Workplace Sexual Assault Doesn’t Begin and End with Weinstein

‘This man is at the top of a very particular iceberg… He’s a predator… This has been part of our world, women’s world, since time immemorial so what we need to start talking about is the crisis in masculinity, the crisis of extreme masculinity which is this sort of behaviour, the fact that it is not only okay but it also is represented by the most powerful man in the world at the moment.’
Emma Thompson, BBC Newsnight on 12 October 2017

As new disclosures of sexual assault in the film industry are coming out nearly every day lately, a well-needed spotlight is being put on the issue of sexual assault and harassment in the workplace. A year ago, then US presidential candidate Donald Trump was bragging about being allowed to ‘do anything’ to women thanks to his fame and power. Nevertheless, he went on to become the 45th President of the United States, and is currently ‘the most powerful man in the world’. What should have been a wake up call for human decency everywhere turned into bitter disappointment for survivors, activists and supporters of equality everywhere.

Here we are with yet another high profile powerful individual being publicly accused of assaulting women over the years. Additionally, while we may read that it ‘comes as a shock’ to Hollywood, Weinstein’s behaviour has been an inside joke for years.

What’s heartbreaking is that this kind of behaviour is not just found in the movie industry but, is in fact, rampant across the vast majority of professional sectors. Remember for instance the removal of Uber CEO last winter.

So, what does sexual assault in the workplace look like and what can we do about it?

Why survivors often don’t speak out

The way we treat survivors is highly problematic. Take a look on Twitter and you’ll find users asking: why did no one speak out until now?

Hollywood is a highly competitive industry. Weinstein was extremely powerful and successful within the industry — a man who could make or break your career. For the women involved, speaking out publicly against him meant permanent damage or an end to their career. Those who did were dismissed, ignored, or silenced.

What does this mean in real life, in a standard job, far from Hollywood?

I had a conversation with a senior colleague in a previous role about how to put into practice what I’d learned at a training with Rape Crisis UK, regarding how to listen to survivors and support them. He pointed out that we could put posters up encouraging people to disclose to HR of any misconduct, assuming it was the solution to the low reporting rate of sexual violence (An Overview of Sexual Offending in England & Wales, a statistics bulletin from the Ministry of Justice, Home Office & the Office for National Statistics from 2013 estimates that only 15% of women who experienced sexual violence choose to report to the police). While full of good intention, it showed a clear misunderstanding of the complexities of the issue. There are many reasons why survivors choose to disclose abuse or not. It is our duty to respect that choice and support them no matter what. Disclosing the violence might make them relive the trauma, they might be worried it might backfire and damage their career (which in the case of Weinstein’s victims, did happen), and particularly in a field that is niche or competitive.

We need to be better educated on sexual violence. We need to understand that it is the choice of the survivor to come forward or not, and we are not to judge. While disclosure might, in the long term, prevent other people from being assaulted, it is hugely important to respect each survivor’s decision. Showing that respect to survivors has a long-term benefit as it validates their experience and gives them back some of the control that was taken away from them. It also helps to encourage other survivors that are yet to come forward, by demonstrating that survivors will be supported. However, Shaming those who did not disclose their assault reinforces victimisation and blame.

Poor bloke, his career is ruined. She was probably lying anyway.

The overwhelming narrative when it comes to sexual assault is ‘don’t get raped’. We blame survivors for their ordeal and forget the real perpetrator. We need to change this narrative to simply ‘don’t rape’.

Among the harmful narratives, three always come to my mind.

