Responding to Sexual Assault in the Industry
Bill Cosby, Donald Trump, and Harvey Weinstein walk into a bar. Nope, this is not a set-up to a hilarious joke, it’s a nightmare.
As sexual assault allegations and hopefully the subsequent cases are made public we are brought painfully aware of a reality that continues to marginalize and minimize its victims. We can also expect new allegations involving other prominent individuals will be publicized as victims of sexual assault become more empowered to speak out about the crimes.
Conversations about sexual assault will continue to push to the forefront in media and in our current climate anyone may be asked for their two cents. This is an amazing opportunity to continue to talk about this underlying issue that has been accepted and expected practice within the Entertainment Industry. Responding to highly sensitive topics, such as sexual assault, is a more common expectation placed on those in the media today. Those reporting, interviewing, and responding to this demand need to be well informed, reflective, and articulate in their discussion of sexual assault allegations – especially as those allegations are made against their very own colleagues, friends, and idols.
Exhibit A: Seinfeld on Colbert
Jerry Seinfeld appeared as a guest on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert last September. An unrelated conversation about Seinfeld’s budding passion for comedy turned cringingly awkward after Colbert asked, “As a kid, when you’re saying ‘I want to do this,’ who was the comedian for you?” Seinfeld quickly responded, “Well the comedian was Bill Cosby.” Seinfeld proceeded to list Cosby’s standup albums and praised Cosby’s work. Colbert then asked, “Can you still listen to his comedy?” Seinfeld furrowed his brow, casually shrugged lifting his hands up, and quickly responded, “Oh ya.” Colbert indulged Seinfeld a bit, admitting the significant impact Cosby’s standup had on his childhood and personal development but concluded, “I can’t listen to it now. I can’t separate it.” Seinfeld’s brow furrowed again and his eyes squinted as he asked Colbert in confusion, “Oh you can’t. You can’t separate it?”
It appeared as if Seinfeld had no idea why Colbert had an issue with Cosby or had any recollection of the dozen of women who have accused Cosby of drugging and sexually assaulting them. Seinfeld paused and gazed away blankly. Loosely connecting Cosby to some kind of negative press, Seinfeld rambled on, “I know it’s tragic but comedy, you know, there’s a lot of tragedy in comedy. But I mean there’s lots of people who have tragic lives. You know? Um, like the Jerry Lewis thing.” Jerry Lewis, a comedian who was recently criticized for excluding his six children from his will, was identified by Seinfeld as another example of a comedian with a recently defamed reputation. Seinfeld deflected and asked Colbert how he felt about Lewis. Colbert chuckled and admitted he found the Jerry Lewis issue “kind of hilarious” but made the significant distinction, "That’s like, [Lewis] denied them money. That’s not the same thing as slipping them a roofie.”
Seinfeld’s apparent cluelessness to the severity of Cosby’s tarnished reputation wasn’t resolved until the show returned from a commercial break. Seinfeld quickly revisited the subject of Cosby explaining that he discussed it further with Colbert off-camera. Seinfeld fumblingly stated, “I can’t separate it either. Now that you’ve said it and I thought about it and I haven’t listened to any of that stuff. I realized it would bother me, and I don’t think I could.” – Yes, it is completely appropriate to insert an astonished expression here or maybe even an eye roll emoji.
Nevertheless, Seinfeld remained defensive. He desperately held on to his initial oblivious stance, digging himself deeper into his pit of poppycock. Seinfeld brought up another public figure who was scrutinized over a sexual issue, Bill Clinton. Seinfeld posed, “Can you listen to him without thinking about …” Colbert quickly referenced the clear distinction that Bill Clinton was not a comedian by saying, “Uh, he was never that funny to me.” Seinfeld eventually conceded and casually stated, “Alright, your right. I’ll change my mind.” He took this opportunity to pat himself on the back, “You know, isn’t that funny? You never see anyone on TV and we all watch all this annoying political crap and everyone is screaming. You never see somebody go, ‘You know what? You’re right. I’m wrong. I’m going to change my opinion. You never see that! Right?” – Cue applause, American flag blowing in the wind, a large soaring eagle, maybe some fireworks, and Seinfeld 2020 Presidential Campaign logo. Colbert simply responded, “That is a very interesting compliment to yourself you just made.”
Seinfeld was on The Late Show to publicize his new Netflix special, Jerry Before Seinfeld.
