor to The Hollywood Reporter.