Environments that encourage harassment - and how to change them

To the Teacher:

The  news about Harvey Weinstein, a powerful Hollywood film producer who has been accused of harassing and assaulting women over many years, raises important issues for young people to consider.
 
Be aware that this subject may bring up strong emotions, especially for students who have personal experience with harassment or abuse. The activity below does not directly elicit students’ own experiences with abuse; it focuses on the Weinstein case and the wider issues it raises. Nevertheless, consider whether this subject is one your students are prepared to discuss. If you are concerned that sensitive issues may come up in discussion, you might ask a counselor or social worker to be present.  Please also read these guidelines for teaching about controversial or upsetting issues.
 
In this activity, students consider, together and in small groups, what kind of environment allows sexual harassment and abuse to persist -  and what we can do to challenge such an environment.

 


 

A Backgrounder for the Teacher
 

It was an open secret in Hollywood.  The rumors of film producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct had been doing the rounds for decades.  He was said to prey on young women—actresses and models wanting to get into the industry and assistants working at the Miramax and Weinstein companies.  He allegedly lured them into a hotel room or other private space, then appear naked or in a bathrobe, cajoling them into giving him a massage or trying to force himself on them in other ways. 
 
According to reports, many people knew about Weinstein’s behavior, but the producer was too powerful to be outed.  For years, it seemed he was invincible.  But all that changed on October 5, 2017, when  the New York Times finally broke the story.  Journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey published an article titled Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades.  Five days later, Ronan Farrow followed with a well-researched article in the New Yorker, in which “multiple women share[d] harrowing accounts of sexual assault and harassment by the film executive.”  It quickly became of the biggest scandals in Hollywood history. More than 30 women have come forward with charges of sexual harassment against Weinstein.
 
Sixteen former and current executives and assistants at Weinstein’s companies told Farrow that they witnessed or had knowledge of unwanted sexual advances and touching at events associated with Weinstein’s films and in the workplace. All sixteen said that the behavior was widely known within both Miramax and the Weinstein Company.  According to Farrow, Weinstein got away with his behavior for so long because he had a web of enablers around him.  They helped him lure young women into what Farrow called “professional meetings that were little more than thin pretexts for sexual advances.”  They paid off these same women and intimidated them into silence.  In this way they insulated Weinstein from the repercussions of his behavior.
 
According to the reports, people had kept silent about Weinstein’s behavior for years because they were afraid of retaliation. Weinstein was powerful enough to ruin your Hollywood career, make you an outcast in the business.  When Hollywood insiders talked with reporters about what they knew, they made sure to keep his name out of it.  In an article in Variety in 2015, Actress Ashley Judd famously talked about a studio mogul sexually harassing her in the late 1990s.  She now says that this was Weinstein, but back then, she was a afraid to mention him by name.
 
Once the reports about Weinstein’s abuse were made public, a number of men in the entertainment industry came forward to say that they had long known about the producer’s behavior, but had failed to speak out against it.  Some expressed regret  for this failure to stand up against sexual harassment and abuse.
 
But behind the scenes, women had tried to warn other women about Weinstein in what are known as whisper networks. “We have to do that.” Emily Best, a film producer, explained.  “The law doesn’t protect us.  The culture doesn’t protect us. So we have to protect ourselves.”  These unofficial information networks have always existed, used by women to warn other women of men like Weinstein, who abuse their power to prey on young women.
 
On a couple of occasions, the whispers and rumors about Harvey Weinstein made their way beyond Hollywood. In 2013 comedian Seth MacFarlane, when revealing the Best Supporting Actress nominations for an Oscar, quipped “Congratulations, you five ladies no longer have to pretend to be attracted to Harvey Weinstein.”  In 2012, the show 30 Rock, also contained references to Weinstein’s predatory behavior.  The character of Jenna claims she “turned down intercourse with Harvey Weinstein on no less than three occasions."  In an episode later that season, Jenna shares "Look, I get it. I know how former lovers can have a hold of you long after they're gone. In some ways, I'm still pinned under a passed-out Harvey Weinstein and it's Thanksgiving."  And as far back as 2005, singer Courtney Love was caught on camera giving advice to young women in Hollywood.  She hesitated for a moment, saying “I’ll get libeled if I say it” but then continued “If Harvey Weinstein invites you to a private party in the Four Seasons, don’t go.” 
 
