“The casting couch? There’s only one of us who ever made it to stardom without it, and that was Bette Davis.”
~Attributed to Claudette Colbert in 1935
“I’ll never be that girl.”
The New York Times, October 10, 2017
Another powerful businessman in the entertainment industry has toppled from his pedestal in disgrace over accusations of sexual misconduct from a plethora of women in the entertainment industry, some very well known and powerful in their own rights. Harvey Weinstein joins the parade of entertainment moguls who have been accused of long-term sexual harassment of and/or assaults on women. Former Fox News titans Bill O’Reilly and the now-deceased Roger Ailes lost their high-flying jobs earlier this year over similar charges, and were followed out the door by Fox Co-President Bill Shine, who it was felt did not do enough to stop the harassment. We’ve also watched the long-playing saga of Bill Cosby being accused of and prosecuted for sexual harassment and assault; his trial ended in a mistrial but apparently another one has been scheduled to begin next spring. And now The New York Times reports that two more highly-placed men are facing sexual misconduct allegations; one is an Oscar-nominated screenwriter.
The Casting Couch
But sexual misconduct is no stranger to the entertainment industry. The term, “casting couch,” referring to the couch in the producer’s office upon which actresses who wished to land movie roles had to provide sexual favors, dates back many generations, with film legend and Academy Award winner Claudette Colbert remarking on it publicly in 1935. Today, the casting couch is still alive and well and evidently flourishing. And despite the current brouhaha, will anything change? We’ve had high-profile warnings over the years with scandals surfacing surrounding powerful industry leaders, such as Roman Polanski, Woody Allen and Mel Gibson.
The question is, will this latest deluge of accusations by credible women — who the accused will likely attempt to discredit — result in changes for women? They won’t as long as other powerful people cover for sexual predators and women and men who are victimized by or knowledgeable about them remain silent.
Some of the reasons victims of workplace sexual harassment remain silent include:
- Other powerful people and institutions cover for the sexual predators, further intimidating victims from speaking up. They do this for many reasons, to protect their own careers and wealth or because the perpetrator contributes large amounts of money to charity, gives their kids jobs and opportunities or perhaps because they are intimidated by them as well.
- Women do not wish to be seen as victims of sexual harassment because it makes them seem weak in a world where women must be viewed as strong and competent in order to advance. It’s the old “if you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen” syndrome.
- Injured parties face retaliation either from an individual or company. This usually takes form in reputational damage, the blocking of career advancement, termination and / or industry blacklisting.
- A payoff is made with the proviso that the injured party/recipient of the settlement keep quiet.
But when a famous and powerful predator is exposed and other famous and powerful people jump on the bandwagon to condemn him, that provides an opening for discussion and action. The current atmosphere becomes more accepting for women to be more vocal about their experiences and those of others. This is important because the casting couch is not limited to the entertainment industry; it exists in every industry. From Gloria Steinem’s exposé of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Bunnies to Anita Hill’s explosive testimony about Judge Clarence Thomas’s sexual harassment to Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney’s accusation against her team’s doctor of molesting her for eight years, over the centuries harassment of women has occurred in all professions at all levels.
And it’s not just women who have been and continue to be harassed. According to statistics by Catalyst and FiveThirtyEight, while men are harassed as well, women are harassed more by a four-to-one margin. And the harassers are usually men who are older, well established and white. But that’s not the full picture because neither the harassers nor the harassed are talking much about the problem. It’s certainly understandable that the perpetrators wouldn’t willingly come forward and confess, nor would most men want to admit to being sexually harassed for more than one reason. So although we don’t have the full picture yet, it looks as though it will come down to women who are harassed — or witness harassment — to start speaking up and speaking out from this day forward if this problem is every going to be resolved.
What To Do About It
Solving the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace must employ a multi-pronged approach. Doing just one thing won’t hack it.
But speaking out is one of the most powerful things that women can begin to do. And as I write this, Rolling Stone has just reported that Harvey Weinstein’s former assistant has broken her non-disclosure agreement and is adding her voice to the growing number of women (more than 50 so far) who have now spoken up about their experiences with and knowledge of the sexual misconducts of Harvey Weinstein.
So here are some suggestions that women and men can do right now:
- If you have a Twitter account, comment on #MeToo to add strength and weight to this fast-growing movement of empowerment.
- If your company has affinity networks, consider proposing that a committee be established as part of the Women’s Network to discuss sexual harassment and how to handle it when it happens to you. Invite men, managers and HR specialists as well as outside experts to meetings to present and discuss techniques in recognizing, dealing with and stopping harassment. Once the problem is made an official topic to be discussed openly at an established company affinity network — just as topics are discussed openly at other affinity networks dealing with issues encountered by people of color, LGBTQ staff, employees with disabilities, etc. — the topic of sexual harassment will be taken much more seriously and encourage more women to break their silence. If possible, even consider forming an entirely separate affinity network that deals just with sexual harassment.
- On your campus, as a student start a social norms campaign focused on sexual violence, use your technical skills to solve the problem, or look into a student empowerment group such as It’s On Us.
- Familiarize yourself with the federal law concerning sexual harassment. Find out if your state has any supplemental laws or guidance. Here are examples from websites sponsored by New York, Illinois, Texas and California. Note that the federal law applies to companies that employ 15 or more workers. Consider writing to your state representatives to encourage them to enact a state law that would close that loophole and strengthen the federal law.
- Document harassment by keeping a confidential written log, with dates, times, locations, circumstances and details of the harassment. It is also important to tell someone about the harassment — a family member, close friend, your therapist, etc. These steps will be important if there is an investigation, hearing or lawsuit because a log and a witness will add credibility to your story, especially if someone can testify that you told her or him about the incident at the time it occurred.
Sadly, such offenses also occur to young people before they even get to the workplace, while they are still in school or at college. Seek guidance on how to talk to young children about safety from pedophiles and how to address the subject of sexual harassment and rape with adolescents, and how to speak with your older children about campus rape.
It’s never too early to address this topic with young people and certainly never too soon for the rest of us to speak out about it. This is the only way to have the casting couch that haunts every workplace hauled away.
Until next time,