Heather Conn Blogs

spoutin’ about by the sea

Victims of sexual abuse need regulations with teeth — no more silence

In the wake of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s alleged rapes and decades of sexual harassment, I appreciate that one victim is condemning her industry’s culture of silence and revealing a lack of support from her unions.

Canadian actor Mia Kirshner revealed in an Oct. 14 opinion piece in The Globe and Mail that after Weinstein promised her work “in exchange for being his disposable orifice,” managers and agents told her to forget about the incident. Her own reps did nothing. She writes, “Their silence spoke volumes about power and fear within the film industry.”

She acknowledges that she was “far too quiet.” She warned her peers about Weinstein and that’s it. She declares that both her unions, the Screen Actors’ Guild (SAG) and Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) offered inadequate policies and procedures even if she had launched a complaint. She states, “It is still not safe to speak against sexual harassment and abuse in the film industry.”

Weinstein is only one very public face of a problem that continues across the movie/TV industry. Until we openly challenge sexual harassment and abuse and deal with it seriously and legally, things won’t change. Kirshner says actors have little recourse if they experience sexual harassment or abuse. She suggests that to protect their members, unions need to offer tangible forms of support:

  • Enforce a rule of “No work-related meetings held in hotel rooms”
  • Investigate allegations of wrongdoing using an independent third-party. Currently, following a complaint of alleged abuse, SAG will write a letter and ask a studio or production house to do its own investigation. The fox manages the hen house, so to speak.
  • Maintain a data base that monitors blacklisting activities. If an alleged perpetrator stops hiring an actor after s/he speaks out, the union should impose penalties.

Kirshner says, “Any effort to blacklist an actor who refuses sexual advances . . . should trigger real consequences against the offender. But again, how can the unions produce evidence of blacklisting if no monitoring is in place?”

I am glad that police in New York City and London are investigating the charges of some of Weinstein’s victims. But we all know that the rate of conviction in such cases is tiny. Even if Weinstein ends up in prison, how will that change long-embedded attitudes within the industry?

In the case of Jian Ghomeshi, it was clear that his employer, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, tolerated and maintained the atmosphere of sexual harassment that Ghomeshi created, despite complaints to the union of employees.

We need to get beyond the headlines and do-gooder talk of anti-harassment policies, and implement new rules and laws with teeth. Perpetrators need to see that their actions will have tough consequences. Victims need to feel supported. We need to educate judges, lawmakers, the public, and employers, to recognize and condemn when sexual harassment and abuse occur — and take action against it.

Last year, I worked part-time in the Mentors in Violence Prevention program run by the Sunshine Coast Community Services Society. This program, started in Boston decades ago, uses exercises to teach high school students what is inappropriate behaviour, sexual harassment etc. The overriding message is that silence is not an option. The program advocates: Be more than a bystander. Each one of us must speak out in some form and tell others. We must demand that regulations and laws change. No more silence.

As I wrote in a letter to the editor years ago to The Vancouver Sun: “Our society shows more official outrage and legal condemnation over the maltreatment of pets at home than the sexual abuse of women on the job.”

October 16, 2017 at 8:46 am Comment (1)

Like Sweden’s current test case, Canada needs to expand the definition of “rape”

When I travelled through Sweden decades ago, I felt that its social welfare laws made North America’s look like the Dark Ages. Almost every large business had a day-care centre. Both husbands and wives received pregnancy leave. The Scandinavian nation’s high tax base comfortably covered many progressive social benefits, from health and unemployment insurance to old-age pensions.

Therefore, it didn’t surprise me to learn this week that Sweden could soon be legally redefining the term “rape.” A man is on trial in that country for raping girls in Canada and two other countries completely over the internet, without any physical contact between him and the alleged victims.

Bjorn Samstrom, 41, of Uppsala, Sweden, is accused of threatening to kill girls he met over social networks or post photos of them on pornography sites if they didn’t perform sex acts, including bestiality, in front of webcams.

He’s been charged with “gross rape” and other offences that relate to 27 victims in North America and Britain. Alleged victims include 13-year-olds in Ontario and Alberta, who were victimized in late 2015.

My heart goes out to these young, scared teens.

I applaud the potential power of this case. If the prosecution wins, internet predators will face harsh consequences for their actions instead of remaining silent abusers. Swedish law already makes rape the most serious form of sexual crime, defining it as any sexual violation as serious as intercourse.

