Me Too_005 Law Firm
Not just Hollywood: Survivors share their stories
02:01 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: This story contains descriptions of rape and sexual abuse.

CNN  — 

Harvey Weinstein’s predatory behavior has been described as an open secret in Hollywood, one perpetuated by a culture of silence.

Complicity, like abuse, is not confined to Hollywood – and it only took two words to open the floodgates: me too.

Since the Weinstein allegations broke, millions of people from all walks of life have shared stories of harassment and abuse at the hands of powerful people.

CNN asked readers to share their stories with us and received dozens of responses.

Most came from women, though men aren’t immune to abuse. Recurring themes emerged: a vulnerable target, a powerful perpetrator, fears of retaliation and witnesses who let it happen. The long-term effects tend to overlap: missed opportunities, lost jobs, barriers to education, depleted self-esteem, guilt for “letting” it happen or not speaking up.

We’ve heard it all before. Yet, the status quo endures. This time, because of the sheer volume of shared accounts, some see hope for change.

Memories are flooding back, galvanizing some women while re-traumatizing others. Men are being jolted, too, as their social media feeds blow up with painful stories. Advocates say people are starting to connect the dots between violence and misogyny and how they influence public policy. Could this be the time when a hashtag-inspired moment actually leads to cultural change?

The women CNN interviewed hope so, which is why they opened up. We’re not disclosing their names and we could not independently verify the accounts. Here are their testimonies.

Me Too_002 Internship

She was shadowing a respected therapist at the county health department in an internship for her master’s program. Because he was attractive and charming and she was overweight and insecure, she was flattered by his flirtatious texts asking to “rendezvous.”

They were in his car after an assessment when he told her to show him her breasts.

“Anxious, scared, and seemingly paralyzed, I did what he asked,” she says. “People make it seem very easy to just say no, or just don’t give in, or don’t respond. But it can be very paralyzing when someone is in control of where your future may go.”

After, he sent texts asking her for photos of her body parts. Then, another staffer started texting her. She refused them both but the interactions wore her down. She felt depressed and suicidal, leading to breakdowns at school and home.

Eventually, she transferred to another program, one that opened doors to another fulfilling career path. That’s the upside, she said. The downside is she struggles with intimacy and still blames herself for letting it happen. She’s a mental health counselor but she has yet to fully work through her own trauma, she said. Meanwhile, he continues to practice as a therapist.

“I need a counselor who can out-counsel me,” she said. “It’s not a process you can rush. It comes when it’s supposed and it will come when I need it to.”

Me Too_006 Hands

A few months into a new career in healthcare public relations, the invitation to travel to a conference was one she welcomed. The four male colleagues she went with, including her boss, made her a little nervous, but only because she feared she wouldn’t fit in. Then the group text messages started.

As a woman presenter addressed the crowd, a coworker mused that the speaker had “a dusty snatch.” It went downhill from there.

The men typed about breasts and breast milk, talked about wanting the speaker and hoped she would mention the word “orgasm … five times really fast.”

While heading to the airport to fly home, the texts continued. “Cabbies prefer a good hug to a cash tip,” wrote one man. “Only if you slip them a little tongue,” wrote another. And then, this time mentioning her by name, “You should try it.”

When she confided in two female colleagues, she said they “told me to not be ‘so uptight’ and to ‘have a better sense of humor.’” With that, she shut up.

The four men who wrote the words remain in prominent positions.

“My daughter, now 7, is the reason I still feel bad,” she said. “I try to teach her to stand up for what’s right, and I didn’t do it myself.”

Me Too_003 Work Late

She was in her 30s, working as a corporate trainer – one of very few African-American women in a branch office of a leading tech company in the 1980s.

Several years into her career, her manager asked her to stay late to work on a project. When they were alone in a conference room, he grabbed her.

“He started trying to feel me up through my jacket and I jumped back,” she said. “But what he didn’t know, and what most people don’t know, is that I was molested as a child.”

As she struggled, he got more excited. He tried to kiss her forcibly. She jumped free and fled the room.

“He attempted to apologize to me the next day but I made sure I was never alone with him. I could see the fear in his eyes,” she said.

She was also afraid – scared that speaking out would be a “career-ending move.”

For two agonizing years, she worked for her attacker – eventually getting herself transferred to another manager.

Me Too_004 Rabbi

She walked into rabbinical school and entered a boy’s club, never mind that half her classmates were women.

