How did a serial abuser of Harvey Weinstein’s notoriety get away with assaulting and harassing so many women for so many decades? Much of the blame can be placed at the feet of Hollywood’s sexist culture, along with Weinstein’s cultural and financial power within it. But the thing that specifically kept his behavior out of the press? Nondisclosure agreements. Often referred to as NDAs, these confidentiality clauses are inserted into financial settlements to prevent victims from speaking publicly about their allegations or settlements. In a piece for Slate, Katy Waldman referred to the “devastating sadness” of NDAs, writing that “It is as if, with their money and influence, Weinstein and his ilk have managed to buy shares in the ownership of reality itself.”
Many people linked to Weinstein are under nondisclosure agreements, it seems. Rose McGowan signed a $100,000 contract of silence after her alleged rape, which she recently broke on Twitter, while Weinstein Company staff said in a statement to the New Yorker that they want to break their employee NDAs but are currently unable. It’s unclear how many more Weinstein victims might be out there, scared into silence by the legal ramifications of breaking their contracts, but former Weinstein assistant Zelda Perkins is no longer among them. Perkins has broken her 1998 nondisclosure agreement to speak to the Financial Times about the legal process by which men like Weinstein—and Ailes, and O’Reilly—silence their victims and hush up their crimes. Perkins made the decision to break her contract, she told Matthew Garrahan, in order to expose the practice. “Unless somebody does this there won’t be a debate about how egregious these agreements are and the amount of duress that victims are put under,” she said.
In 1998, Zelda Perkins and an unnamed Weinstein staffer received £125,000 a piece for their silence after accusing Weinstein of harassment and assault, the details of which line up with the accounts of Weinstein’s ever-growing list of accusers. (Weinstein has denied all accusations of nonconsensual sexual contact.) When the 24-year-old Perkins first sought legal advice, she wasn’t even seeking financial compensation—she says she simply wanted to protect other women from future harrassment. But lawyers told her that a damages settlement with his company was the only logical recourse: Weinstein and his lawyers would “destroy” her if she tried to expose his behavior. What followed was a painful and unequal process. The negotiation was grueling, with Perkins undergoing days of intense questioning by Weinstein’s lawyers, one of which continued until 5 in the morning. Perkins added demands to the agreement that included therapy for Weinstein and the creation of an HR complaints procedure, but has no way of knowing if the company abided by them. At the end of it all, the final contract prevented her from even possessing a copy of the full agreement; she was only given pages outlining each side’s respective obligations. She says she felt “isolated” and “unsupported” by her legal team and wants to call out the power imbalance in the way these agreements are negotiated.
Perkins’ case sheds light on the way accusers are subtly and not-so-subtly manipulated into Hollywood’s preferred, quieter method of resolving sexual harrassment, a method that does nothing (and in this case, did nothing) to prevent a crime from recurring. It’s time to start questioning the legitimacy of a legal system that allows the rich and powerful to buy their way out of punishment while reinforcing the idea that sexual assault should not be talked about publicly.