Op-Ed: What about the sexual harassment stories we’re not hearing?
With each new allegation that yet another powerful man harassed or abused his colleagues, I find myself thinking about the women we’re not hearing from. I don’t mean the third or eighth or 20th actress who declines — for whatever reason — to add her voice to the chorus against a predatory producer or creepy comedian. I mean women who aren’t household names, who don’t write articles for a living, who have never appeared in front of a TV camera.
Whether a sexual harassment allegation makes headlines and gets results isn’t just determined by the power of the man accused. It’s determined by the power of the women doing the accusing.
For the record:
10:10 a.m. Nov. 14, 2017A previous version of this story referred to Melissa Silverstein’s advocacy group as Women in Hollywood. It is Women and Hollywood.
The women who’ve spoken out against Roy Moore, the Alabama Republican who’s a candidate for the U.S. Senate, are just ordinary people. But for the most part, we’re hearing from women who were harassed in the early stages of their careers and who have come forward after amassing some degree of professional clout.
By and large, the women who have told their stories to national newspapers are financially and professionally secure. They are not paid to clean houses and burp babies. They do not make their living stitching jeans or answering customer complaints. They do not work for tips. Is there a Louis C.K. in the fast-food world? I’m sure there is. But he hasn’t inspired investigative reports or rallies in the streets.
It’s wrong to frame sexual harassment as endemic to certain industries, rather than as a problem that affects all working women.
In advance of a Take Back the Workplace march in downtown L.A. last weekend, Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, a group of 700,000 women farmworkers, published a letter to women and men in Hollywood who have come forward to name their assaulters. “We believe and stand with you,” the members wrote.
Their statement was remarkable because they expressed solidarity that many in Hollywood have yet to extend to them. And yet members of the working-class are, after all, far more vulnerable than celebrities.
Agricultural and domestic workers fall outside the bounds of U.S. labor law. Eighty percent of restaurant workers report harassment by their co-workers, and 78% from customers. Culturally, we expect employees who work for tips to put up with abuse. We’re not hearing their stories because we seem to believe, on some level, that harassment comes with the territory.
A report last year by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that, across industries, when someone is harassed at work, the most common responses were to avoid the harasser, deny or downplay the situation, or attempt to ignore the behavior. The least common response was to file a formal complaint.
“Much of the training done over the last 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool — it’s been too focused on simply avoiding legal liability,” the report stated.
In Hollywood, executives are beginning to recognize the inadequacy of existing laws and training protocols, and the reckoning has begun. Men are seeing financial consequences for their behavior. Entertainment-industry newsletter the Ankler reported last week that a group of big-name women in Hollywood, including Oprah Winfrey, Shonda Rhimes and Reese Witherspoon, are brainstorming a collective response to the epidemic of harassment.
“There is a real desire to not let this moment pass,” Melissa Silverstein, founder of the advocacy group Women and Hollywood, told the New York Times last week.
But this moment is in fact passing most women by. I don’t mean to blame reformers focused on entertainment and media: It’s difficult to change the culture of your workplace, let alone a completely different industry. Still, it’s wrong to frame sexual harassment as endemic to certain industries, rather than as a problem that affects all working women.
Some in Hollywood are sensitive to that fact. In a Facebook post detailing her experiences with harassment, actor Ellen Page acknowledged: “I have the privilege of having a platform that enables me to write this and have it published, while the most marginalized do not have access to such resources. The reality is, women of color, trans and queer and indigenous women have been leading this fight for decades (forever actually).”
Every personal story from a powerful woman should come with a similar acknowledgment. Even better, women in media and entertainment could issue a collective statement declaring that they stand in solidarity with farmworkers, restaurant servers, domestic workers and everyone in every industry whose story hasn’t made headlines. They could champion policies that protect workers’ rights and support efforts to unionize service industries.
Who is able to come forward about harassment — and who is called to account for perpetrating it — has everything to do with power. It’s dangerously likely that we’ll look back five or 10 years from now and realize it was mostly white, wealthy, powerful women who benefited from the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein allegations. We could remember this moment as a “Hollywood scandal.” Or we could work to ensure this moment means so much more.
Ann Friedman is a contributing writer to Opinion. She lives in Los Angeles.
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