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Dear Professor Williams: My Body is Not a Wallet to be Stolen
Words by Morgan Barbour
Image by J. Ray Paradiso
Men like Harvey Weinstein are not unique. I’ve been working as a model and actor since 2010, and my laundry list of men in the industry like Harvey is so long it can no longer fit in my pocket; the extended list including men outside of my work is even longer. I’ve written about sexual assault a lot this past year. It’s been a difficult topic to avoid, especially as my home country elected a man as President with an equally impressive laundry list of sexual assault allegations lodged against him.
I wasn’t going to write anything public in response to Harvey Weinstein, not because I’ve nothing to contribute but because I’m utterly exhausted. Then earlier this week Richmond Times-Dispatch published a column written by George Mason University Professor Walter E. Williams regurgitating the wholly unimaginative and objectifying analogy of ‘if a man leaves his wallet in public and the wallet is stolen, who is really to blame?’ as a way of shifting the blame onto women who are assaulted, as if our bodies are things to be taken at the whim of men should we be negligent enough to leave them out unattended. As a fellow academic I feel it pertinent to respond in kind, as Facebook post venting might help alleviate some of my frustrations but ultimately do nothing to stimulate much needed dialogue.
Professor Williams posits that some [college-aged] women make unwise decisions such as ‘getting stoned, using foul language and dancing suggestively’ which, much akin to leaving a wallet unattended, may contribute to men soliciting, attacking, and raping us. I find this line of logic strange, because when I was ten years old my ass was grabbed by a teenage boy in Dollar Tree while I was off looking at snow globes, and I can assure you that at age ten I was religiously dedicated to the DARE program, did not curse, and was too shy to dance around anyone other than the household cats. Yet somehow at age ten, as a girl made up of straight-cut bangs and knobby knees and a fierce love of Harry Potter, I was ushered into adulthood by a boy who felt compelled to touch me through my high-water corduroys.
At age twelve a man more than ten years my senior began to send me roses and love letters. This behavior continued on and off throughout my high school career. I will admit that by age twelve I was becoming a bit rebellious and was rather fond of the word ‘fuck’, so I suppose I was asking for it.
At fourteen I got my first job as a hostess. My male boss frequently made comments about the size of my developing breasts and told me off for being rude to a male customer who was flirting with me because I refused to reciprocate. At sixteen I lost my virginity despite telling my boyfriend I didn’t feel ready. This pressure for sex would continue through the remainder of our relationship; when I refused or would want to stop midway because the sex was painful I was painted as the villain for causing him pain with his blue balls and was asked if I’d at least help him finish. We were also swing dance partners, so I suppose I was asking for it.
Age seventeen I was working in a welding shop. I was the only girl in the class. A man old enough to be my father slapped my ass as I walked to go retrieve more aluminum. At eighteen I was followed home at night by a man I didn’t know while walking back from rehearsal. At nineteen I was called a porn star by my peers because I had posed nude for an art nude magazine. At twenty I was told by a male acting professor that I had little natural talent but I did have a great ass, so I might have a career. At twenty-one I blacked out at a party and was fingered by a male friend while unconscious. At twenty-two a man cat called me on the street and, upon ignoring him, threatened to murder me. At twenty-three a man drugged my drink and violently raped me after showing me videos of his daughter at her ballet recital. At twenty-four I had a fan tell me I deserved to receive sexual imagery and messages from people I do not know because of my career path. At twenty-five I was asked if I thought the men I was currently teaching called me ‘baby.’
These are selections from my laundry list. We would be here all day if I were to catalogue each and every altercation. When we talk about men like Harvey Weinstein we get obsessed with talking about the underbelly of sexual assault in Hollywood and the entertainment industry as a whole. The above stories are from my daily life, extricated from my work as a young woman in the entertainment industry. I have my own horror stories of men in my industry who are Weinsteins in their own rite—the producer who offered to ‘boost my career’ if I slept with him, the photographer who grabbed my bare breast and then scolded me when I told him to stop (‘I’ve worked with George Clooney, you should be grateful!’), the male model who pulled his penis out when we were left alone on set together, the reality TV judge who felt it appropriate to refer to me as ‘American Slut’ in casual conversation because I refused to have a threesome with him, the countless comments from men and women alike that my success is owed not to my hard work or talent but to my willingness to take off my clothes, to the doctor who told me off for leaving Ireland for the UK to seek medical attention and the abortion pill after I was raped, who repeatedly asked me what I expected to happen doing the work that I did.
My industry is cancerous, and it is up to us to help cull the problem so future generations can prosper. I do not know a single working women in entertainment or fashion who has not, at best, been the victim of verbal sexual harassment or, at worst been raped by a man who should be seen as her colleague and collaborator. It is negligent, however, to paint this problem as a Hollywood problem. Harassment and assault are present in all lines of work, and abuse of power knows no certain title.
Professor Williams seems to think that a woman’s body is something that can be stolen, that her bodily autonomy is only valid when safeguarded to his preferences, that a ‘foul tongue’ could warrant rape. My body is not an object to be taken by force. The universe does not owe me harassment or assault because I curse in my daily life or because I’ve done drugs at parties or because I’ve allowed my body to move freely. For every magazine I am featured in and for every play I perform in, for every article of clothing missing from my costumes and for every moment I reclaim my own sexuality on stage, free passes are not handed out to men to take my body as they will as reparation.
Last year my rapist found my personal Facebook after months of radio silence and sent me a message asking me when I was going to get famous. A man committed one of the worst offences a human being can do to another and his main concern is the size of my fan following and how many people know my name. I am not a fellow human being to him – I am a conquest to be bragged about, and those bragging rights are directly proportionate to the success of my career. I could hide in my apartment and take down my website and retire quietly, or I can shout my name until my voice gives out because while the world may at times be cruel I refuse to let one man define me.
So Dear Professor Williams, my name is Morgan Ashley Barbour. I am a 25-year-old American woman who works in the entertainment industry. At present I am a lecturer at a university, just like you. I’m also a daughter, a sister, an auntie. I am not a wallet or similar inanimate object; I am a human being, just like you. I am getting my MFA in the United Kingdom and I’m a pretty terrible cook. Much like you I have a love for words and academia and am highly opinionated. But unlike you, for over half of my life, men—largely strangers—have taken it upon themselves to comment, touch, and violate my body. My story is not unique. It is one shared with women worldwide. No one deserves to have violence committed against them. I hope this can help prompt a dialogue, both for you and for the rest of the world. And for what it’s worth, if I found your wallet abandoned on the street I would do everything in my power to see that it was returned to you safely.