Perhaps one of the most poignant stories in the recent and ongoing revelations about pervasive sexual harassment in the entertainment industry is that of Natalie Portman. Speaking at the Vulture Festival, Portman talked about how during the initial phase of the many accusations against high powered men in TV and movies, she initially thought she “didn’t have a story”; she had never been sexually assaulted.
Upon reflection, however, she found that she could remember dealing with harassment or discrimination on virtually every project in her career. “I went from thinking I don’t have a story to thinking, Oh wait, I have 100 stories,” Portman said.
This experience was not exclusive to the Academy Award winning actress. During the initial blitz of #metoo on social media, many women initially commented that they did not have a story of harassment to share, but then would come back an hour or a day later with something they’d finally acknowledged was off.
Harvey Weinstein was the first (recent) high profile Hollywood player to be accused of sexual assault, but the stories have not ended with him. Kevin Spacey, Ben Affleck, and Mark Halperin are just three of the men now facing allegations of sexual harassment or assault. Many of the men have multiple accusers. It is generally agreed that more women are assaulted or harassed than ever come forward or bring charges against their assailants, so it is safe to assume that there are many more people who have been harmed by these people than the ones who are making the news.
So what can women do?
Unfortunately, the answer is often not much, not directly. Sexual assault and sexual harassment are generally perpetrated in situations where there is a power discrepancy. Hollywood actresses, for example, are part of a culture where they are told they have a limited shelf life, that they’ll only have careers as long as they’re young and thin and pretty, and that there are a dozen more girls just like them happy to fill these roles. The men who abuse them are powerful in the industry and have the ability to get them seriously ahead in their careers, or ruin them for good.
In many of the complaints against these men, women have tried to take care of things properly. They have reported events, tried to make changes, and have been ignored, shamed, or fired on their own. While HR laws should prevent firing in retaliation, unfortunately the reality is that it’s very difficult to prove that retaliatory firing occurred.
So what can be done to support the women and men coming forward stating that they have been assaulted and abused?
The first way to help is to believe them, especially if their stories are published in major periodicals and journals. As a recent story from The Washington Post illustrates, well known papers put a great deal of effort into checking their sources and making sure that the stories they share can be corroborated. In cases of assault, that can of course be difficult, but the idea that every story against an accuser is published is just false.
Beyond that, statistics indicate that less than 10% of all rape claims are false, and numbers may be as low as 2%. Given the way victims are treated in the media, there is no social cache or benefit to claiming that one was raped when they were not. Accused rapists are rarely convicted, and if they are, they tend to serve minimal sentences.
The next important step falls primarily on men. Quentin Tarantino has become an example writ large to men who “know enough to do more than they do” (to paraphrase). While women are rarely believed and have little institutional power to create change, men have the ability to speak out against other men, even the more powerful men in their industry. Kevin Smith, for example, has stated that all of his residual income from movies that were made with Weinstein will be donated to charities that support the work of women filmmakers. These are the sorts of gestures that can at least begin to make a difference.
It is important to note also that while Weinstein has kicked off something of a critical mass of accusations, the discussion of abuse in Hollywood is nothing new. Roman Polanski and Woody Allen are just two famous film makers who have had abuse charges levied against them. They continue to make movies while the lives of women they have touched are forever altered.
If rape culture and the ongoing harassment of women is to change, the work of it can’t be left only to women.