Love claims she was shunned by powerful Hollywood agents after speaking out in this way. This is a common experience for women who speak publicly about sexual abuse: They often face shaming and disbelief.  They might face a social backlash and often pay a price professionally as well.  In many cases, the men accused face no consequences. According to Laura Bates, who created the Everyday Sexism Project, “When women do report sexual harassment, the outcomes are terrible. Over two-thirds of young women are experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace now, today. Eighty per cent of them felt unable to report it, but three-quarters of the ones who did said that nothing changed afterwards, and 16 percent said that the situation got worse.”
 
But in the Weinstein case, after a flood of on-the-record allegations of sexual abuse and even rape, things have changed: Weinstein was fired from his company and expelled from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.  He has been ostracized by longtime friends and collaborators in the entertainment industry. Police in New York and London have opened up criminal investigations into the allegations of his sexual misconduct. 
 
All this comes on the heels of accusations of alleged sexual misconduct and assault by other public figures in media and entertainment like actor Bill Cosby, Fox host Bill O’Reilly, and Fox CEO Roger Ailes. According to the New York Times, O’Reilly paid $32 million in a single settlement with a woman he had harassed at Fox.  The network did not at that point fire O’Reilly; instead they renewed his contract for $100 million. It was only after the Times exposed the settlement – and many other charges and cases against O’Reilly - that Fox fired their top host.
 
Last year, Donald Trump also became embroiled in controversy over sexual harassment after a tape was released of then-candidate Trump boasting about his sexual aggression against women. At the time, several women came forward with allegations against Trump.  They described encounters in which Trump groped them, kissed them without consent, and put his hand up their skirt.  Trump and his team responded by belittling the women who came forward and calling them liars.  Trump threatened to sue them and the organizations that reported on them, calling their allegations “fake” and “total fabrication.”
 
The stories about these men have an eerie familiarity to them: successful, powerful men whose predatory behavior has been allowed to go unchecked for years; in some cases millions of dollars in payoffs and legal threats to silence potential whistleblowers, and rumors that circulate to warn and protect, when the larger culture does not.
 
In the wake of the Weinstein story, many women in Hollywood – and far beyond Hollywood – have demanded an end to the culture that tolerates sexual abuse.  Many women and men have spoken out against this culture.  A sexual harassment awareness campaign, #MeToo, inspired millions of women to post their own stories of abuse, shining a light on the  pervasiveness of sexual harassment and sexual assault in our society.  In an ABC News-Washington Post poll,  54%  of women reported experiencing unwanted and inappropriate sexual advances.  Of these, 80% said it rose to the level of sexual harassment, and one-third said the behavior went beyond harassment to sexual abuse.
 
 



Gathering

Invite students to look at the following tweet and/or read the Scott Rosenberg Facebook quote below.  Together these two social media posts touch on how women who speak up about sexual harassement are often treated and how the bystanders and witnesses tend to keep quiet. These behaviors help perpetuate an environment in which women are abused and then are not believed or are shunned if they speak up about it.
 

Tweet by “Sarah”:


 
 

  • Invite student reflections on this quote.    
  • What news story is it referring to?

 
 
Facebook post by actor Scott Rosenberg:
 
“Let’s be perfectly clear about one thing.  Everybody … knew.

In the end, I was complicit.
I didn't say s—.
I didn't do s—.
Harvey was nothing but wonderful to me.
So I reaped the rewards and I kept my mouth shut.
And for that, once again, I am sorry."
 

  • Invite student reflections on this quote.   
  • What news story is it referring to?

 
 


 

What Keeps Women from Coming Forward?

 
Invite students to read Handout #1, which is about why often women do not come forward to accuse men like Harvey Weinstein of abuse.  (The handout is at the bottom of this lesson.)
 
Next, discuss with students some or all of the following questions:

  • Why do you think “K” says that it is disheartening to see the comments blaming women for not speaking up?
  • What might be the consequences for women of speaking up?
  • What is “cognitive dissonance”?  How does it apply to blaming women for their own persecution?
  • Discuss the last sentence, or send have a go-round so that everyone has a chance to share: 
“It is not the women's job to monitor men's behavior. We are doing the best we can with what we have to survive in a world that depends on our subjugation.”

 
 


 

What is the Environment that Allows Sexual Harassment and Abuse to Persist?

