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Reese Witherspoon opened up about her own experiences with sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood during a speech at Elle‘s Women in Hollywood event Monday night.
The actress, who’s been starring in movies since 1991, revealed she was sexually assaulted by a director when she was just 16 and said this wasn’t the only time she’d experienced inappropriate behavior in her career, adding that she felt ashamed for staying silent.
“[I feel] true disgust at the director who assaulted me when I was 16 years old and anger at the agents and the producers who made me feel that silence was a condition of my employment,” Witherspoon said. “And I wish I could tell you that was an isolated incident in my career, but sadly it wasn’t. I’ve had multiple experiences of harassment and sexual assault and I don’t speak about them very often.”
Earlier she reflected on the past week, in which multiple women in Hollywood have come forward about experiences of sexual harassment and assault, including some allegedly by disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.
“This has been a really hard week for women in Hollywood, for women all over the world and a lot of situations and a lot of industries that are forced to remember and relive a lot of ugly truths,” Witherspoon said. “I have my own experiences that have come back to me very vividly and I find it really hard to sleep, hard to think, hard to communicate a lot of the feelings that I’ve been having about anxiety, about being honest, the guilt for not speaking up earlier, for not taking action.”
She added, “After hearing all the stories these past few days and hearing these brave women speak up tonight about things that we’re kind of told to sweep under the rug and not to talk about, it’s made me want to speak up and speak up loudly because actually I felt less alone this week than I have felt in my entire career. I have just spoken to so many actresses and writers, particularly women, who have had similar experiences and many of them have bravely gone public with their stories. That truth is very encouraging to me and to everyone out there in the world because you can only heal by telling the truth.”
Witherspoon, however, said she hoped that things would get better for the next generation.
“I feel really, really encouraged that there will be a new normal. For the young women in this room, life is going to be different because we have your back and it makes me feel better because, gosh, it’s about time.… I’m so sad that I have to talk about these issues, but I would be remiss not to,” she said.
The 24th annual Elle Women in Hollywood celebration was held at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. The evening, hosted by Elle Editor-in-Chief Nina Garcia and publisher Kevin O’Malley, along with presenting sponsors L’Oreal Paris and “Real Is Rare. Real Is a Diamond,” and supporting sponsor Calvin Klein, featured serious moments in which Witherspoon and other women, including Jennifer Lawrence and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, spoke about the sexual harassment and assault stories that have dominated the news over the past week, in the wake of explosive exposés about Weinstein’s alleged behavior.
Kennedy, who delivered the keynote address, proposed the establishment of a commission by the institutions that constitute the film industry — studios, unions, guilds and talent agencies — to change the culture in Hollywood that has allowed sexually inappropriate behavior to continue.
Kennedy called for the above businesses to develop industry-wide protections against sexual harassment and abuse, including “zero tolerance policies for abusive behavior, and a secure, reliable, unimpeachable system in which victims of abuse can report what’s happened to them with a confident expectation that action will be taken, without placing their employment, reputations and careers at risk.”
Later in the evening, fellow honoree Lawrence pledged her support for such a commission. The 27-year-old star also opened up about her own experiences of sexism and harassment in Hollywood, including how she was forced to do a “humiliating” nude lineup in front of a producer.
Kennedy and Lawrence star on two of the eight Elle November issue covers celebrating women in the entertainment industry. Laura Dern, who Witherspoon was on hand to honor, also graces the cover of one of the issues as do Tessa Thompson, Jessica Chastain, Cicely Tyson, Margot Robbie and Riley Keough.
Witherspoon is just the latest Hollywood star to claim she was sexually assaulted or harassed during her career, joining such high-profile figures as Ashley Judd, Rose McGowan, Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow, Asia Argento, Riverdale star Lili Reinhart and Cara Delevingne, who’ve all revealed those experiences over the past week.
In addition to her work as an actress, Witherspoon is a powerful producer, who has said that she started working in this capacity to bring female-centric stories to the screen. Her production credits include Gone Girl, Wild and the HBO limited series Big Little Lies, on which she served as an executive producer.
And Witherspoon shared some suggestions for a “course of action” that people in the industry can take.
“There’s a lot of people here who negotiate quite frequently with direct companies and heads of companies,” she said. “I think maybe at your next negotiation this is a really prudent time to ask important questions like, ‘Who are your top female executives? Do those women have green light power? How many women are on the board of your company? How many women are in a key position of decision-making at your company?’ It seems so obvious but people don’t ask those questions, and if we can raise consciousness and really create change, that’s what’s going to change in this industry and change society.”