Heather Conn Blogs

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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)