Sexual harassment isn't always blatant and physical. Lee Suckling explains.
By now we all think we're pretty woke on sexual harassment.
The #MeToo movement has put it front and centre in the media for the last couple of years, and it's likely that the HR team in your workplace has responded with updated modules as well.
When I went into the cinema at the weekend to see Bombshell, the Charlize Theron/Nicole Kidman/Margot Robbie biopic about the women who brought widespread sexual harassment at Fox News to the forefront, I didn't expect to learn anything new.
I knew the Megyn Kelly story. I know that Roger Ailes reportedly received US$40 million in exchange for leaving Fox News; twice as much as any of his victims got. What I didn't expect to learn so explicitly is how sexual abuse doesn't have to be at all physical.
• Bombshell: Kidman, Theron, Robbie and #MeToo
• Sexist film Bombshell scene reopens wounds
• Former TV anchor Kelly tearfully reacts to 'Bombshell,' depicting Fox News harassment scandal
• Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie star in new Fox News movie Bombshell
There's a pivotal scene in Bombshell that makes it quite clear what non-physical sexual harassment looks like. In this context it's called "the spin": the CEO of the company asks female would-be TV presenters to stand up, spin around, and have the person in power assess their body in full.
What looks like something from a Miss Universe pageant is seemingly harmless from the point of view of the harasser - they can claim something trite like TV is a "visual medium" and part of the job is knowing how you present on camera head-to-toe.
As "the spin" is not sexual harassment as we know it (e.g. unwanted touching or language), anybody that has not been harassed might fail to see why it's so problematic.
Yet a twirl is not just a twirl, like a compliment about your figure in a dress or the way you smell are not just casual compliments. All of this is grooming. It works to gradually see a would-be victim have their toes involuntarily dipped into sexual objectification without really realising it.
The perpetrator is establishing their power by making the victim feel like sexual harassment is normal behaviour. It also, seminally, takes away their dignity.
When we think of the prominent cases of sexual harassment and rape that have made headlines (such as Weinstein or Spacey), they tell us that sexual harassment is much more explicit than any of this.
It's masturbating in a corner or making sexual advances towards 14-year-olds. Bombshell gives us other viewpoints. Sexual harassment can also involve being made to feel like your body is integral to doing your job.
It can be being told that your body is innately sexual. Or leaving a room feeling like you asked for it because of the way you naturally look and dress. Even Margot Robbie admitted that she didn't know what sexual harassment was until she read the Bombshell script - she thought "physical contact" was required for it to be "considered legal or wrong" and was really shocked at the reality.
Robbie's most shocking, and important, scene shows her pulling her dress up - hands trembling, visibly frightened - in front of her boss so he can see how her legs would look on camera. She gets to a point where she's asked to hike it up so high you can see her underwear.
It's invasive and made me feel sick to watch. It's also a sexual assault that contains no physical violence. It's psychological abuse.
I've been a victim of sexual harassment a few times. It took the #MeToo movement for me to realise (and reconcile) this internally, however. And as someone who has been on the receiving end of it, Bombshell really captures the gas lighting that happens when you're a victim.
You are genuinely worried about offending the person harassing you, either because they have power, or because of your politeness, or both. I know I've forgiven acts of sexual harassment in the past - e.g. someone referencing the shape of my butt - because I didn't want to be considered uppity or difficult. I would assume that unwanted sexual innuendo was playful, or a mistake, on their end.
Sexual harassment is abuse, and abuse isn't just physical. If you've never been sexually harassed, you need to see Bombshell to open your eyes.
If you have been sexually harassed, the film will be tough to watch. Even with no explicit scenes of violence, it very accurately articulates just how painful and confusing sexual abuse really is.
Where to get help:
If it is an emergency and you or someone you know is at risk, call 111.
• Women's Refuge: 0800 733 843
• Victim Support: 0800 842 846
• Lifeline: (09) 522 2999
• Family Violence Info Line: 0800 456 450