How Prevalent is Sexual Harassment in Hollywood?

Reader Jess wrote in response to this blog post on sexual harassment:

Obviously each department is its own animal, but having worked the majority of my life on skeleton crew indies (with the exception of one major TV show when I was in school) I’m worried that getting any deeper into things is going to expose me to shit like this.

I’ve lived in Portland most of my life, and have a pretty good idea which set this was on—but I’m still unsettled by the fact that someone can get iced out of the business for bringing up real safety concerns.

As a woman, who prefers to stay relatively low on the food chain for personal reasons, is this behavior something to expect should I start working on more established projects? If so, what are some tips for handling it in a way that’s professional, but doesn’t give anyone the idea that their shit is tolerable? (Whether you yourself have experienced it, or seen your colleagues experience it.)

Ugh, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I really hate the fact that I still have to write about this in $current_year. I thought we solved the problem with this old blog post.1

The sad truth is, sexual harassment is going to happen. Part of the problem is that humans are assholes, and humans are sexual beings, so some humans are going to be assholes about sex. It will never completely go away, even though we’ve made progress over the decades.

We’re special

Hollywood has an extra problem, because we think we’re somehow unique, and different from any other workplace. Some of you are too young to remember, but about ten years ago, a writers assistant on Friends sued the producers for sexual harassment. The judge threw the case out, because “vulgar and coarse comments by the show’s writers reflected the ‘creative workplace’ for a comedy with sexual themes.”

I wasn’t there, so I don’t know what happened. Discussing sex in the writers room of a show about the sexual activity of six friends may be okay, but something like this isn’t–

A distressing number of people I work with don’t seem to know the difference. But that Friends case gets brought up an awful lot.

What to do?

I talked to a number of friends about these sorts of situations, and we came up with a little checklist of things to do, if you find yourself on the receiving end of some unwanted attention.

1. Talk to the person (if you feel comfortable).

As I said, some people behave on set in ways they never would at a corporate office (or even shipyard). It’s possible they may not even realize they’re making you uncomfortable.

I had a boss a couple years ago who was a touchy-feely kind of person. When she talked to the PAs, she’d often come up behind us and rub our shoulders. A pat on the butt was not uncommon. Not, like, a grope, but more like we were on a baseball team.

Baseball butt slap gif
Exactly like this.

Still, I’m not comfortable with that kind of touching. I have a personal bubble that only a few select people get to enter.2 One day, the boss came into the kitchen, where I was cleaning up the crafty area, and slapped my butt. “How ya doin’, TAPA?”

Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. I said, “I’m okay, but it really makes me uncomfortable when you touch me like that.”

She froze in her tracks, her eyes going wide. I’m sure visions of lawsuits danced in her head. “I am so sorry. I didn’t know I was making you uncomfortable.”

“That’s okay. I know you didn’t know.” And that was it. It was never mentioned again. This is pretty much the best case scenario, since I had a good relationship with my boss and she respected me. But if that’s not what you’re dealing with…

2. Keep a record.

Keep a list of dates, what was said or done, who was around. If you end up having to file some kind of report, this is information you’ll need. Yes, others might not corroborate your story, but at least you have an honest timeline of what happened.

3. Tell others.

This isn’t a very PC thing to say, but find some other women on set to talk to. If a dude is harassing you, he’s probably harassing others. But if nobody talks about, he’ll keep doing it. There’s safety in numbers, and, to be perfectly honest, a woman is more likely to understand how you feel than a man.3

And, again, you may be in a misunderstanding-type situation. It’s totally possible the guy is oblivious to the way he makes you feel. And one of the others might have a better relationship that she can go back to step one.

On the other end of the spectrum, it’s good to have witnesses, and if you bring it up to others, it’s more likely they’ll notice a pattern of behavior. Which brings us to step four…

4. Report him.

Tell your supervisor. If your supervisor is smart, they’ll know that sexual harassment is a liability not just for the production or company, but for them, if they don’t take steps to curb inappropriate behavior. It’s also a good idea to talk to an AD, the UPM, or, on a smaller show, a producer. They’re trained to deal with situations like this.

If you are on a big show, the studios and the unions (if you’re in one)  have systems in place to anonymously report workplace harassment. Of course, even if they try to keep your name out of it, it won’t be long before the person figures out who filed a report. If studio HR came to my old boss and said, “Did you slap someone’s ass in the kitchen?”, she’d know I was the one who called them.

But ultimately, they are a whole department that is set up to protect you. They will usually believe the person reporting it first. They will also keep tabs on how this might effect you during the process, and will do their best to make sure that you are not further harassed, threatened, or mistreated because you reported the situation. Again, the studio knows they’re liable for any retaliation against you for reporting harassment.

5. Brace yourself.

All of that being said, nobody likes a squeaky wheel. A coordinator might think twice in the future about hiring a PA who upsets the status quo.

Plus, succeeding in this business depends on making and keeping friends. If the sexual harassment comes from a department head, the crew might back the person who hires them a lot, no matter what kind of asshole they are. People might not be willing to come to your aid if you make an accusation.

Unfortunately, there isn’t really a surefire way to protect yourself from jobs drying up, but that does not mean that you should have to needlessly deal with harassment in the work place.

6. Help others.

The only way this behavior will eventually disappear is if no one accepts it.

Once, on a day I happened to be wearing a notably low-cut tank top,4 a grip up in the green beds took a picture of my cleavage. He didn’t even have the courtesy to call “flashing!”5 I yelled up at him that he was an asshole, but there wasn’t much I could do about it from where I was standing.

There was, however, another grip up there who saw the whole thing. He sort of chuckled at the other dude, in a “Oh shit, you got busted” kind of way. But in no way did he discourage the guy from perving on the young PA who was too hot to wear a turtleneck that day.