 
Split your class into six groups of between three and five students. Give two of the groups Handout #2; give another two of the groups Handout #3; and give the remaining two groups Handout #4.   If the math isn’t quite right for your class, just make sure that each of the three handouts is read by at least one small group.  These handouts are included at the end of this lesson.
 
All three handouts explore the environment that allows sexual harassment and abuse to persist.  Invite students in their small groups to read their handout, then discuss the questions that follow.  After about 10-15 minutes, bring the groups back together. 
 
Have the group(s) that read Handout 2 share what their reading was about and what they discussed.  Ask the other two groups to do the same.   
 


 
What Does the Environment Look Like and What Can We Do to Interrupt It?


Next, ask students to get back into the same small groups, and give all students Handout #5 (which is at the end of this lesson).  Ask student to read the handout in their small groups, and then discuss the questions that follow.
 
Back in the large group, facilitate a discussion about what was shared in the smaller groups, using some or all of the questions above. 
 
 



Closing

 
What is one thing you’ll start doing, stop doing or keep doing as a result of today’s lesson?
 


 

Handout #1:  What Keeps Women from Coming Forward?
 

Many people commented on the New York Times’ expose of Harvey Weinstein’s serial sexual abuse, published on October 10, 2017. Many of those who commented blamed his victims for not coming forward about the abuse they had suffered. In response, “K” from Brooklyn wrote:

 
It is disheartening to see so many comments already blaming women for not "speaking up." Please count yourself lucky that you've never had your career on the line based on whether or not you sleep with your boss. It has nothing to do with fame and riches; this happens to women making minimum wage in retail as well as women who fought through it to become CEOs.
 
The psychology behind this kind of thing is not that complex, so please spare a moment to consider: Not only are these women made to feel humiliated and embarrassed, but in some cases if they had come forward, they not only would never work again, they also would be seen as whiners and "too sensitive."
 
Both [actors Angelina] Jolie and [Gwyneth] Paltrow fended him off. Imagine if they made a big stink about it. They would have been ripped apart in the media! "Oh for goodness' sake, a dirty old man came on to you. You rejected him and moved on, why the fuss?"
 
But, of course, now we insist on blaming them for "perpetuating" Weinstein's behavior. Please. The amount of cognitive dissonance* it must take to blame women for their own persecution is astounding. Note that the comments have not centered around Brad Pitt's not saying anything, though he knew about it with not one but TWO romantic partners.
 
It is not the women's job to monitor men's behavior. We are doing the best we can with what we have to survive in a world that depends on our subjugation.
 
 
* cognitive dissonance:  a psychological conflict resulting from a person holding opposing, incompatible beliefs and attitudes at the same time.
 

 


 

Handout #2


The Environment That Allows Sexual Harassment and Abuse to Persist 
for Group 1
 
When popular culture and media use misogynistic* language, objectify* women’s bodies, and glamorize sexual violence, they help create a society that can more easily disregard women’s rights and safety, allowing for an environment that normalizes and excuses sexual harassment.

This culture is all around us. “It permeates our politics, our entertainment, our walks to school, our job interviews, our families, our social circles.

In this culture, we ask victims of harassment and assault what they were wearing before asking the perpetrator why they did it. We ask how much someone’s had to drink, why they didn’t quit toxic jobs or report creepy teachers, or why they didn’t rearrange their lives to escape the pattern they managed to get themselves into.

We remind people that “boys will be boys,” or worse: that real boys and men aren’t victims of harassment, abuse and assault themselves; they are pressured into silence by a standard that uses dangerous sexual norms to measure one’s worth.  This culture thrives on what we decide is “normal,” reminding anyone who has suffered at the hands of it that they did something wrong.

Challenging these norms can be frightening. But by verbalizing, communicating and supporting each other, we can call attention to it and get others to do so as well.
 
Definitions
* misogyny: a hatred of women                                               
* objectify: to treat as an object
 
Discuss:

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about this piece?
  • What, if anything, do you recognize in this piece? 
  • What, if anything, can you relate to in this piece?

 
 


Handout #3


The Environment That Allows Sexual Harassment and Abuse to Persist
for Group 2

 
When popular culture and media use misogynistic* language, objectify* women’s bodies, and glamorize sexual violence, they help create a society that can more easily disregard women’s rights and safety, allowing for an environment that normalizes and excuses sexual harassment.
 
