When I was a teenager, my mother had a friend, a children’s talent manager. He was bright, well read, and effortlessly charming. He also had a pool. We didn’t. On hot weekend days, we’d frequently go over to his house and lounge poolside.
We were never the only people there. “David’s” (not his real name) clients were always around. Most were from out of state, so at any given time, two to four of them were living in the house, so as to be available for work. In the years I visited his pool, David’s clients came and went, but there was always an eerie interchangeable sameness about them. They were between the ages of about 12 and 16 They were pleasant, clean-cut, and kind of quiet. They were always boys.
The house was appointed in a style best described as “time-share in lesser beach community” but one feature stood out: a gallery of expensively-framed photographs along the stairs running up to the bedrooms—a collection of brooding, shirtless portraits of the current occupants. David said those pictures were necessary because they were the Tiger Beat types. I doubt the magazine dedicated to idolizing adolescent boys ever called. I don’t remember any of the boys ever getting an acting job. And every year, the new houseguests would replace the old ones on the wall, in the pool, in the bedrooms, and no one would say a word.
I remember, at most, three conversations with my mother about David’s relationship to these boys, each some variation of “It’s weird, right? Isn’t it?” “I don’t know. Maybe.” But David was a longtime family friend. We never caught him doing anything wrong. The boys seemed fine, just normal kids in a pool. If we had a suspicion, it was subsumed quickly by “It’s David! He’s just…you know, David!” And besides, we knew what a sex fiend looked like. We knew managers, agents, and photographers who specialized in children and had a reputation for being “funny.” These men were caricatures. You could spot them across the room. A real predator wouldn’t be our friend, telling amusing stories and asking if we wanted another soda. It was inconceivable that someone could be a friend and also behave such a way. By a pool that blue, in a yard that sunny, it was hard to imagine that kind of darkness. We don't even know if David did anything wrong, and we didn't ask any questions. And that's part of the problem. This scenario, like many others, could be sinister, or could be innocent, we'll never know.
We’ve been reminded lately of considerable darkness in Hollywood. Sexual predation has been a part of the movie business since The Great Train Robbery and since then it has been systematically swept under the rug, or even worse, normalized. How many casting couch jokes have you heard? It’s safe to say the entertainment industry has a complicated relationship with sex and power.
When I was in elementary school, I appeared on a television show. The assistant director softly whispered to my mother to never leave me alone with the show’s star. When I was 14, for reasons I’m sure made sense to someone at the time, I was a guest at a dinner party where the only other person my age was the much older host's date.
A friend of mine once worked on the crew for a director with a notoriously bad reputation. Unfortunately having an audience didn’t trouble him, as one day, in front of several crew members, the director took out his penis and started masturbating on her. The studio didn’t even bother fighting that case, deciding instead to settle with her. She never moved up in production; he worked for the same studio the next year.
As an adult, I worked in commercial casting and came to dread the callbacks, when we’d have the producers and the ad guys in the room—brioche-shaped men in Tommy Bahama shirts feeling free to try out their best pickup lines on any actress between 13 and 39, then rate and speculate about each one before she even left the room. Like all young women working in the business, I understood part of my job was to smile and stay quiet. But since the first credible revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual predation emerged, his victims have been emboldened to step up and speak out. As of this writing, dozens of women have each described variations of the same obscene ritual: a robe, a massage, an offer, a threat, something worse.
These stories aren’t news to women in Hollywood. For years, women have whispered about Weinstein, about James Toback, and so many others. They whispered but they didn’t speak out. Women in Hollywood knew that to say anything in public about this guy or that guy was to risk a reputation as being crazy, or difficult. Not fun. When women are 51 percent of the population but less than 30 percent of the faces onscreen, the last thing you want to be thought of is hard to work with. Besides, skeptics always say, they went voluntarily to his hotel room; what did they expect? And it was not like they could report him to HR. In many of these cases, HR reports to him. Successful men have layers of people in place to help them get their job done. So do successful predators. For most of these women, it was better to just make your contribution to the whisper network and try to figure out a way to forget it happened.
“No longer!” someone thinks, reading this. “We’re hearing the stories from the victims. Roger Ailes got fired. Weinstein got fired. That guy from Amazon resigned. Toback’s getting pilloried. Terry Richardson lost his Condé Nast gigs. As a nation, we’re on it.”
Let’s not pin that “Woke” badge on us as a society quite yet. For decades, these men tore through women with perverse immunity, proffering carnal quid pro quo, threatening women’s livelihoods or, in the case of Bill Cosby, allegedly straight-up rendering them unconscious before taking advantage of them.
But the whispers don’t stop with these obvious, public examples. The same women who spoke among themselves about Harvey, about Terry, also speak about well-known actors who are not quite the loving family men their publicists would have you believe. Instead of a bathrobe, it’s a private meeting. Instead of a clumsy grope, it’s a “helpful” lingering brush of your breast. Instead of a disgusting proposition, it’s a greasy little implication that a few minutes together could lead to something better down the road.
This is no longer black and white. It’s gray. And people don’t like gray, especially when it comes to sexual assault, which they really don’t want to be thinking about at all. They like their sexual assault clear, recognizable, and not committed by men who are America’s marital hall pass. Should these stories come out, the public’s response to the victims might not be nearly as supportive. But the fact remains, you can like someone very much and they can still be capable of terrible things. Unless Hollywood reconciles itself to the fact that not all sex criminals look like ogres, the question we should ask ourselves is what solidarity hashtag we’ll be using a year from now when nothing has changed.
Quinn Cummings is an Oscar-nominated actress. This is her first piece for Esquire.com.