The Business of Show Biz: Attempted Sexual Assault
Monday, September 14, 2015
By Velina Brown
Q: A few years ago, someone that I studied voice with [a fellow student] attempted to sexually assault me. I’ve cut ties from him since then, but I’ve always been afraid that we may be cast together in a show someday. It makes me wonder—is there a protocol for that kind of situation? If you’ve chosen to do a show with someone with whom you have that kind of history, should you alert your director or stage manager? Is it inappropriate to share that information with other cast members to make oneself or others feel safer? I guess it would be easier to just turn down the potential project, but I also don’t want fear to keep me from an opportunity that could be pivotal to my own success. Also, even though it shouldn’t be any concern of mine, I would feel terrible if this information got out and jeopardized the person’s career. What should I do?
|Actor and career consultant
A: This question is the most difficult I’ve ever attempted to answer in this column. The percentage of women that have to deal with some sort of sexual misconduct or assault every single day is staggering. And, though we are taught to fear the stranger jumping out of the bushes, two-thirds of sexual assaults come from someone the victim knows, according to The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. So, in addition to the physical abuse itself, there is the shock of being hurt by someone you knew and trusted, the feeling of shame that somehow you brought this on yourself and the loss of confidence in your own judgment. This shame and self-doubt can last long after the physical wounds have healed if they are not addressed and worked through—and they won’t go away by victims holding them back, keeping them secret, or trying to “move on.”
As a graduate counseling student, I interned at a center that served survivors of sexual assault and cofacilitated a support group. For most of the 12 women in the group, 10-12 years or more had passed since the assault before they sought help. Why? Because they all had tried their best to “forget about it,” “move on” or “let it go.” But that hadn’t worked, and instead, their lives had continued to be harmed by the unaddressed crime that had been perpetrated against them, in a range of ways: abusing drugs or alcohol; withdrawing from old friends because they “weren’t the same person”; engaging in risky behavior, some feeling that they were “damaged anyway, so what is there to protect?”; or simply becoming depressed. (Almost everyone who has been raped considers suicide.)
I learned that the way to actually move on is to treat the assault as you would a monster chasing you in a dream: turn and face it. When the women in my group did this, the transformations were breathtaking. The healing came when each woman, instead of trying to gloss over the attack or pretend like it didn’t happen, told the whole story of what had happened. I emphasize “whole” because there almost always was some piece of the story that they had never told anyone—a piece that generally illustrated what they felt was their responsibility for the crime. That false sense of responsibility had become a poison contaminating their self-esteem, their relationships, their entire lives. So I encourage you to find a friend, teacher, clergy member, counselor or someone else you trust to hold a safe emotional space for you and tell them your whole story. In the Bay Area, a great resource is San Francisco Women Against Rape. It has peer counseling, a hotline, support groups, medical and legal advocacy resources and referrals. If you are not in the Bay Area, please look up services near you.
Regarding the “biz” part of your question: I’m not aware of any standard protocol concerning reporting the past behavior of fellow actors.
Right now your conflicting feelings are expressing conflicting desires. You ask, “Is it inappropriate to share that information with other cast members,” because you are concerned about your safety and the safety of other cast members—but you also say, “I would feel terrible if that information got out and jeopardized this person’s career.” In general, I’d advise you not to waste time telling this to people who don’t know you, may not believe you or may experience what you’re saying as gossip (which could then be more harmful to your reputation and career than to his). If you truly feel that the person continues to be a danger to you and others, I must encourage you to report him to the police. Even if it’s years later, your voice could be there to support the next person who reports him, and she’ll know she’s not alone. Making a police report is also a way to keep the information from becoming mere “gossip,” and protect you from being accused of slander. It is an official record of your experience that can be both used in the present and referenced in the future.
[Full disclosure: The person who sent me this question did give me permission to talk with her further; she shared details of the event, and that she had not reported the attack to the police. —VB]
From further conversations with you, I understand that this person is in your acting community, and that you are concerned about being cast with him in future productions. This is a very difficult dilemma on several levels. Not only do you want to protect yourself and others, you also need to continue a career unconstrained by fear, self-doubt and any sense of threat. You do have options, but they range from unpleasant to challenging.
If you find that you have been offered a role in a show with him, you can:
- turn down the role.
- take the role, but keep your experience with the other actor secret from the production team and your fellow actors.
- take the role, and tell the director and/or stage manager about your experience with the person, with the intention of asking for their assistance in not unnecessarily putting you in close proximity with the person. (Of course, if the roles themselves require working closely, there won’t be much they can do.)
If, after talking with leadership, you don’t feel safe, don’t take the role.
In this particular situation (again, I stress this because of things you told me in our conversation), another option is a controlled confrontation. As you’ve related the events to me, you might also consider arranging—with some trusted friends and in a public place, such as a coffee shop or park (not a green room)—to meet with this man and confront him with your experience. Not physically or argumentatively, just confronting him with his actions, their effects and their ramifications. I would also suggest that the friends be women who act not as coaccusers, but as honest witnesses. (I say “women” rather than “men,” since a conversation about his behavior could become an argument between a man who assaulted you and a man trying to defend you.)
I’m for bringing these events out of the shadows, taking them out of the realm of something that is furtively whispered about and saying in a full voice that this happened, and it was wrong. His acceptance, denial or defense of his actions, in a safe environment and in front of witnesses, can help relieve you of any sense of responsibility regarding the man who assaulted you. It can also help clarify your next actions, which, in turn, will help you do what you can to insure this person will not hurt others in the future.
Someone else may have a completely different response to your question. This has been very difficult to answer. I hope it’s helpful.
Our culture is one in which women and children keep the secrets of men. We won’t have equality in our lives, let alone our careers, until this is no longer true. All the best to you.
Velina Brown is an actor and career consultant. Send her your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.