Internet abusers must end up paying for their crimes. So far, it’s the terrified victims who suffer, like 15-year-old Amanda Todd who committed suicide in Port Coquitlam in 2012 after she was bullied and blackmailed into exposing her breasts via a webcam.

It’s time that Canada follows Sweden’s example and broadens its legal definition of sexual assault to involve abuse over the internet.

(The National Post reported on this story on Oct. 6 on page NP1.)

October 9, 2017 at 4:40 pm Comments (0)

Firing of Weinstein a shift in culture regarding sexual harassment?

It’s gratifying to learn that powerful Hollywood producer and mogul Harvey Weinstein has been fired from his own company following charges of sexual harassment. His lewd behaviour, which allegedly included luring a female TV  journalist downstairs at a New York City restaurant, cornering her and then masturbating in front of her, is said to have continued for decades.

For far too long, the Hollywood entertainment industry has condoned this kind of behaviour through silence and lack of recriminations or repercussions. (How it portrays such actions in films is a whole other story.) We’ve all heard of the long-standing  “casting couch” tradition. I remember reading in the book Why I Write how one Hollywood producer harassed a female screenwriter. After he agreed to make a movie from her script, she was delighted and accepted an invitation to his party. As she was coming down the stairs, she felt something under her shirt. He had gone behind her, shoved his hands under her shirt, and put them on her breasts! And he claimed this was just a friendly way to say hello.

It is reported that high-profile clients threatened to pull their projects unless Weinstein resigned or left the company. When he refused to resign, board members, including his own brother, signed a document to have him fired. It seems that too often, companies won’t act on sexual harassment complaints unless they face legal action or potential loss of revenue. “Doing what’s right” and running a respectful, ethical operation still aren’t motives enough for many places to take action.

But this latest move shows that at last, some folks are taking women’s accusations seriously. Kudos to The Weinstein Company for turfing the bum. I hope this is a sign that the culture of collective silence on sexual abuse and harassment has shifted. Every victim who speaks out, whether it’s within a family or at a top company, helps break that code of silence and empower the next woman to name her accuser.

It saddens me to discover that Weinstein is accused of sexually harassing stars such as Ashley Judd, who until now, has remained silent on the issue. I’ve read her memoir and she dealt with incest as a teen. As a vocal humanitarian and feminist, she has met with world leaders and spoken out against sexual slavery and women and children in poverty. If she was unwilling to go public with her story, that shows the unbelievable power that someone like Weinstein had in his industry.

I’ve followed his career for decades and admired Miramax’s entrepreneurial flair and its nurturing of excellent independent films. I applauded the success of movies like The English Patient, My Left Foot, The Crying Game etc. I knew Weinstein had a reputation for verbal abuse and manic tantrums, but had no idea about the alleged harassment.

Donald Trump might be able to get away with such alleged behaviour, but I’m glad that another power-monger has finally suffered some consequences for his unacceptable actions. As they say, better late than never.

Read here the L.A. Times article that broke the story.

October 9, 2017 at 2:40 pm Comments (2)

Seven things I wish I’d known before writing my memoir

  1.  People will project their own emotional baggage onto your story. For example, if a reader’s mother died recently, s/he might think you’re being too harsh on your mom. If someone has unresolved shame, s/he might not want to hear about your related anecdotes or incidents. But never self-censor. People who are striving to heal and gain greater self-awareness will appreciate your vulnerability and honesty.

 

  1.  The manuscript might take a lot longer than expected to complete. My memoir took eleven drafts (!). Based on a rough estimate by a former MFA professor, I figured it would be at least half that. But each draft got deeper, clearer, and better. Every tale takes as long as it takes. Be patient. Let the story take you where it wants to go.

 

  1.  Agents have their own agendas and won’t necessarily share your vision for the book. Yes, you can be successful without an agent. Your book’s attitude or slant might appeal more to an offbeat or niche audience rather than a mainstream one. Are you adamant about advocacy and your agent wants straight narration? Ask yourself if s/he is a good fit. Don’t sacrifice your creative vision for someone else’s profit motive. I heard things from agents like “No one’s interested in incest — write about your India travels”; “Rewrite your book like a novel” and “Your subject makes me uncomfortable.”

