Mia Kirshner is a Canadian actor, writer and social activist.
I could waste this precious space on Harvey Weinstein by describing my own ordeal with him. An ordeal in a hotel room where he attempted to treat me like chattel that could be purchased with the promise of work in exchange for being his disposable orifice.
But I'm not giving that man, a newly crowned figurehead of sexual abuse, the privilege of more ink. There are broader and more urgent issues to address. And if we don't address them now, I fear that when the headlines about Harvey Weinstein fade, what will remain is a disease in my own industry.
The disease is the act of turning a blind eye to sexual harassment and abuse carried out by those who wield power in the film industry. Fear of speaking out has become malignant, silencing the majority of the community. In my case, I was encouraged by former managers and agents to forget about what happened to me. People in Mr. Weinstein's position have the power to make or break careers, to blacklist someone who protests against their advances. In turn, my own representatives at the time did nothing. Their silence spoke volumes about power and fear within the film industry. And I was far too quiet myself. All I did was tell my peers what happened to me and warn them about this dangerous man. In turn, both my unions – the Screen Actors' Guild (SAG) and the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) – offered inadequate protection should I have launched a complaint.
In a business climate like this, what recourse does an actor have if they experience sexual harassment or abuse? Very little. This goes to the heart of why so many actors probably remained silent.
For the moment, it is safe to speak out against Harvey Weinstein because industry heavyweights are rallying behind the alleged victims, and voicing their outrage over the revelations in The New York Times and The New Yorker that broke this story wide open. But what about all the other sexual predators in my industry who are still being protected by the silence of their peers?
There is little comfort in being met with silence. There is shame, rage and isolation. Should an actor buck the system by speaking out, the fear of seeing your career destroyed is real – especially if you are not yet well established in the industry. Actors may fear that speaking out could cost them their ability to pay bills and support their families.
That is why, in spite of the current groundswell, it is still not safe to speak against sexual harassment and abuse in the film industry as of today. SAG and ACTRA do not have holistic policies and procedures should their members file complaints. That needs to change now. And change does not mean publishing another well-meaning brochure or e-mail blast about anti-harassment policies. Statements pledging support for survivors of sexual harassment and assault are not going to cut it.
So, how can the unions support their members in a more meaningful and tangible way?
First of all, can we agree that no more meetings for anything related to work be held in hotel rooms? That would be up to the unions to firmly enforce.
Second, the unions need a new system for investigating allegations of wrongdoing.
Currently, if a SAG member launches a complaint, the union writes a letter and asks that the production house or studio involved conduct an internal investigation of the alleged abuse. You can imagine its effectiveness. An in-house investigation by the very nature of being in-house does not cultivate impartiality. Especially when the person being investigated runs or owns the studio. Complaints about these matters that are raised within our unions should trigger an independent third-party investigation.
Third, what do the unions do to protect a member should they be blacklisted by the alleged perpetrator after speaking out? Again, very little. ACTRA, for example, has no system or database that monitors missed work opportunities of those who launched a complaint. If an actor is never hired by the alleged perpetrator again, what penalties are in place by the union? If an industry member is found to have a pattern of blacklisting an individual who launched a complaint against them, what will the union do? Will it continue to allow the member to work with other union members? Any effort to blacklist an actor who refuses sexual advances (by a producer, director, etc.) should trigger real consequences against the offender. But again, how can the unions produce evidence of blacklisting if no monitoring is in place?
Fourth, better mental-health supports should be put in place to treat the psychological impact of sexual abuse. Yes, the unions do have a health-care plan that covers therapy, but the allotted amount will cover only a handful of sessions. That is not enough. Most actors cannot afford costly, long-term therapy. And finding free psychological support is extremely difficult, especially with exploding wait-lists. The toll of being without mental care is enormous, eventually affecting all areas of life.
So what now?
My industry, filled with vital talent, shares my desire for overhauling the current system. As a proud Canadian, I would like to see my union, ACTRA, create the gold standard for how complaints of sexual harassment and abuse are handled in the workplace. It can do it. Dedicated and smart people work within this union. We need the unions to be mighty with strength in creating radical new policies and procedures, which will make it impossible for members to work with proven sexual predators.
In doing this, I hope that the unions will not work in isolation, but in concert with all of the unions and major stakeholders in the industry, speaking with one firm voice.
Beyond film-industry stakeholders, lawmakers need to act. Stronger laws and punishments are needed to curb sexual impropriety.
This will not be easy, but we cannot go back to the status quo. We have had enough.
Speaking out is powerful, and cathartic but it won't change the status quo.
Don't give us another brochure or hotline to call. Please don't release a statement about how the union supports its own. It's not enough. Protect us. Change this ineffective system.
Men and women need to look within their own workplace cultures and demand immediate change. And if we don't, all of us are complicit in our silence and indifference. And if that happens, the disease will continue to spread.
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