By Emmily Bristol
There is a reckoning happening and we are just at the beginning. The same stories that could not be told 15 years ago, 10 years ago, five years ago, last year even, are being laid bare. Stories that in another time would have gone softly to the grave with the whisper wake of quietly shattered lives carefully cloaked from view are now posted in the town square of social media. And the really breathtaking part is – they are being believed.
Maybe for the first time in human history, we are seeing a sea of sexual violence survivors being believed. The world is watching. The language is changing. From Hollywood to the White House to the Olympics to Las Vegas Boulevard, we are being believed.
As a survivor of sexual assault myself, I admit that as hard as I have worked to be heard and as hard as I have worked to help others be heard, I did not know if this day would come in my lifetime. I’m 41. I’ve been waiting for 36 years to be believed and my rapist wasn’t rich or famous. I can only imagine what it’s been like to see the image of your perpetrator laughing in photos with celebrities in newspapers or being interviewed on TV. I can only imagine what it would be like to know deep in your soul that there would be no justice for you because your abuser was a billionaire who helped presidents get elected.
The worst part of all this for me personally is that I knew about Steve Wynn for a long time. I heard a story from one of his victims about 15 years ago. And I tried every year of those 15 years to get someone somewhere to publish a story about it. But the word of an anonymous victim wasn’t enough 15 years ago – or even last year.
This #MeToo moment is a true shock and awe moment. And as much as all of us are finding our footing in this new day, it’s important to recognize all the ways that this is changing things, including journalism, the criminal justice system, corporate America and potentially even our laws.
As I shared on my syndicated blog, The Sin City Siren, I tried to tell the story I knew about Steve Wynn for a long time. I was around 25 years old when I heard the first-person account of a woman who had worked at one of Steve Wynn’s casinos. She worked in the salon and was called up to his office one night, where (she alleged) he forced her to have sex. I had only been a professional journalist for about five years and had lived in Las Vegas for about three of those.
I know that 15 years ago doesn’t seem that long, but in a lot of ways it was a really different time. I moved to Las Vegas in 1999 and everyone was freaking out about the Y2K bug that was going to end the world at midnight on New Year’s Eve and shut down The Strip in mass pandemonium. It sounds ridiculous now, but that’s where things were.
So, to be an unknown reporter at the View newspapers and to stumble upon such a huge story, it was overwhelming for me personally and professionally. As I said, I am a rape survivor. So the story I heard about Steve Wynn and a woman who worked for him – it was hard to hear on a personal level. It made me sick.
The story was hard on a professional level for a variety of reasons as well. One is that I didn’t have a reputation in the community that I could use to help get a story like this published. Today anyone can have a blog or podcast, but in 2003 Facebook wasn’t even invented yet. Publishing a story like this by myself was not an option. Publishing the story in the newspaper that I worked for was also not an option because their mission was “chicken dinner news” as then-publisher Sherman Frederick used to say.
So I had editors in my own newsroom saying no. I sent it up the food chain, like I was told to do, and it went nowhere. Cut to 2004, and I was working at Las Vegas CityLife, an alternative weekly. I pitched the story again and the answer was no. After that, I discreetly told trustworthy reporters who were big names and had a lot of credibility. None of them were interested. I told editors at national publications. No. Always the answer was no. One woman’s story was not enough.
Why do I think the answer was always no? That’s complicated. I think everyone – even big time journalists – gets scared sometimes. The other part is that editors get worried about being sued. They get worried about advertising dollars. The deeper answer is that people didn’t believe. Everyone has internalized our society’s ideas about sexual misconduct. We’ve seen again and again how victims are treated. They inevitably get asked, “what were you wearing?” “were you drinking?” “were you asking for it?” That goes for newsrooms, too.
It wasn’t that long ago that Brock Turner’s dad was giving an emotional plea to go easy on the convicted rapist because his life shouldn’t be ruined for “three minutes of action.” Or in 2016 when the singer Kesha couldn’t get out of her contract with a producer she says assaulted her. She’s still technically under contract with him even though the public pushed the #FreeKesha hashtag with the implication that we believe her, that we are done asking if she deserved it.
Another hard truth is that the people who were more powerful than me were men. I’m not saying that any of those men specifically were sexist or uncaring, but I think it is a part of this. Diversity in newsrooms yields different stories and different answers. In my early career I worked in more newsrooms where I was the only woman than not. And at those newsrooms where I was the only woman, I was always given the “women’s stories” like rape stories, domestic violence stories and so on. I’m happy to see that things have been changing for the better. The most recent newsrooms in which I worked had not only greater diversity but better editorial conversations about why a story was worthy or not. That’s definitely part of what’s different now. It’s created an environment in which journalists and editors are more open to believing and more open to publishing. That’s a major shift and it’s the only way a decade’s long, grassroots movement like #MeToo gets on the cover of Time magazine or powerful men like Steve Wynn finally get exposed.