 

  1.  People close to you might threaten a lawsuit. As a pre-publication courtesy, I sent portions of my manuscript to someone from my past mentioned in my book. He said he would sue me if I left in that content. The brother of someone I know told her the same thing with her memoir. Did I acquiesce? No. I just changed his name and some of the identifying details. To be safe, it’s best to consult with a lawyer about such things.

 

  1.  Expect strong pushback if you’re presenting an admired figure in a negative light. I tracked down a former colleague of my father’s, who said my dad was the most supportive boss he’d ever had. He wrote a glowing letter about him after my father died. When I mentioned incest, he said, “I think you should forget about the whole thing.” Present a balanced portrait of someone, but don’t censor the negative.

 

  1.  If you’re writing about sexual assault or incest, be prepared to have others’ attitudes shock you. Sadly, even among so-called feminists and supposed female allies, I received comments that implied my sexual assaults in India must have resulted from my own actions or else I didn’t respond properly. Our cultural stance of “Blame the victim” is far more entrenched than I thought. Share your truth. Don’t let others’ skewed views diminish your story. Use their comments to make your experience even clearer.

 

  1.  Family members can make stronger allies than you think. In a family of secrecy like mine, I expected my three sisters to lash out at me about my memoir. Instead, they agreed to be interviewed and offered revealing anecdotes about my dad. Their support meant so much to me. Revealing your secret will inspire others to share theirs. Help break the silence. You’ll find allies in the most unexpected places.
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July 31, 2017 at 2:45 pm Comments (4)

Movie owner’s stance on Fifty Shades of Grey deserves applause

I applaud the recent decision of Deb Proby, owner of Raven’s Cry Theatre in Sechelt, BC, not to screen the movie Fifty Shades of Grey. She said she was concerned what impact this portrayal of a sado-masochistic relationship would have on teen viewers, particularly girls.

Such sensitivity for impressionable audience members is rare in today’s cutthroat media market.

Proby has shared her own story in the news. She grew up reading Harlequin romances, succumbing to the myth of noble Adonis figures saving hankie-clenching, adoring females. But in her first marriage, she discovered the brutal, shadow side of this fantasy: her husband beat her.

Therefore, Proby didn’t want to perpetuate any further stereotypes that might wrongly influence young teens, either in suggesting that it was okay for men to physically abuse women (think Jian Ghomeshi) or that women should remain passive receivers of any male sexual whim or fantasy.

Today’s societies, in almost all cultures, already have far too many examples of skewed power dynamics that harm women in heterosexual relationships, whether it’s Ghomeshi or Bill Cosby or every rape and sexual assault that occurs between strangers or an intimate couple. At the extreme end of the spectrum, we have rape-murders and female genital mutilation.

I must say, up front, that I have not seen the film Fifty Shades of Grey nor read the book. I do know that the story portrays an S&M relationship between a young woman and an older business tycoon. It’s based on the bestseller by E. L. James, a woman, which has sold more than 100 million copies and has been translated into 52 languages. I’ve read and heard from people that the writing in both the book and movie is lousy.

It’s distressing to learn that this depiction of a sexual relationship has found such widespread appeal. Is sexual domination of a female the ultimate fantasy for far too many people?

Traditionally, men have controlled the images that we, as a society, are meant to see as sexually alluring or titillating, whether it’s in pornography or advertising. In most of these depictions, the woman’s primary role has been to tempt, then sexually satisfy, the man; her own sexual pleasure is deemed  secondary or irrelevant.

It’s disturbing to me that a woman wrote Fifty Shades of Grey, and she is now receiving outlandish rewards for her gender portrayals: she has a line of sex toys, wine, and other franchise merchandising. Sadly, as we’ve always known, sex sells.

In contrast, I think of a presentation by a female director I heard more than three decades ago in Vancouver. She made erotic films. Her movie clips portrayed empowered women choosing how and when they wanted to make love, with loving and respectful men who viewed them as equals, not as objectified symbols of their own lust.

However, she had difficulties encouraging her female actors in these positive portrayals; she encouraged them to improvise and explore their own fantasies and sexual fulfillment. Yet, most had worked in the porn industry. They were used to roles that demanded they start with giving a blow job, not seeking their own pleasure. They found the transition to self-empowerment challenging.