Don’t be like that first grip, obviously, but don’t be like that second one, either. If you see inappropriate behavior directed at someone else, speak up. The only way we’ll put a stop to this is by helping each other.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)

  1. I know some people can’t take a joke when a serious topic is being discussed, so let me be clear– I’m kidding. I know I did not solve the problem of sexual harassment in one blog post. It’ll take at least two more.
  2. My dog, my significant other, …and that’s the end of that list.
  3. Again, I know this is super sexist to say, and there are certainly exceptions to this rule, but now isn’t really the time to start looking for them.
  4. It was hot, okay?
  5. Which, honestly, would’ve been a clever pun.
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3 Responses

  1. Reading this post made me feel both angry and justified.

    Angry, because it makes me so sad that there is a world (which I chose to dive into head first) where sexual harassment issues aren’t always pursued with the right amount of justice for the victim.

    But satisfied, because I legitimately thought that I was insane for reporting a string sexual harassments that spanned over three months. But now reading this, I can say to myself “Wow. Okay, im not alone. ”

    My story happened as I PA’d at a singing competition show on the Universal lot over the course of three seasons. I had a male coworker asking innapropriate questions (to which I dodged around rather than condemn him at the start), him pulling me into a quick change cubicle in the soundstage and told me he “needed to touch my skin”, and him leering at me from places around the sound stage when our shifts were the same. When I finally brought it to my production coordinator (who I didn’t know was this guys good friend), he took it seriously. We were deposed. We both had to come in to our PO, make separate written statements, testify separately to a couple HR reps.

    I thought, yay! It’s over! Finally I don’t have to carry this burden!

    I was never shifted again on that show. All my hours, disappeared. I was also un-shifted from two other shows my production coordinator had me staffed on.

    Over 2-3 emails back and forth with my PC, he said that he just has a lot of PA’s to choose from and he wouldn’t always have work for me.

    That could be true. It probably was true. But out of the handful of lazy PA’s who rarely were given shifts, I suddenly found myself a part of.

    I don’t speak for all production coordinators (I’ve met some of the most incredible people working theses shows) but some PC’s don’t like a PA who brings problems. They want easy PA’s.

    My best advice that I can give after my circumstance played out for a year and a half, is that if you’re in a job that is putting you in danger (be it physical, emotional, spiritual, etc), just get out. There ARE work families that are amazing! And once you find them, you will look back on the crappy job that compromised your standards and say, wow I can’t believe I almost stayed at that job.

  2. Oh, I have some things to say.

    Reading the linked post – almost the exact same things happened to me as happened to the author of that blog post, start to finish. I could have written practically the same article. Same department too. It’s been awhile but these things stick with you. It’s goddamn traumatizing.

    To reader Jess, this is what I suggest after learning lessons the hard way over 15+ years in male-dominated set and crew environments. You have to handle it with the person (or people) directly, and if it can’t get solved one-one-one then it likely won’t get solved at all. Call them out on it – you can start nicely, but if they don’t get the message the first time, they are not going to listen. Your only choices then are to fight dirty or quit. If you fight dirty then strike hard and fast and be slick as oil, because those in authority will do everything they can to discredit you if things turn ugly, and they will turn anything you do back on you 100 times over.

    The minute you make a complaint up the food chain about anything regarding sexual misconduct, an unimaginable world of hell will rain down on you – and believe me, you will find yourself out of a job one way or another. You can do everything by the book and be completely in the right, and it won’t matter. There will be a total character assassination launched against you. Any little mistake will be blown up combined with outright lies about you too. Of course there are rare times when this is not the case but those are the exceptions that prove the rule.

    This is not just about dealing with some annoying comments. The underlying threat of rape and assault in these types of workplaces is real, very very real. I am not trying to be fear-mongering, simply realistic. As a woman you need to know exactly what you are dealing with. Just read the article. You think that boss wouldn’t have raped that lady in his truck if he had half a chance? I read it and knew exactly what that was all about, and guys like that are a dime a dozen in this field.

    Spend even a few hours on a crew like this and you know lots of conversation consists of overt sexism and violence towards women (and LGBT, non-whites, etc) which passes as “just joking.” If you are raped, attacked, or otherwise assaulted the overwhelming likelihood is that the company will care more about their reputation than your well-being. Oh and in the article, the guys saying “this job will kill you?” That is a veiled threat. Somebody will drop a piece of equipment on you rather than deal with you. It is dangerous as hell to be a woman in an all-male field, especially one involving industrial work and heavy equipment. They will chalk it up to an accident and move on with production. I have gone through this for a long time and I’ve seen too much.

    Oh, and that stupid Friends case. I have seen that used as an excuse for so much horrible bullshit. It is totally possible to do a raunchy project with respect and thoughtfulness for all involved. Keep the sex talk related to the material, have fun within certain parameters but don’t let things get too far off-topic or objectify any of the participants. Who has time for that anyway? It’s just work, if you are that starved for sexy interactions you need to examine your personal life.

    1. I worked in a writers’ room where the showrunner regularly followed up off-topic sexual discussions (including about actors on the show) or sexual gestures with an immediate comment of, “Friends ruling! It’s covered. You can’t sue.”

      Saying that is basically conceding that what you just said would be sexual harassment, reported to HR, and could get you fired at any other job. They’re just saying “but the courts said thst doesn’t apply to our jobs!”

      That ruling was one of the most harmful things that’s happened to assistants in Hollywood. This show I was working on was a drama, by the way, not a raunchy comedy at all. Yet the showrunner knew he was safe to harass his employees… and you know what? He’s right. That’s the sick thing.

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