Moment that mattered: Allegations about Harvey Weinstein are published
When the allegations about Harvey Weinstein’s sexual aggression were published in the New York Times I wasn’t surprised. I first heard rumours about his behaviour with women 20 years ago as a newly graduated actor in London.
Back then I had no experience of coercion myself, but sadly that didn’t last. I’ve had two long-running experiences with sexual harassment by two different men in the film and TV industry in the UK, one early on in my career, one just a few years ago. When I started to experience the second bout of harassment my agency, Curtis Brown, was amazing and said it would back me in whatever I decided to do, but we both understood that coming forward could have implications for my career.
I called my union, Equity, and told them that I had proof of sexual harassment in the form of text messages and asked what they could do. The woman I spoke to was sympathetic but said that there wasn’t an official dedicated to dealing with sexual harassment in the union: it wasn’t a high priority because so few actors were reporting it. I was devastated. A couple of years later I was sitting in a casting suite in west London chatting to a woman before we went in for an audition. She told me she was just returning to acting after a few years she’d taken off because of an experience she’d had with a man in the industry. I realised it was one of the men who had harassed me. I looked at her and said his name: it was him. We both sat in shock.
Sexual harassment is widespread across the entertainment industry. But it has nothing to do with sex – it’s all about power and control.
Actors at every level can be affected, but for ones further down the food chain like me, other factors increase our vulnerability. At any one time only a tiny percentage of actors are in work and, according to 2014 figures from the Casting Call Pro website, more than 75 per cent earn less than £5,000 a year from acting. Added to that we have such short-term contracts – it can be two days here or a week there. So we are constantly auditioning, constantly trying to please people in a position of power over us.
“Above all coercive control makes you doubt yourself. You question everything”
Whether it’s happening in acting, aid agencies, sport or any other field, the culture of harassment is the same. It comes down to how much you need what the perpetrator controls. For an actor that’s not something life-threatening like food or shelter: instead they exploit your need to follow your passions and justify your years of sacrifice and investment. Acting is all I’ve ever wanted to do and I intend to do it for as long as I am physically able. To me it is a compulsion rather than a choice – but to be driven like that leaves you exposed.
Once a month I work for Aurora New Dawn, a charity which gives support and advocacy to survivors of domestic abuse, sexual violence and stalking. There’s a good analogy they use at the charity to talk about how coercion works. They ask you to imagine that you go out on a first date and the man or woman says to you ‘In a year from now I’m going to lock you in the house, deny you your money, steal your mobile phone and slap you in the face’. You wouldn’t stay – but when it’s a drip feed of coercion that slowly eats away at your self-esteem, by the time you become aware you are too embroiled to easily extricate yourself.
I think that’s how sexual harassment at work is enabled. If a powerful person was abusive on day one they probably wouldn’t get away with it. Perpetrators thrive on stealth, secrecy and confusion. They’ll tell you that you’re not attractive enough one moment and too attractive the next and that they can’t concentrate. Or that if only you would give them what they want, they could work better and so could everyone around them. They might withhold something to punish you. They’ll use every trick in the book, it’s continuous and it wears you down.
Above all coercive control makes you doubt your perception of yourself. You question everything, including your belief in justice. You ask yourself – is it just me he’s doing this to? If I’d worn something different or not turned up at this event, would I be okay now? It is a mixture of distress, guilt and isolation as well as worrying about what the perpetrator will do next. It is unsurprising that it also has an impact on your intimate relationships.
I have to stress that I love my job. I’ve had the privilege to collaborate with so many talented and respectful men and women, the likes of Steven Wright and Tom Hardy on Locke and John Nettles on Midsomer Murders, to name but a few. The wonderful experiences far outweigh the negative.
And there are signs of change. A couple of months after the Weinstein revelations broke, Equity sent an email to members saying it was keen to know how to move forward and asking for any experiences or any feedback about what we needed from our union. I had a frank conversation with them about what had happened since the Weinstein revelations and the #Metoo and #Timesup movements started. Through Aurora, I have been trained to deal with disclosures of sexual assault and coercive control and we talked about similar training for Equity’s representatives in techniques for building trust and avoiding blaming victims for staying silent.
I am really encouraged to see Equity vice president Maureen Beattie’s recent comments around the issue. The way she wants to tackle this head on is so inspiring. It’s not enough for industry bodies to commit to tackling harassment – they need their representatives to know how to deal with survivors and I believe she is committed to doing that.
Equity is fully aware of both my cases and have asked whether I’d like to do something about them. At the moment the thought of everything that this would entail is a lot to take on and I am choosing instead to focus on forging ahead with the job I love and ploughing myself into lots of exciting projects, but I want Equity to keep my accounts on record for anyone who may come forward with the same names. If they do I am happy to lend my voice to their fight.
I have just had my mum’s Scottish clan motto ‘Luceo non uro’ tattooed on my ribs. It means ‘I shine not burn’. It reminds me that I, like so many other victims of harassment, will not be beaten.
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