  • ‘Poor guy, it was just that one-time and it’s ruined his life’. Be it a promising new swimming talent (TW) or a well-established Hollywood producer, there are always voices feeling sorry for the perpetrator. The support for the survivor is rarely as loud.
  • ‘[laughs] he’s an old bachelor, get over it’. I experienced this one a couple of time in a previous job, during post-work drinks. An older male colleague behaves inappropriately (think unwanted hand on the thigh or on the backside) and you disclose it to another colleague. The answer is laughter, a dismissive ‘he’s an old bachelor’ or ‘well he’s like that after a few pints’. The attitude tends to be either ‘well that’s what men are like’, ‘boys will be boys’ or ‘we can’t do anything about it, get over it’. It makes you feel like we have not evolved from the days of Mad Men, that your voice is unimportant, that your safety and wellbeing, as a human and an employee, is not worth much.
  • ‘But she might be lying, he’s innocent until proven guilty’. While everyone is entitled to a fair trial, the rate of false reporting is way lower than what people believe. A study from the Crown Prosecution Service (2013) into false allegations of rape and domestic violence over a 17-months period in 2011–2012 found 5,651 prosecutions for rape but only 35 for making false allegations of rape, which is less than 1% (full report here). However those few cases of false reporting are over mediatised, giving the impression that it is a much more common issue. It is used as an excuse, consciously or unconsciously, to NOT trust survivors. Being aware of that bias means people are less likely to disclose abuse.

It is important to note that a misunderstanding of how survivors react to assault contributes to the horrifying belief that there is such a thing as a ‘legitimate rape’ (a term used by US Representative Todd Adkin in this 2012 statement. Trigger warning, the article linked talks in detail about rape and might provoke a loss of faith in humanity and mild to severe reflux). Survivors have various responses during assault, which means that no two testimonies will sound the same: Fight, Flight and Freeze are the most commonly known but we should also keep in mind Friend and Flop. Just because a testimony does not sound like the way you imagine an assault to pan out, does not mean it is not real.

And YES we should focus on prevention, but not the way we currently do it. We should switch our narrative from ‘don’t get assaulted’ to ‘don’t assault’. That type of prevention can take many forms and we can all contribute to it:

  • We can challenge negative gender stereotypes. Survivors can be of any gender and so can the people who assault them. The way one dresses or behaves does not establish consent. Flirting does not establish consent. Kissing doesn’t mean they’ve consented to sex. If someone consents to sex once, it doesn’t mean they’ve consented to sex again. Being in a relationship does not mean consent. Not saying yes does not secretly mean ‘yes’. It is the responsibility of the seeker of consent to seek and continually receive enthusiastic consent. Just because someone didn’t say no, doesn’t mean they’ve consented.
  • We can challenge sexual violence myths and victim-blaming attitude, for instance by not accepting the mainstream narrative that when nude photos are leaked then that person ‘should not have been sending those photos in the first place’. It means rejecting the idea that a perpetrator is a stranger in a back alley, a shady man who ‘looks like a rapist’. Perpetrators can be of any gender, age, social background, ethnicity. And so are survivors.
  • Challenge abusive behaviours
  • Give a clear message on what is an acceptable behaviour and what is not.
  • Many more …

How to respond to disclosure

What can we, as bystanders, friends, co-workers and allies, do when someone discloses sexual abuse to us, be it in the workplace or outside?

While there is no perfect response to disclosure, there are a few good practices we should try to follow:

  • We should validate their disclosure, be respectful and honest, and above all, believe them.
  • We should be non-judgemental and provide a safe space to talk.
  • We should recognise that they survived through a great ordeal, and highlight their strengths.
  • Sexual violence takes power away from the survivor. As a listener, we should give them the power to be in control, to make their own decision.
  • We should acknowledge that they know what is best for them in their situation and support them in their mechanism of choice. We should NOT direct their decision-making.
  • We should make sure they are safe (and healthy) and establish what they need from you. If they want we should help them find specialist services or medical support.
  • We should never, EVER, frame our questions with a ‘why?’. ‘Why’ questions sound like a reproach.

Above all, we should learn to listen and trust. This is the only way to encourage survivors to come forward and for perpetrators to be stopped. Just like the incredible survivors of Weinstein’s abusive ways are today, being role models for survivors everywhere. We too must play a role by supporting these survivors in doing so.