The first number you see is 94% — and your eyes pop with incredulity.
But it’s true: Almost every one of hundreds of women questioned in an exclusive survey by USA TODAY say they have experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault during their careers in Hollywood.
For months now we’ve all been hearing the horrifying stories of abuse from marquee names like Rose McGowan and Gwyneth Paltrow and Ashley Judd and Salma Hayek, about what powerful men in Hollywood, like movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, allegedly did to them and other women over decades.
94% of the 843 women surveyed by USA TODAY who work in the entertainment industry say they’ve experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault.
Unwanted sexual comments and groping. Propositioning women. Exposing themselves. Coercing women into having sex or doing something sexual. And, especially pertinent to showbiz, forcing women to disrobe and appear naked at an audition without prior warning.
It’s been deeply disturbing reading, but so far the powerful stories of accusers outnumber plain, hard facts about the extent of the problem in Tinseltown. Until now.
Working in partnership with The Creative Coalition, Women in Film and Television and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, USA TODAY surveyed 843 women who work in the entertainment industry in a variety of roles (producers, actors, writers, directors, editors and others) and asked them about their experiences with sexual misconduct.
The results are sobering: Nearly all of the women who responded to the survey (94%) say they have experienced some form of harassment or assault, often by an older individual in a position of power over the accuser.
Worse, more than one-fifth of respondents (21%) say they have been forced to do something sexual at least once.
Only one in four women reported these experiences to anyone because of fear of personal or professional backlash or retaliation. This reporting rate holds true for all forms of misconduct addressed in the survey, including being forced to do something sexual.
Of those who did report their experiences, most say reporting did not help them; only 28% say their workplace situation improved after reporting.
One surprising finding: Even though America has been arguing about workplace sexual harassment ever since the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings in 1991, more than one-third of women surveyed weren’t even sure that what happened to them was sexual harassment.
Still, even though the survey shows that older and more experienced women have been subjected to more incidents of sexual misconduct, younger women with less than five years of experience in the industry are more likely to blow a whistle on misconduct.
And that suggests there’s a chance the status quo — misconduct allowed to flourish because few complain and no one in authority does anything about it — might change in the future as younger women increasingly enter the entertainment workforce and begin asserting influence.
The National Sexual Violence Resource Center, which maintains a large library of related surveys on the subject of workplace sexual harassment, says USA TODAY’s survey is a first for its focus on Hollywood and for its comprehensiveness.
As with most surveys, there are limitations that could affect interpretations. It was conducted online between Dec. 4, 2017, and Jan. 14 after emails were sent to members of The Creative Coalition and Women in Film and Television inviting them to participate. As a self-selected sample of respondents, it is not scientifically representative of the entire industry, let alone the broader national population of women working in all industries.
Thus, says Anita Raj, director of the Center for Gender Equity and Health at the University of California, San Diego’s medical school, the survey should be treated with some caution. But she believes that the results overall are “credible and important” and that people should pay attention.
“The percentages (in USA TODAY’s survey) are higher than what we typically see for workplace abuses, but we know there is variation by the type of workplace,” Raj says. “But it makes sense to me that we would see higher numbers (in the entertainment industry),” where the “casting couch” has prevailed for decades and is considered “normal.”
Women may not always know the line between the demands of showbiz and what constitutes sexual harassment, she says. In fact, Raj says, kissing someone without their consent is actually a crime in California, which, she notes, once happened on live TV in front of millions: when Adrien Brody, who won the best-actor Oscar in 2003, grabbed presenter Halle Berry and dip-kissed her at the podium before his acceptance speech. She was not happy, she acknowledged years later, but everyone else just laughed.
“Yes, I’d like to see more solidity in the scientific aspects of how the data was collected. But 94% does not seem shocking. It says this is ubiquitous in Hollywood,” Raj says. “There is a lack of clarity on what constitutes professional interactions in this (Hollywood) context. So it wouldn’t surprise me if in fact it were 94%.”
Most sexual misconduct goes unreported largely out of fear. But 40% of respondents say they did not trust the system. More than one-third — 34% — weren’t even sure what happened to them amounted to sexual harassment, and 32% say they had no evidence so it was their word against the accused. And 20% say they felt shame.
“On countless occasions, I have been in a position at events with clients, where either the client or a member of the client’s team has made sexually explicit comments, sexual advances and/or touched my body without consent,” says a publicist in her early 40s. “These assailants seem confident enough to know they can become predators without repercussion.”
Often, she says, there are no human resources departments working with producers or directors to take a complaint. As a contract worker, her only “professional exit” option in these situations is to wait out the end of her contract without renewal.
“Being in a line of work that obtains clients through word-of-mouth makes me reluctant to speak (about) these sexual harassment/assault experiences for fear of losing clients or collaborations with other firms/companies,” she says.
Of those few who reported misconduct, the result was most often a warning or reprimand (32%) or removal of the harasser (23%). A fraction (8%) of respondents say they were fired after reporting and 4% say there was a settlement in their case. And zero cases were prosecuted.
Also, a quarter of the respondents (24%) say they left their companies specifically because of sexual misconduct incidents.
“There was one specific instance where I reported a horrible incident of harassment to superiors and the male boss of the man who harassed me told me that ‘he wouldn’t do such a thing’ and stopped replying to my emails,” says a director in her early 30s. “Women superiors, though more sympathetic, implied nothing more could be done. I simply couldn’t keep working in an environment that would be both physically and mentally unsafe for me.”
They’re male, older and for the most part more powerful than their accusers. About one-third (29%) were directors, agents, producers or someone else in an authority position as the industry defines it. About one-quarter (24%) were peers or co-workers, and one-fifth (20%) were supervisors or senior managers. Less than 10% were influential individuals in the industry, such as celebrities, and few were in a lower position than the accuser (3%).