Euphemisms such as the casting couch must go – they’ve been used to normalise abuse for too long

Spinning its own tales. Shutterstock

Hollywood is in the business of making myths. As the storyteller, it has the capacity to create legends and approximations of real life that develop into something so plausible that it creates a whole paradigm. Hollywood stories typically depict tales of power, fame, riches and happy endings –- and one of the most enduring about Hollywood itself is that of the casting couch.

The term has been in existence since the early days of the film industry and has become a well-known euphemism for the exchange of sexual favours for preferential treatment. The practice is written into the mythology of the industry and, in turn, has perpetuated the accompanying myth that the powerful should have an unfettered authorisation to invoke their right to harassment, bullying, predation and assault. Come out of the casting couch test OK, and you might make it in showbiz.

As Karl Weick suggested in 1995 fables are a powerful contribution to how we make sense of the world. Stories allow people to “glue” disparate elements together to “energise and guide action”, and create an engaging narrative that is compelling enough to encourage others to “contribute their own inputs in the interest of sensemaking”. Simply put, the story is what drives reality and it gathers up willing bit players along the way.

The plausibility of the casting couch tale has been allowed to fester for such a long time that even for those outside the entertainment industry it’s well known. And it’s so embedded that it could be argued that sexual harassment has become normalised as a form of social control. The euphemism itself is modelled on something commonplace and normal, but hides the reality that it is sexual harassment and abuse.

In an interview with BBC’s Newsnight, actress Emma Thompson said abusive behaviours were diminished by this long-held euphemism. The term “pestering” -– as she says it might have been described in more straitened times -– seems almost innocuous; relating to something a little bit annoying and that should just be shrugged off. Again, it is this script that has long driven attitudes and behaviours. Thompson adds that the language of sex addiction also masked what can more rightly be described as predatory behaviour.

But why is something so heinous, yet so visible allowed to continue? More importantly, perhaps, is that while the cookie cutter script of “struggling actress exchanges sexual favours to those with power for the dream role” is familiar, Hollywood is the not the only place the story is being played out.

Power plays

Sexual harassment is not only about sex, if at all. Longstanding and broadly based research suggests that many women in positions seen to be of low power (housekeepers, waiters and nurses for example) are perceived to be easy targets by those with power and the capacity to afford preferential treatment or rewards. The exercise in subjugating those of a lower order status is the buzz, not necessarily the sex.

So too protestations of denial, which may suggest people can become engulfed by the story of their own power and that women are simply playing out an expected role; they’re following the normal script.

The current allegations regarding Harvey Weinstein include claims that other people knew but failed to report behaviour. This could be associated with the concept of the bystander effect. When people are involved in an incident with others, the likelihood of them intervening diminishes. This diffusion of responsibility of the individual, is driven by the tacit acceptance of the situation by those around them. They take cues from the behaviours of others. If no one is doing anything, then it must be OK to remain silent. More disturbing, however, is that social influence of some individuals drives the behaviour of a group and therefore the perpetuation of silence, tacit acceptance and perhaps active engagement in similar behaviour. People will also stick to the script.

The repeated question of why others don’t report allegations plays out in workplaces and other jurisdictions, where it can become normalised. And organisations including schools, sports clubs and workplaces can seem unable to deal with the scale of reporting of sexual abuse.

In the UK, research conducted in the NHS may reflect some of the common underpinning problems with organisational responses to sexual harassment and negative behaviour in general. Dysfunctional processes and responses lead to “organisational silence, normalised organisational corruption and protection of image”.

Women don’t speak up. Some believe it to be a normal part of life and that they should just ignore it, others believe that they’ll be blamed, fired or be thought of as “asking for it”. Humiliation, shame, stigma and the trauma of going through the story time and again to be believed sets up an impenetrable barrier for some against bringing incidents to light.

The allegations against Weinstein are far from unique and claims of that nature are far from being confined to the fabled realms of Hollywood. They and others like it play out in organisations, schools, and other communities on a daily basis. We must have organisational structures and processes that disallow impotent bystander behaviours and diminish the difficulty for victims to be heard. More importantly we need to call attention to where the blame lies: with the perpetrator.

As author Terry Pratchett astutely suggested: “Stories are a parasitical life-form, warping lives in the service only of the story itself. It takes a special kind of person to fight back.” We must now all turn our eyes to this story and fight back wherever it plays out – and that means also throwing the idea of the casting couch straight into the bin.