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'Casting couch' or 'crime scene'? Hollywood's culture of sexual harassment

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The words society chooses to use to describe sexual harassment and assault can tint the lens the public uses to assign judgment, belief, or blame, experts say. They can help foster a culture of silence and compliance – or they can empower the vulnerable.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Before “Harvey Weinstein: The Scandal” captured the national conversation, there were whispers. There were warnings. And there were jokes.

When The New York Times published a scathing report earlier this month accusing the Hollywood mogul of engaging in a decades-long pattern of sexual harassment, coercion, and abuse of young actresses, few were entirely surprised.

For one thing, the idea of starlets exchanging sexual favors – willingly or not – for prominent roles is a story that’s practically as old as Hollywood itself. There’s even a cozy euphemism: the casting couch, a metaphor that observers say has helped to normalize the practice and blur the lines of responsibility and blame in a way that promotes silence.

But this month, with a steady stream of actresses coming forward with their own accounts of being cornered, propositioned, or assaulted by Mr. Weinstein in a bathrobe, the tone of the conversation has shifted, grown louder, gained weight. Women from all walks of life have started to share their own stories of harassment and rape, or simply raised their hand on social media with the short but powerful phrase of “Me too,” as if to stack their experiences up together so they cannot drift away with the next breeze.

The Weinstein accusations have resonated with the public in a way that goes beyond the typical wave of voyeuristic titillation. It is the tangible manifestation of a narrative that has been playing out for decades, if not centuries, in what sometimes seems to be nearly every avenue of society, observers say.

How we collectively talk about these accounts can have a profound effect on how seriously grievances are taken, says Theresa Simpkin, of Anglia Ruskin University in Chelmsford, England. The words society chooses to use to describe sexual harassment and assault – and the tone we cast them with – can tint the lens the public uses to assign judgment, belief, or blame. They can help foster a culture of silence and compliance – or they can empower the vulnerable to resist and report.

“Words are incredibly important for setting up a platform for thinking and behavior and how we see certain events,” says Professor Simpkin, who heads the Department of Leadership and Management at Lord Ashcroft International Business School and studies the role of language in supporting or diminishing bias and discrimination in the workplace. “When we start using euphemistic language and skulking around the edges of these types of things, we are undercutting the gravity of them.”

Value and risks of a whisper

Whispers and warnings can serve a vital purpose, shining a dim light on dangerous situations. In the wake of the Times article, and a subsequent piece in The New Yorker in which Italian actress and director Asia Argento and two other women allege Weinstein raped them, others have shared that warnings from other women helped them steer clear of the mogul.

In an op-ed for the Times, writer, actor, and director Sarah Polley recounted the words of a publicist who promised to stay by her side when she was summoned to a meeting with Weinstein as a 19-year-old. “I knew everything I needed to know in that moment, and I was grateful,” Ms. Polley wrote.

But relegating the discussion to hushed tones and veiled words of caution carries a danger, activists say. It fosters a culture where unwanted advances – even overt coercion – are seen as a normal part of female life. It adds to a general “degree of acceptance that this is just what women have to put up with to participate in society,” says Lisa Senecal, a writer, entrepreneur, and women’s advocate who was in September appointed by the governor of Vermont to the state’s Commission on Women.

The fact that we are having the conversation at all is encouraging, observers say. The high-profile status of Weinstein and of the women who have accused him, among them Ashley Judd, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Rose McGowan, has shined a Hollywood-sized spotlight on a problem that appears to be pervasive.

Already, others in the entertainment industry have come forward with the idea that the accusations against Weinstein are emblematic of a systemic problem. Molly Ringwald wrote of running into “plenty of Harveys of my own over the years, enough to feel a sickening shock of recognition.” Oscar-winner Emma Thompson pointed out that the issue has been ongoing for decades. In her mother’s day, it was referred to as “pestering.”

And historically, the idea of the casting couch has been framed within a very different power dynamic than the one described by Ms. Judd and Ms. McGowan. Instead of an older and more powerful director or producer preying on the young, the narrative borrows from another age-old story, that of the seductive Jezebel willing to use her sexuality to improve her position.

“Everybody’s got a couch. If we put [this behavior] into simple and innocuous terms then it diminishes the reality of what this is,” Simpkin says.

It’s a pattern of harassment and cover-ups seen in accusations against Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly at Fox News, Bill Cosby, and, most recently, Roy Price at Amazon Studios. And it’s not just women who report being targeted, but young boys and men too, as Corey Feldman has reminded fans for years.

“This is not something that is confined to high-profile, very powerful people. It’s playing out in shops and offices and hotels and schools as well,” says Simpkin.

Ms. Senecal describes a career peppered with on-the-job sexual harassment, including an assault. She can’t discuss the assault, per a non-disclosure agreement. But she freely shares stories of any number of other brushes with sexually inappropriate behavior at work – from her first job as a 15-year-old waitress, and her next as a 16-year-old department store clerk; to her next job at 19, doing clerical work in plumbing and heating firms, and the next position as a 20-year-old at an ophthalmology group. “And those were the earlier ones,” she says.

“I don’t think that I’m unusual,” Senecal says. “I think that the unusual is to speak with a woman who has not had multiple experiences with harassment.”

