Last December, a former Def Jam music executive named Drew Dixon told The New York Times that Russell Simmons raped her in 1995 after a period of aggressive sexual harassment at work. At the time of the alleged assault, Dixon was just 24, with successful projects under her belt and a platinum record. But even though her career was on the rise, the weight of Simmons’s abuse was simply too much. She decided to resign.
What happened at Def Jam wasn’t an anomaly. At her next label, Dixon told the paper she was again harassed, this time by the powerful executive L.A. Reid. Her refusal to surrender was met with hostility. With her work in jeopardy, Dixon decided in 2002 to leave music entirely to attend business school. “I gave up something that I loved to do,” she told the Times. “I erased myself.”
“I erased myself” has rung in my ears like a dull alarm clock for months. Gone were the opportunities to work with artists like Mary J. Blige; gone too was the thrilling prospect of helping rising artists realize their best work. And for what? For the freedom from harassment.
Since the Times first reported on Harvey Weinstein’s alleged abuse, women—the media proclaims—have been free to tell their stories about how they were pushed out of jobs and spaces, their mental health compromised in the process, due to the brutal behavior of powerful men. Yet I can not stop thinking about all the stories these women will never be able to tell. The stories of the movies they made, the restaurants they opened, the writing they did, or the albums they produced. I think about what women’s lives would look like if their jobs were just fair and uncompromised, what they’d be like if all their energy weren’t spent dealing with leering bosses on factory floors and on the fields where they farm. I think about all the work we’ll never get from these women.
For every woman who comes forward, I imagine a second version of her, one who could freely pursue the art she wanted, claim the space she desired, without worrying that a man would come along and render her disposable. I’d much rather read stories on these women, who made news for the lives they lived than the ways in which they were erased or, in Dixon’s words, forced to erase “themselves.”
There has recently been a lot of writing about women’s rage and the importance of it, but I don’t know what exactly to do with my sadness. I don’t want to know women and think of women only in the context of their suffering, or the sexism they’ve faced, or their erasure. But when I think of the women forced to disappear, I am confronted by the void that’s been created in their absence. I mourn every single day for an alternate past, present, and future in which women can move through the world as freely as men. I feel robbed of a women’s history with contours I can’t even fathom. I feel robbed of women’s time, I feel robbed of their joy. I can scream and donate and protest knowing my tears don’t vote, don’t raise awareness. But privately, I mourn.
There is always the looming threat of wanting to give up a job, whether on a movie set or working at McDonald’s, because a man will someday make the work impossible. I suspect most of us have come to accept this as normal, just as we’ve come to accept that we likely shouldn’t jog wherever we want, whenever want. You can try to build your working life in such a way that answering to men is an exception and not the rule, but it’s a joke to think of that as sustainable or accessible to everyone, nor will it keep the patriarchy’s grip out of reach. You can leave a job, but you can’t leave men, nor can you leave a world that bends to their will.
“I could not have success in this industry unless I slept with somebody—a gatekeeper,” Dixon told the Times. “And the fact that I would be doing it to advance my career, I would hate myself.”
When people talk about gatekeeping I wonder if men are aware that there are many gates. Every job interview, late night work meeting, high school party, that women navigate through unscathed is a small victory. Some gates are more ironclad than others. Do you speak up at the party when a powerful man makes a comment about your breasts, or do you let it slide because the repercussions of getting on his bad side and the bad side of his friends is too much to deal with? Do you dip and dive from the hands of a grabby boss at the risk of seeming too difficult, too much of a bitch?
What men like Weinstein and Simmons and Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer and the millions of other men made like golems in their image do is encircle their victims with gates, until they’re locked in a cage.
It’s easy to understand why the struggling young singer forced to have sex with her producer, or that chef constantly subjected to harassment, or the actress asked to take her top off in an audition, would disappear rather than navigate such a hostile terrain. And it’s also easy for me to understand why any of them would stick around, trudge through it, pushing for their creativity to be rightly recognized in systems designed to destroy it, all while hoping there’s a safe landing place where they might one day have a chance to redraw what has been erased.