We’ve all come across a Harvey Wankstain in our lives (pun intended)…
October 18, 2017
When I was 23 I got my first writing job as a features writer for a popular magazine in Hong Kong, and I could not have been more excited. My editor, the owner of the magazine, was a 40-something unkempt and portly ex-pat whose office, in the dilapidated old building of an unexclusive part of the territory, had, amongst the mess and filth of leftover takeaway boxes, a single bed in it. Initially, I assumed it was for when he needed a nap having been up all night getting copy ready for the print deadline, but within a week of starting my new, exciting job, I discovered it had a much more distasteful use; to shag the very young Filipina cleaner. Whilst we writers were busy beavering away with our copy edits, the editor was busy beavering away in a much more salacious sense, right next door to us.
I had already got a sense that my new dream job might be a poisoned chalice when, a few days in I started to get phone calls from the editor late at night when he was obviously quite drunk. He would go on and on, repeating himself as drunks so tediously do, for up to an hour at a time, whilst I sat on my sofa, making non-committal sounds of acknowledgment, as I rolled my eyes at my boyfriend and tried to politely end the call. It was an annoyance and unprofessional of him, but, nothing more than that. The occasional inappropriate comment thrown in could be seen as ambiguous and, desperate to make a name for myself as a features writer, I wasn’t going to start getting all Mary Whitehouse on him. Anyway, I was a 23 year old girl embarking on my career and maybe this was what it was like? Maybe I needed to act more like one of the boys and let flippant sexual and sexist comments roll off my back like water off a ducks’. After all, I was hardly a statuesque super-model with legs up to my armpits, so maybe I needed to be less up my own arse and stop thinking that every lewd comment was aimed at me.
I told myself I needed to chill and get over it.
As the days went on, I realised I probably also needed to wear a thick, baggy sweater to stop him staring at my tits, but Hong Kong is hot and humid and even though the air-con was arctic, it’s hard to wear clothes which completely hide your shape, and bandaging my breasts flat to my body seemed a little extreme, just to go to work every day.
Again, I told myself to chill and get over it.
A fortnight after starting, the advertising manager who had been on holiday returned to work. That lunchtime whilst queuing at a dai pai dong for noodles she warned me to not stay late in the offices alone with the editor.
“You have a boyfriend, don’t you, so just say you have plans and you can’t change them, or say your boyfriend will come and pick you up from work.”
I looked at her, my heart sinking.
“I’m just telling you so he doesn’t catch you unaware without an excuse. I’m not saying he would try anything but it’s just best not to put yourself in that situation; d’you know what I mean?”
Yes, I did know what she meant. I knew exactly what she meant, and it wasn’t just me who felt uncomfortable with his behaviour. Another features writer who started the same week as me had already brought up her uneasiness, and it wasn’t just salacious or sexual, it was manipulative and bullying.
“He told me to go and review that new French restaurant at Mid-Levels,” Cheryl confided to me one morning at the MTR station.
“I went with a couple of friends and had the vegetarian options myself as I don’t eat meat, but when I submitted my review he told me to go back and try all the dishes myself even though my review included the meat dishes my friends had and their opinion of them.”
“Did you go back and eat the meat dishes?!” I asked, horrified. I was vegetarian and had no intention of eating meat just to keep my job.
“No, of course not. I just re-submitted my article after making it sound like I tried it all myself. But then he came with me to review an Italian place at Causeway Bay and had the chef serve us lots of little tasting dishes, so I had to eat some beef ravioli. I kept spitting food out into my napkin when he wasn’t looking. He said I couldn’t do my job properly if I wasn’t prepared to try all the food. I felt sick. I was never told I would have to do restaurant reviews when I took the job, but he says if I can’t do them then I need to re-think my position with the magazine.”
One afternoon, the Filipina maid ran sobbing from the editor’s office. We all looked at each other and back at our computer screens as the editor came out briefly, swore, then slammed his door shut. Along with Cheryl, mounting dread in our hearts, I went outside to look for Maria and see if we could help.
“He sacked me. He said he doesn’t need me anymore,’" Maria sobbed, inconsolably.
“He says it’s because I’m no good at my job but really I think it’s because I told him I can’t do the sex with him anymore as I have a boyfriend now. He kept trying to sleep with me and I kept saying no. Now I don’t have my job.”
Cheryl and I exchanged looks, and my heart sank further. My dream job was turning into a nightmare. The constant sexual comments, the salacious, leering looks, a serious issue with invading personal space when in his office or the lift, and the late night drunken phone calls...
Did I still need to chill and get over myself?
I stood my ground and put up with the editor for another few months. I would not be bullied by him. My articles were proving highly popular and people loved my writing style so I was given my own monthly column. I spent less time in the office and more time working from home, and when Cheryl left just a couple of months after starting her role, the editor started publishing my features and reviews under made-up names to make it look like he had more writers than he did. I would often turn up at work holding a motorcycle helmet, casually mentioning that I had arrived on the back of my boyfriend’s motorbike. This gave me a get out clause for if the editor tried to get me to stay late at night. I always had a thick cardigan hanging off the back of my chair which I would pull on if I was summoned to the editor’s office. It didn’t actually stop his lascivious stares directed at my breasts, but it kind of made me feel better knowing that I was as covered as I possibly could be and I wasn't 'encouraging' him. I got used to his pathetic attempts at belittling and intimidating me. It was standard practice for him to chuck a newly submitted article on your desk covered in red strikeouts and comments (this was the early 90s and articles were routinely still proofed by hand with a red pen). I would simply re-submit the exact same piece the following day whereby he would call me into his office to approve my ‘edit’ and vaingloriously boast at how he was moulding me into a much better writer. It took all my self-control to keep my mouth shut, but I did.
Each week a couple of young girls would arrive and spend an hour or so ‘cleaning’ his office with the door shut before leaving without cleaning our office; funny that. But I just hoped they were benefitting more from the arrangement than he was.
Eventually, having managed to get freelance work for other publications, I handed in my notice, and left the same day. The editor asked me if I would still submit features on a freelance basis. He needed my articles as only had 2 male staff writers left. I said yes, as I still had my last pay cheque to cash, but I had no intention of ever working for him again. As I walked out the door I already felt sorry for, and, had a level of guilt for whoever the next staff writers would be, and hoped by my leaving, I wasn’t putting some other young, hopeful female writer in any sort of personal danger.
That is but one small example from my own experience. I’ve also been grabbed whilst walking home late at night and fought off the attacker by kicking and punching for my life before he ran off. Then there was the old, grandfatherly security guard who I always said hello to at my building, who one day followed me into the lift and pushed himself up against me in a very un-grandfatherly fashion.
Almost every woman I know has come across a ‘Harvey Wankstain’ in their life. It’s an issue that is neither exclusive to, nor endemic only in Hollywood. Now in my forties, ‘the editor’ was but one example of a man in a more ‘powerful’ position than me professionally, overstepping the mark, but, thankfully, not to the extreme and vile extent currently in the news. I’m not an hysterical woman moaning about unwanted attention. I can handle that. Like many friends I know, we all know the difference between banter, silliness, mutual teasing, playfulness, and that of intimidating, threatening, bullying, unwanted sexually inappropriate behaviour. I don’t have a daughter but if I did, I would hate to think she had to deal with situations in her professional life that I have, and to think it’s acceptable and just a part of being a woman. It’s not. It shouldn’t be. If any good comes from the Harvey Wankstain issue I hope it is that this problem stops being hidden or accepted as part and parcel of life.