Image Credit: Mihai Surdu
As the #MeToo movement dominated the news in the fall of 2017, the stories seemed endless and widespread across every industry. Hollywood bigwigs who sexually assaulted hopeful actors in exchange for opportunities. Young musicians’ careers held hostage until they gave in to the sexual demands of record label execs. Business executives wielding their power to intimidate and sexually harass subordinates in return for promises of promotion and raises in pay. An Olympic team doctor charged and convicted after years of sexually assaulting young gymnasts under the guise of “customary” treatments. Revelations about a U.S. Senate nominee and former Alabama Chief Justice who allegedly pursued, dated, and assaulted teenage girls.
As the headlines tumbled out at a rate almost impossible to keep up with, you may have been thinking what we were thinking: Who stood by and let this harassment and abuse go on, unchecked?
Olympic doctor Larry Nassar victimized young athletes for years; school officials, coaches and parents (allegedly?) turned a blind eye. In 1994, 27-year old R&B prince R. Kelly, who’s faced many allegations and charges of sexual misconduct, married a then-15-year-old Aaliyah with the help of a phony birth certificate that said she was 18. According to a December 2017 Daily Beast article, this barely scratches the surface of R. Kelly’s alleged litany of sexual misconduct and that of numerous others in the music industry, but such behavior appears to be widely accepted. What about actor and comedian Bill Cosby and well-known director Harvey Weinstein? They have now been exposed for their assaults against women, many of which were simply looking for an opportunity in movies and television.
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So, it seems many people did stand by, despite knowing what was happening. In an April 2018 interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, 31-year-old British actor Kit Harington (of HBO’s Game of Thrones) said sexual assault in show business is a widespread, open secret. He specified actor Kevin Spacey, who has faced multiple allegations of sexual misconduct toward younger male actors over his long career: “Kevin Spacey was the head of the Old Vic [an iconic and prestigious theater in London] for many years – we're discovering the allegations made against him. Within British theatre, there's been a problem for many years. This is something that has been going on forever, and not just in the States.”
In response to revelations about Spacey’s behavior, the Old Vic opened a line of communication for anyone who had complaints they felt they’d been unable to raise in earlier years. Artistic Director for London’s Royal Court Theatre, Victoria Featherstone, told the BBC: "We have a culture across society which has accepted this ... it's deep in our DNA to accept these behaviors. And it's only now that we're finding the vocabularies and the confidence and the means to have these conversations."
In fall 2017, a former production assistant for “House of Cards,” the Netflix hit in which Spacey was the lead, told CNN that five years earlier, he’d reported to a supervisor on the set that Spacey was sexually harassing him. Per the alleged victim, the supervisor’s solution was to simply not permit him to be alone with Spacey. The harassment stopped for a while—until Spacey actually assaulted him. Per the CNN article, the production assistant wasn’t the only one with complaints about Spacey’s behavior.
The Spacey allegations have deeper roots than the Old Vic or “House of Cards”.
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In October 2017, actor Anthony Rapp spoke up about a 1986 incident in which Spacey tried to sexually assault him at a party where Rapp, then 14, was the only child actor present. However, this wasn’t the first time Rapp spoke up about Spacey; a lawyer once told him a case against Spacey wasn’t worth pursuing; he confided in multiple friends; and, when he told the Advocate about the incident in 2001, the publication redacted Spacey’s name. By 2001, Spacey was an Oscar-winning, critically acclaimed actor—accolades that only increased in the years to come.
Spacey’s critical success seems to have been more important to producers and directors than the allegations and rumors that have long swirled around him. On the set of “House of Cards”, the crew was aware of and reported his behavior. Unfortunately, the bystanders chose to tolerate Spacey’s harassment—and even assault—of their coworkers rather than take action. This begs the question, if the crew and its supervisors had taken the issue to upper management, would their complaints have fallen on deaf ears?
If the secret of sexual misconduct in industries like show business isn’t such a secret after all, and if people are now opening up about it more, then what should bystanders (both men and women) do about it? Admitting there’s a problem isn’t enough; men and women cannot simply stand by while their colleagues and peers are harassed and assaulted. Men, particularly, can be a powerful force in the fight against sexual harassment and misconduct and should not be idle bystanders. If, as a bystander, you witness bad behavior—physical, verbal, or emotional—toward a woman or a man, it’s critical that you say something immediately. Men are more likely to listen to other men. If you are a male bystander, let the other guys know their behavior is inappropriate and disrespectful and is likely violating company policy; if your company has ill-defined or no rules about workplace conduct, let the guys know they’re probably violating laws that govern workplaces. Women can do the same. Using humor is helpful in these scenarios and is more likely to highlight the intended communication—as long as the offenders don’t come away thinking it was all a big joke. It’s crucial to communicate that although you might be using humor to diffuse and address the situation, it’s actually a serious matter. If the abuser is in a larger group and you don’t want to “call him out” in public, try to remove the victim from the situation by pulling the victim from the group to discuss an issue or to show the victim something, and discuss the inappropriate behavior with the violator privately (especially if you are a peer or a subordinate). However, if you are a superior or a peer, we believe “calling him out” in front of the group will have more of an impact and will send your intended message not only to the offender, but also to the group. Be bold!
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In any case, let the victim know she or he is not alone. Whether the victim decides to formally complain or not, tell her or him that you will be an ally—that may simply entail supporting the victim if she or he files a complaint, or may involve you talking to the offender(s) again or to his/their boss. If the offender(s) continues the misbehavior, encourage the victim to go to human resources and offer to accompany her or him. Follow the victim’s lead on what she or he wants done.
If you are a male, have open dialogues regularly with women so you can get guidance on how to help. Ask your female colleagues if they’re currently experiencing sexual harassment or misconduct in the office. Find out if they believe the sexual harassment training offered at work is thorough and enforced. Extend this conversation to other colleagues, your friends, and your family members so you can find out about their experiences and achieve an even more thorough understanding of what you can do to help fight sexual misconduct.
As Harington told the Sydney Morning Herald, “the doors have been blown open” on the issue of sexual harassment and misconduct. The #MeToo movement has encouraged women to come forward and go public about their experiences.
Fall on the right side of history: don’t be an idle bystander. Say something and do something, whether man or woman. Time’s Up!