If it were not for the thousands of unnamed, unacknowledged activists behind the scenes for generations, we would not have this moment. If Baby Boomer feminists hadn’t raised my generation as feminists, we wouldn’t have “woke” millennials. Without the ubiquity of social media and its power to amplify the voices of those who would otherwise not be heard – black twitter, feminists, trans individuals, etc. – we would not have #MeToo, a movement started by a black woman named Tarana Burke over 10 years ago. I think every time someone has told their story, whether it’s an activist like me at the Legislature or a famous celebrity like Lady Gaga, it changed our society a tiny bit. Tiny bit here. Tiny bit there. Pretty soon things are changing. No one person did it alone. We all did it, together.
This work has been gut-wrenching. I liken the experience of telling my rape story to something similar to the LGBTQ movement and coming out back in the 1990s and early 2000s. Coming out used to be shocking. Now it’s just a Tuesday. But the reason why it’s just a Tuesday is because of all the thousands and millions of non-famous regular people who risked everything to tell their truth. I see that in rape stories, too. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done to tell the world I was raped. I did not ever want to tell anyone I was raped. I still don’t think it’s anyone’s business. The reason why I told my story was because as a journalist, I saw exactly what happens in any story about rape – quote from a rape advocacy group, quote from a cop (or cop stats), quote from someone who doesn’t believe it. In a media system that only values the people who will give quotes, actual rape victims are silenced. We are reduced to statistics. We are reduced to the way other people want to describe us. I saw a problem and so I decided I had to be a part of the solution. I had to talk my walk.
Every time a survivor of sexual assault speaks their truth – as hard as it is to hear them – our society inches a little closer to better. When we believe them, it sends a huge message to anyone out there who is struggling in that situation. That’s powerful. My rapist told me I was nothing. He left me written instructions on ways to kill myself. I told two adults. They didn’t believe me. And so I believed everything my rapist told me about myself. So when real-life people in the trenches of trauma see someone being believed, it matters. It could be life or death for that person. Those are the stakes we are talking about here. If me telling my story means that someone somewhere can finally escape a living hell or even just hang on for one more day, then I will crawl on broken glass to tell my story. But it doesn’t work if I just shout my story into the void. It only works if people believe.
When we believe victims, it sends a message to the perpetrators, too. It’s going to take time for reforms to our criminal justice system and courts system to catch up to this social moment. But the fact that people are engaging with it, gives me hope that reforms will happen. Once victims can trust the criminal justice system or the boards of people in power (like the US Gymnastics board or the Gaming Control Board), that’s going to be a great day.
What people in power do with this moment is going to really matter. Our society’s feelings about sexual violence – from sexual harassment to rape – are deeply embedded in not just us as people, but in all our institutions. Human beings are creatures who have to see something to believe it. This is why all those unprocessed rape kits collecting dust on shelves matter. The evidence yielded from the kits that have been processed so far is pretty damning. We’re getting hard evidence that a person who rapes one time, often has multiple victims – that rape is often a serial crime. Sound familiar? Look at the Larry Nassar case where there are hundreds and hundreds of victims of just one man, much like the Jerry Sandusky case a few years ago. The other thing we now know more than ever is that those men had vast networks of conspirators who helped them get away with it. The US Gymnastics board is resigning at the end of this week because of their culpability in more than 160 women being sexually assaulted by Larry Nassar. How many people do you think are culpable in a situation like Steve Wynn’s? How many board members knew? Are there any Gaming Control board members who knew? I don’t know the answer, but I think those are important questions.
I think whatever the Gaming Control Board does, it will have ramifications. If they do nothing, it sends a message. If they do something, but it’s a slap on the wrist, it matters. If they do something huge, it matters. I think if people say that all of this is just the result of “an angry ex-wife” that matters, too. Everything that happens next matters.
A lot can happen between ringing the bell and justice. Look what happened to Asia Argento, the Italian actress who went on record (along with actresses Rose McGowan and Ashley Judd) about Harvey Weinstein in October. Argento ended up fleeing Italy after the story broke because she received backlash from her country’s politicians and people in power to the point that she feared for her own safety. If Steve Wynn can pay his victims thousands or even millions of dollars, what kind of favors do you think he could ask of people in powerful places? I’m not saying that he is or would. But the hard truth that any survivor of sexual violence will tell you is that the road to justice can be perilous – even impossible.
What I hope happens next is that people from all walks of life in any industry know that their voice matters. I hope that newsrooms will have journalists who are not afraid and who are not bound by the sexist assumptions of the past. I hope that what comes out of this #MeToo moment is real conversations, hard conversations – that lead us to a better understanding of each other and of what it means to be a human being.
For years activists have been telling people to “start by believing.” Believing is #FreeKesha and #MeToo and #TimesUp. But believing is also just a start.
Disclosure: Wynn Resorts and the Elaine P. Wynn and Family Foundation have donated to The Nevada Independent. You can see a full list of donors here.
Emmily Bristol is an award-winning journalist whose blog is called The Sin City Siren.