The homiletics professor, an esteemed scholar, taught this lesson her first week there: “The length of a sermon should be like a woman’s skirt – long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to keep it interesting.”

The school’s director only invited male students to special meetings and dinners. He reserved for her and other women advice about “presenting yourself in the best possible light,” which included tips on makeup, manicures and heels.

That he was – and still is – this way was no secret. She and other women complained. Those in positions of power knew.

“The thing about the Jewish community is we work so hard to make it feel like a family,” she said. “What they’d say back to us is, ‘He’s like a kooky old uncle. That’s just the time he’s from and the way he is.’”

An internship at a synagogue during the High Holidays proved the boy’s club extended beyond school. She donned her robe and was prepared to face the congregation for the first time during Judaism’s holiest time of the year, when the head rabbi who’d just hired her pulled her aside.

“I’m going to have to get you longer robes for Yom Kippur because your legs are really distracting to me when I’m trying to lead the congregation in prayer,” she remembered him saying. “And it was like a gross, really disgusting voice. It was not that he was going to order me new robes but that he wanted me to know he was looking at my legs.”

Me Too_01 Bonus Check Half

She worked her way up from customer service to retail buyer in the corporate headquarters of a chain based in the Northeast. It was a big deal for a girl from the suburbs with no college education, she said.

It was going well until the boss of the company took an interest in her. “It was common knowledge that this guy was a creep,” she said. Worse, other executives complained about having to “clean up his mess.”

It still makes her so angry – everyone knew and let it happen.

“He’d ask me out for drinks. He’d put his hand on my leg, and I’d laugh it off. Once, after Christmas, everyone got their bonus checks, he told me he’d write my bonus check for half, and I’d get the rest in cash if I went out for drinks with him alone.

“Against my better judgment, I did. I was broke, living on my own, and was counting on that bonus. He asked me to hold his hand while he drove me home. Then asked if I would hug him while I was getting out of his car. He felt up my shirt,” she said.

Eventually, she couldn’t take it anymore. She confided in another employee and found out she’d experienced similar treatment. They complained to management together, and she left the company.

In her new job it took some readjusting to get used to a new boss who keeps things so impersonal, she said. Then, the Weinstein story brought back a flood of memories. She worries for women at her old job. She doubts his behavior has changed.

“I feel very guilty. I took steps so I could leave but I feel like me being quiet just made it to happen to other women,” she said.

“I just hope that more people stand up against it when they see it and don’t turn their back.”

Me Too_005 Law Firm

A month into a job as a paralegal at an out-of-state law firm, she became the target of inappropriate comments from one of the attorneys.

The woman, in her 40s, started noticing a pattern in 2010. The man made sexual innuendoes, swung his arms to touch her behind and adjusted himself for minutes at a time right in front of her.

One morning, a conversation about what to order for breakfast took a perverted twist. Someone mentioned country ham and she said, “It’s so salty and rubbery.”

The managing partner said, “Ooh that sounds so dirty.”

She told him his comment was gross and looked to her manager, who was also there. She asked him to make the partner stop saying things like that. He did nothing.

When she took her story to human resources, she was told he had been a partner for years and wouldn’t have done those things.

She and three female colleagues who had similar stories launched an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint in 2011 and filed a civil lawsuit in 2012. “The three people in the complaint is 100% of the staff at that office,” she said. “Every single woman had the same story, different versions.”

They won on their sexual harassment allegations. The law firm broke up three months later.

Having famous people share their Weinstein experiences, as well as seeing millions of women share their stories online, helped her come out with her own. “It happens to people who are regular people. I’m a regular person with a family and I didn’t do anything. I have nothing to be embarrassed about,” she said.

She’s a flight attendant. He’s a captain she once called a friend. She believes he drugged and raped her while she was unconscious.

“The next morning I woke up naked in his bed, I had bruises all over my body. I couldn’t sit down because my vagina was so raw. I was bleeding that’s how rough he was with me and I had bruises on my breasts, on my hips, on my inner thighs,” she said.

“I had asked him what happened last night. I don’t remember anything. I don’t remember how we got back to the hotel. And, he came back with a snide remark: ‘I think you can put two and two together.’”

She took pictures of the bruises on her body and reported it to police. She has test results showing she contracted a urinary tract infection in the attack, she said. But he only had to say it was consensual for the airline to let him keep flying.

“He got what he wanted from me and I have to deal with it for the rest of my life.”

CNN’s Lindsay Benson contributed to this report.