According to an ABC/Washington Post poll released on Tuesday, more than half of women in the United States have been subjected to inappropriate advances at work. Of those, 80 percent said the encounter approached the level of sexual harassment. One-third said it amounted to sexual abuse. “This translates to approximately 33 million American women being sexually harassed, and 14 million sexually abused, in work-related incidents,” the pollsters write.

“I don’t think we can ignore the vast amount of properly researched statistics as well as anecdotal evidence that women ...  have for many years taken this as part of being a woman,” Simpkin says. “We really need to have a look at the cultural underpinnings that allow that to be perpetuated.”

Changing the lexicon of assault

One way is through the lexicon that we draw from when discussing accusations, accusers, and the accused, researchers and advocates say. Reliance on euphemisms and vague language diminishes the harm that results from such behavior and blurs the lines between appropriate and inappropriate behavior.

All too frequently, when women report that they have been targeted by predatory behavior, the discussion turns to one of character rather than the specific actions or incidents detailed in the report, observers say.

Women who bring claims against men are often required to first defend themselves before they can focus the attention on the perpetrator, Simpkin says. Questions of what she was wearing, if she led him on, or what she was doing out alone at night can skew public and even legal application of blame. What’s more, they underscore a narrative that if women simply do the right things and behave the right way, they will be safe, Senecal adds.

Questions of character take a different tone, however, when the discussion shifts to men who have been accused, says Zhana Vrangalova, an adjunct professor of human sexuality at New York University.

“There is this myth that ‘nice guys,’ or guys who otherwise have good reputations, can never be abusers – that abusers are these mentally disturbed or very obviously violent types of people,” Professor Vrangalova says. That fosters this idea that “if you have someone who is a well-respected member of the community, they couldn’t possibly be an abuser.”

That notion came into play in the case of Brock Turner, says Simpkin, referring to the college athlete who was convicted on three counts of felony sexual assault in 2015. In that case, the language used by the media and those defending Mr. Turner focused on the question of whether a perpetrator should carry a lifelong penalty for 20 minutes of misguided action.

“If we change that language to his being penalized for ‘20 minutes of sexual, premeditated assault on a defenseless, unconscious victim’ it changes the way we actually see that behavior,” Simpkin says.

Likewise, Weinstein's framing of his behavior as the relic of a bygone era, the so-called dinosaur defense, serves to diminish the responsibility that all men (and women) bear for their own actions.

“I know too many men who came up in the ’60s and ’70s and they don’t behave this way,” Senecal says. “It has to do with entitlement and position of power and being willing to use that position of power to victimize people. That’s not generational, that’s despicable.”

‘Just joking’

The lack of specificity in defining what constitutes harassment or assault can also lead people to unfairly characterize misguided comments or jokes as predatory behavior, Professor Vrangalova says.

“I worry about slapping people with the sexual perpetrator and the predator labels for things that are sometimes within the gray area,” Vrangalova says. “Very often sexual situations are not either/or.”

Jokes are a particularly fraught vehicle. On the one hand, they are a way to bring people’s attention to uncomfortable, taboo topics. In the case of Mr. Cosby, it was a joke made by comedian Hannibal Buress that appeared to have opened a floodgate of accusations from women. A sexual assault trial against Cosby was declared a mistrial in June.

On the other hand, jokes run the risk of being dismissed as “just jokes,” Simpkin says, pointing to a barbed remark made by Seth MacFarlane during the 2013 Academy Awards.

After introducing the five nominees for Best Supporting Actress Mr. MacFarlane quipped, “Congratulations, you five ladies no longer have to pretend to be attracted to Harvey Weinstein.”

MacFarlane this month explained in a Twitter post that actor Jessica Barth had just confided in him about a nefarious encounter with Weinstein. The remark was his way of taking a “hard swing” at the producer. “Make no mistake, this came from a place of loathing and anger,” he wrote. Ms. Barth has since come forward with her story.

At the time, the audience tittered while MacFarlane and co-presenter Emma Stone both bit down into hardened smiles.

“Yes, it’s useful to use comedy to put difficult issues out into the public domain where they can be debated, examined, and critiqued,” Simpkin says. “But it may well just be construed as a joke.”

Humor can also be used as a cloak to disguise and perpetuate harmful rhetoric, Simpkin and Vrangalova both caution. Perpetrators frequently use the defense that they were “only joking” when they are called out for inappropriate comments.

When Donald Trump characterized his lewd remarks about being able to do “anything” to women on the “Access Hollywood” tape that surfaced during his campaign as locker-room talk, “it was clear from the entire context of what Donald Trump was saying that that wasn’t a joke,” Vrangalova says. “In fact, it seemed like that was what he actually had done in the past.”

Characterizing his comments as “locker room banter suggests that it’s all right as long as it’s out of earshot,” says Simpkin. “But that language, even if it is inside the locker room, is setting up expectations that are taken outside of the locker room as well, so it underpins a narrative of how women are seen and are valued and how they interact in the community.”

President Trump’s comments on that tape also sparked a national dialogue when the recording was leaked by The Washington Post more than a decade later. Then, as they have this past month, women took to social media to share their experiences with men who assumed they could grab them wherever and whenever they wanted.

Senecal says she was heartened by that response, but frustrated that the conversation died down so soon – and that Trump was elected even after those comments were made public. The resurfacing of these themes in public discourse is again encouraging, she says. She just hopes the momentum continues.

“It is up to activists, both male and female, to try and keep it in the headlines,” she says. “Because that’s where it has to be to effect great change.”

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