As for Proby’s decision, some have faulted her for not applying a similar restriction on violent movies. For instance, she recently screened An American Sniper, which one media outlet called “war porn.” Is her stance on sex versus violence hypocritical? Violent movies and Fifty Shades of Grey equally received an R-rating.

Ideally, it would be great if Hollywood movies were not so violent; I decry their power in influencing vulnerable minds. However, since most drama hinges on conflict, violence appears inevitable. If Proby were to eliminate violent movies from her roster, there would be little chance she could remain in business. Hollywood seems obsessed with violence.

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March 9, 2015 at 2:59 pm Comments (0)

India’s Daughter lays bare a cultural indictment of women

For International Women’s Day, it would appear to make more sense to see a documentary that celebrates women’s empowerment, rather than one about a death resulting from a high-profile gang rape. Jyoti Singh, a 23-year-old medical student, died in 2012 as a result of serious internal injuries suffered after she was repeatedly raped on a night bus in New Delhi.

Yet, I am grateful to have watched India’s Daughter last night for many reasons: it took the story out of the headlines and into humanity, onto the victim’s parents and their dignified anguish and the achievements of their daughter; it put faces on both the perpetrators and the thousands who protested, in outrage, against this horrific crime; and it laid bare the raw misogyny not only of a rapist and his defence lawyers, but of cultural attitudes in India that have viewed women as worthless for centuries.

From his Delhi prison where he awaits death by hanging, convicted rapist Mukesh Singh condemned the impact of the documentary itself: he said that it will now encourage rapists to kill their victims, rather than “just” dump them at the side of the road, as he did with his victim and her male companion. He thought the victim deserved what she got, especially since she was out “late” (past 9 p.m.) accompanied by a male who was not a family member or relative. In his view, she should have remained silent while being raped; then things would have been easier for her.

It’s a challenge for any gender to hear such hateful opinions, yet they need to be heard. We, as women, need to know and see who holds such views and to learn how widespread they are. Two of the rapists’ defence lawyers (males, of course) shared their own astounding prejudices. One likened a woman to a flower, saying it was a man’s job to protect her, and if she became damaged or soiled in any way, she no longer had value. The other vowed that he would pour acid on his own daughter if she defied or dishonoured him.

Within India’s caste system, these lawyers are among the so-called educated class; most of the rapists were raised in poverty in one of Delhi’s slums. Women’s devalued role spans all castes in India, where female infanticide is common practice. Girl babies are often aborted, undernourished or murdered.

Even the victim’s own brothers questioned their parents’ decision to take money from land reserves, essentially their own inheritance, and apply it to their sister’s education. She was only a girl, after all. And the young wife of one of the convicted rapists, who denied his guilt, said that if her husband was hanged, she’d have to kill herself and her toddler son because she’d have no one to protect and there’d be no reason left for her to live.

Censorship-prone India has banned screenings of this film, which is a gross disservice to all of its citizens, particularly women. I applaud the decision of both the BBC and CBC to screen on International Women’s Day this searing indictment of both a culture and crime that has hatred of women (not just one) at its core. Even while creating this post, I kept writing “India’s Children” instead of “India’s Daughter”; I felt like my subconscious was trying to remind me that this is an archetypal story that affects us all. Its ramifications live far beyond this one rape and murder.

While travelling solo in India for seven months in 1990/91 in my early thirties, I was sexually assaulted numerous times by Indian men. The prevailing attitude was that any western woman travelling alone was a prostitute. This view was heightened when my male Indian companion accompanied me; men from taxi drivers to waiters assumed that I was his hooker and some even denied us a ride for fear of backlash. (I write about some of these encounters in my yet-to-be-published memoir No Letter in Your Pocket.)

Thankfully, laws in India have since changed to help female victims of rape, incest, and similar crimes fight back and win in the courts. Sally Armstrong outlines these successes in her book Ascent of Women (Random House, 2013). At least the rapists in Singh’s gang rape, including a 17-year-old tried as a juvenile, were all arrested and convicted. One of them had reportedly committed hundreds of prior rapes.

For more info on India’s Daughter, see  Arti Patel’s feature “Watch ‘India’s Daughter’ No Matter How Much Pride You Have” on HuffPost Living Canada.

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March 9, 2015 at 10:38 am Comments (0)