A good-natured question about Seinfeld’s childhood role models quickly led to the discussion of sexual assault in the entertainment industry. An intense topic that Seinfeld did not seem aware he was submerged in or prepared to examine. Shortly after this interview, breaking news about Harvey Weinstein flooded the media. In a similar situation, George Clooney & Matt Damon were on Good Morning America being interviewed by Michael Strahan to publicize their film, Suburbicon. Understanding Clooney and Damon had a close working relationship with Harvey Weinstein, time was preemptively set aside to confront the allegations made about their former mentor.
Exhibit B: Clooney and Damon on GMA
Clooney and Damon openly discussed their history with Weinstein, their perceptions of him, and the many allegations made against him. Clooney utilized this opportunity to share his emotional response to the issue and candidly label Weinstein, “The idea that this predator, this assaulter was out there silencing women. Its beyond infuriating.” He encouraged ongoing awareness and discussion about sexual harassment and assault and energized a cultural shift in the industry to deter perpetrators, “You will be outed, you will be out of the business, and more than that you may be prosecuted.” Strahan asked more personal questions about how Clooney and Damon talk to their children about the issue. Both discussed the conversations they had with women in their lives. Clooney shared a discussion he had with his wife and sexual harassment in her field. Damon shared a conversation he had with his mother and kids.
Whether discussions about sexual assault allegations are anticipated or impromptu, on camera personality need to be prepared. There have been numerous responses and statements made about sexual assault in the entertainment industry. These two circumstances demonstrate how being caught off guard about such a public and horrific issue can go so terribly wrong and how being prepared can allow individuals to speak respectfully and utilize their platform effectively. As human beings, it is impossible for anyone to respond to such emotionally triggering topics perfectly every time. However, with their team of publicists and PR agents, on camera personnel can be better prepared.
"Whether discussions about sexual assault allegations are anticipated or impromptu, on camera personality need to be prepared."
The realities of sexual assault are clear. The perpetrator is not always the seething character in scary movies but in fact charming and beloved role models in our community. Being the friend, family member, or colleague of someone who has been accused of committing horrific acts against others is devastating. Many people close to perpetrators respond in denial, minimization, avoidance, defensiveness, or intellectualization of the news.
Whether you are personally close with the people involved or a disconnected commentator, here are some Dos and Don’ts of responding to sexual assault allegations.
- Be transparent about your relationship with anyone involved.
- Acknowledge your awareness of current accusations and how you learned about them.
- Share your initial and evolving response to the news.
- Share the discussions you have had with significant others about the news, indicating you have been reflecting on and socially processing the news.
- Discuss your reflections on your relationship with the person, any overlooked signs that indicated a problem, or regrets.
- Be proactive and address how you plan to learn from this experience. Share specific ways you will improve your behavior as a bystander, friend, or colleague.
The Dos are pretty straightforward. Consult your attorney if your experiences may have legal ramifications and chat with your public relations team if you need support in publicly communicating these personal and sensitive matters. Meet with your therapist (another important professional to have on your multidisciplinary support team) to process any strong reactions you may have to the news.
- Forget or be misinformed about accusations.
- Report that we are “finally” speaking out against sexual harassment. This occurs so frequently and it is terribly inaccurate. It minimizes and offends the many people in the entertainment industry and around the world who have addressed this issue, not to mention all of the organizations and employees who work tirelessly every day to raise awareness and provide treatment.
- Call holding perpetuators of sexual assaults a “witch hunt,” I’m talking to you Woody Allen.
- Argue that combatting sexual assault is important because victims are daughters, sons, sisters, mothers, etc.
- Marginalize or deny individuals’ reports of sexual assault – I’m referring to your late night video post, Lindsay Lohan. Just because you did not have a direct negative experience with the accused perpetrator does not mean the allegations are not true.
The Do Nots are critical, so let me put on my doctor hat for a bit.
The argument that combatting sexual assault is important because victims hold certain family roles is empirically ineffective. Also, it just so happens to support criminal thinking and the justification that it is ok to sexually objectify someone if they are disconnected from society (without parents or family). The fact of the matter is this, it is important to combat sexual assault because the victims are beings - I took out “human” because I’m sure most people would agree, even animals deserve this basic level of decency and respect (to live without sexual assault and harassment).
I cannot stress this enough. It is actually very common for perpetrators to appear to their community in a positive light, as someone who “would never do such a thing.” This is one of the many reasons why it is difficult for victims to report assault. Please do not perpetuate the cycle of shame and skepticism of victim reports. It is both personally damaging to the victims and socially damaging to our human rights efforts.
As a close friend or loved one to the accused perpetrator, it is not your role to blindly defend everything that person says or does in spite of conflicting accusations. It is your role, as a human being and significant other, to actively listen to the reports, empathize with those involved, and at most provide (what we call in the psych biz) unconditional positive regard.