This has been a hard topic for me to approach again. Not because I’m going through any intense emotional trauma for it, but because it’s awkward. It’s awkward and uncomfortable and mildly embarrassing.
Sexual harassment is typically dealt with via HR departments official complaint filings, but how do you deal with it when you’re a freelancer? I mulled this question over a lot in my head when I was a freelancer in New York. I was a Production Assistant (PA)–and a new one at that–and my biggest concern was to just keep working.
As a PA, especially a new one, you take what jobs you can get. You make every contact you can and you say yes until you over-book yourself silly. You have zero job protection beyond personal relationships with Assistant Directors, other PAs, and, most importantly, Production Managers.
As much as I wanted to believe that being a hard worker and earning my stripes was enough, it wasn’t. It was all about who you know. It’s like this in many industries but even more so in entertainment.
So, when you need to keep as many relationships with coworkers as cordial as possible, what do you do when things get uncomfortable? What do you do when one of your coworkers makes a pass at you, covertly or (excessively) overtly?
If you work for a company, you go to Human Resources… this is not a fool-proof or totally 100% effective way of solving this problem, but it’s something and it’s something I’ve come to appreciate finally having a full-time job.
It’s good to know that if someone makes me feel uncomfortable and targeted I can do something about it. I recognize that this comes with complications and difficulties, but it’s something.
This is not really available to most freelancers. If a personal relationship with someone you rely on for jobs gets weird… well, it can destroy that job hook-up and you lose opportunities. When you’re already short on cash and maxing out accounts, this is a non-option. So, where does that leave you?
For my year and a half as a freelancer I developed what I’ve begun to think of as a sort of sliding scale of sexual harassment. I am not proud of this and I hate that this was how I dealt with it, but I had my reasons–the primary one being that I needed work. If you become known as “problematic” and you’re a PA, you won’t get hired so much anymore.
The type of harassment I encountered varied. There were some days when I would get cat-called by teamsters. I would usually shrug it off or give a look of, “OK… hi?” I had to work with them and for the most part, I knew it could be worse.
These were the low-grade harassment moments, ones that the guys most likely didn’t even think twice about. They wouldn’t always holler at me like a creeper on the street but it was usually how they said hi to me, usually with some not-so-subtle term of endearment.
Why did I tolerate it? Because splitting hairs during a 14 hour day was not going to help with anyone’s patience–not even my own. This still didn’t make it right. We shouldn’t have to view self-defense as splitting hairs, and we shouldn’t have to keep quiet to keep our jobs.
The people harassing me didn’t exactly treat all the others the same way, now did they? None of the male PAs were getting called, “sweetie” or “cutie.”
Next up: the actually creepy people on my scale. There was a teamster that I actually got along with pretty well. He was a good guy. He had a good heart. But the flirting made things weird.
I would go out of my way to avoid him.
I felt targeted and uncomfortable. And he behaved this way toward other women on set.
As soon as things get flirty in an employment setting, things get uncomfortable. Period. It raises questions that no one should have to debate internally or worry about: What if he makes a pass at me? Will this work relationship crumble if I say no? Were the foundations of this work relationship solely built out of a desire to fuck me? Was I ever hired on merit? Will I get fired if I say no? Will I ever get hired again if I say no?
There were times when I would make it clear that I was not OK with the flirting or the sexual topics of conversation. This would be happen with coworkers who did not have superiority over me. I would say something like, “yo, not cool dude.”
Other times, instead of saying anything direct I would respond with a smart-ass retort. If I could end the situation in a laugh I could walk away and not deal with having a serious talk. Serious talks could get higher-ups involved and bothering a Production Manager in the middle of a set day for anything not shoot related was pretty much out of the question. There was never enough time.
The harassment wasn’t always coming from peers. This is where it gets tricky and this is where you have the least amount of power. I was working for a production company and one day I finally met a director I heard a lot about and did a lot of work for remotely. I was excited to finally meet him. When I finally met him, I held the door open for him and some of his crew; they were heading out for a pre-production meeting. So, as anyone would say, I said, “It was really great to finally meet you.”
He stopped, looked at me, and then slowly scanned his eyes up and down my body before saying, “nice to meet you too,” and walked away. I was stunned! There was nothing I could do. If I told him off, I would never be able to work for that company again.
When I talk to friends about this incident, I always find myself including details about how I was dressed, details that sounded like I was almost trying to excuse his behavior by victim-blaming…myself. I regret this most of all.
Where would that kind of harassment fall on my scale? Pretty high up there, but what could I do? When speaking up costs you your job, and your livelihood, how do you decide what to do when you can barely pay your rent?
It should not have mattered what I was wearing that day when I met that director. So, big deal, I swung by the office to say hi while I was running other errands before meeting a friend for drinks and I looked good.
This does not excuse his leer and utter lack of decency.
We’re a ways off from work place decorum extending to all of the sexes, apparently, but I’m done with holding my head down and letting it slide. I have been fortunate to not have to deal with it from superiors in my last few jobs or current job. But I have dealt with some misogynist behavior directed towards me from other freelancers.
How do I deal with it as a producer? I look them in the eye and say, “We have to work together on this and I know the client. I know what they want and despite what you may think, you have to listen to me, whether you like it or not.” The right tone and the right timing help, but I’m not letting it slide anymore.