“Lacking physical evidence, adjudicating* accusations [of sexual harassment and abuse] is a murky business for journalists.” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, in an Atlantic article about the many charges of rape made against actor Bill Cosby. “But believing Bill Cosby does not require you to take one person's word over another—it requires you take one person's word over 15 others.” Coates notes that powerful people become targets of all kinds of accusations—truths and lies.  But when we tune out the women who accuse these men, we are ourselves guilty.  He argues that it’s hard to believe that these men are serial abusers because it doesn’t just indict them, it indicts us.
 
Writes Anna North in Vox: “Ultimately, stopping sexual harassment, assault, and rape … around the country isn’t just about denouncing Harvey Weinstein or other men accused of abuse, as many in Hollywood have already done. It’s also about dismantling the networks of silence that can keep abusers safe from consequences for decades. And to do that, those who have witnessed or survived abuse will need networks of their own.”
 
Definitions
* misogyny: a hatred of women                                               
* objectify: to treat as an object
* adjudicate: to make a formal judgment or decision about a problem or disputed matter
 
Discuss:

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about this piece?
  • What, if anything, do you recognize in this piece? 
  • What, if anything, can you relate to in this piece?

 
 


Handout #4

The Environment That Allows Sexual Harassment and Abuse to Persist
for Group 3

 
When popular culture and media use misogynistic* language, objectify* women’s bodies, and glamorize sexual violence, they help create a society that can more easily disregard women’s rights and safety, allowing for an environment that normalizes and excuses sexual harassment.
 
We “can take steps to encourage bystanders to take action,” writes George B. Cunningham, Faculty Affiliate of the Women's and Gender Studies Program at Texas A&M University.  He writes that we can train people to speak up, encourage bystanders to do something, establish direct and anonymous lines for reporting sexist incidents …. “[People] should not fear negative reprisal or gossip when they do report harassment.”
 
“Finally,” writes Cunningham, “bystanders are more likely to intervene in organizations that make their refusal to tolerate harassment clear. For that to happen, leaders must assert and demonstrate their commitment to harassment-free workplaces, enforce appropriate policies and train new employees accordingly.
 
Until more people take a stand when they witness sexual harassment, it will continue ….”
 
Definitions
* misogyny: a hatred of women                                               
* objectify: to treat as an object
 
Discuss

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about this piece?
  • What, if anything, do you recognize in this piece? 
  • What, if anything, can you relate to in this piece?

 



Handout #5: 

What does a culture that allows sexual harassment & abuse look like? What Can We Do to Interrupt It?

from Marshall University’s Women’s Center website.


Characteristics of a culture that allows sexual harassment and abuse to exist:

  • Blaming the victim (“She asked for it!”)
  • Trivializing sexual assault (“Boys will be boys!”)
  • Sexually explicit jokes
  • Tolerance of sexual harassment
  • Inflating false rape report statistics
  • Publicly scrutinizing a victim’s dress, mental state, motives, and history
  • Gratuitous violence against women in movies and television
  • Defining “manhood” as dominant and sexually aggressive
  • Defining “womanhood” as submissive and sexually passive
  • Pressure on men to “score”
  • Pressure on women to not appear “cold”
  • Assuming only promiscuous women get raped
  • Assuming that men don’t get raped or that only “weak” men get raped
  • Refusing to take rape accusations seriously
  • Teaching women to avoid getting raped instead of teaching men not to rape
     

How we can combat such a culture:

  • Avoid using language that objectifies or degrades women
  • Speak out if you hear someone else making an offensive joke or trivializing rape
  • If a friend says she has been raped, take her seriously and be supportive
  • Think critically about the media’s messages about women, men, relationships, and violence
  • Be respectful of others’ physical space even in casual situations
  • Always communicate with sexual partners and do not assume consent
  • Define your own manhood or womanhood.  Do not let stereotypes shape your actions.
  • Get involved! Join a student or community group working to end violence against women. 

 
Discuss

  • What are their thoughts and feelings about what’s in this handout?
  • Which out of these characteristics are familiar to you?
  • What actions have you taken to combat the kind of culture we’ve been discussing?   
  • Which actions can you commit to taking in the future?
  • What might get in the way of taking these steps?
  • Can you think of ways to overcome these obstacles?