History of Hollywood Sexual Abuse

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Sexual abuse and harassment in the film industry—“Hollywood,” colloquially—has been at the forefront of the news cycle for several years now, with many current and former household names shining a light on the culture of abuse in Tinseltown. 

However, this sort of transparency and the idea of coming forward is relatively new, as in the past, many victims were intimidated or coerced into staying silent. 

With the rise of the #metoo movement and media coverage surrounding the Jeffrey Epstein human trafficking case, as well as others, shady practices and the euphemistic “casting couch” are being exposed for what they are—sexual abuse.

To fully understand the importance of this pivotal shift in Hollywood and our culture in general, it’s important to look back at the history of sexual abuse in Hollywood, what behaviors constitute sexual abuse and harassment and how the cultural climate changed to allow victims to speak out without fear of reprisal.

Defining Sexual
Harassment and Abuse

Sexual harassment is a form of sexual discrimination in the workplace. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), it is defined as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.” 

Although working in the Hollywood entertainment industry is not a common job, singers, actresses, directors and dancers are employed workers and therefore entitled to the same workplace protections under the law as any other employee.

Sexual abuse is defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) as “unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent.” It goes beyond harassment and can include physical contact up to and including rape. 

In Hollywood sexual abuse cases, the victim and abuser often know each other, and the abuser is in a position of power over the victim—such as an employer or someone who can influence the victim’s career (positively or negatively). In cases of a power imbalance—like many abusive relationships in Hollywood—the victim often cannot fully give consent because of coercion and fear.

Cases of sexual harassment and abuse in Hollywood often involve an influential person taking advantage of a young, new or otherwise relatively powerless individual. The abuser may make promises to dictate and control the victim’s behavior and cooperation or create threats to ensure that the victim is compliant.

Both sexual harassment and sexual abuse are against the law, and instances of either one occurring are legally actionable.

The Casting Couch—or Trading Favors for Fame

Sexual harassment and using sexual favors as currency was somewhat of an open secret in Hollywood for decades. For many, the “casting couch,” or actors participating in sexual acts with producers or directors to get roles, was just considered to be a nasty part of “the business.” 

Some actresses made a few publicized comments, such as: “If you’re invited to a party at the Four Seasons with this director, don’t go.” But many people, both in the industry and outside of it, didn’t view these statements as what they were—mentions of sexual crime.

Harassment in Hollywood was an “open secret” among people in the industry, and few dared to speak up about the abuses they suffered. Corey Haim was one such actor, accusing several prominent actors, directors and producers of abusing underage actors in Hollywood. 

In fact, Haim’s 2014 documentary, which focused on his experiences and those of his peers, was titled Open Secret. The actor’s claims were largely dismissed until the rise of the #metoo movement, when his accusations were given a closer look by many.

Haim’s claims indicated that many of the victims were under 18, and the abusers were all adults. It’s important to note that a minor cannot legally give consent nor consent to trade a sexual favor for a role in a movie. Sexual abuse of a minor is a different classification of crime than workplace harassment and often is a serious felony. 

Later accusations of prominent Hollywood actors and actresses corroborated the prevalence of trading sexual favors for film roles. Many of these accounts noted that directors and producers would invite them to a hotel room or suite to discuss their careers and then ask for sexual favors or force themselves on the actor.

Weinstein Effect

Before the #metoo Movement

In the mid-1970s, rumors began swirling after acclaimed director Roman Polanski fled the United States after being convicted on charges of sexual assault against a minor. Polanski returned to his native France, where, as a French citizen, he was unable to be extradited to the United States to serve his sentence. 

The case gained international attention and increased concern over the culture of harassment and assault in Hollywood.

Another director, Woody Allen, was implicated in child sex abuse in the 1990s. Although he wasn’t convicted of molesting his then-seven-year-old adopted daughter, the girl stuck to her story, disclosing publicly in 2014 the abuse she suffered. 

Her brother, Ronan Farrow, has been a consistent advocate for his sister and a prominent sexual abuse survivor activist. He was one of the first to write a public report detailing the sexual abuses of famous (and influential) director and producer Harvey Weinstein.

After the publication of Farrow’s report, a phenomenon known as the “Weinstein Effect” took root in Hollywood, with dozens of prominent actors and actresses coming forward to share their own stories about sexual abuse and harassment.

Victim Solidarity and #metoo

More than 80 women accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual abuse and misconduct, generating extensive media coverage in October 2017. Survivors of Hollywood sexual abuse posted their stories to social media, tagging their posts #metoo in solidarity. This became known as the “#metoo movement” and garnered national attention. 

Other workers in the film industry showed their support for women coming forward by publicly condemning both the behavior and those accused. In an industry where influence is power, public condemnation of the perpetrators might be almost as impactful as pressing legal charges against them.

Weinstein was charged with first- and third-degree rape and sentenced to 23 years in prison in 2020. He was also expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and his own production company, The Weinstein Company.

Perhaps we can also credit the #metoo movement for uncovering the sexual abuse perpetrated by one of Hollywood’s elite—Bill Cosby. Cosby, whose branded persona was that of a family man and generally nice, funny guy, was accused by more than 60 women of drugging and raping or sexually assaulting them from the 1970s onward.

The length of time between these incidents and when victims came forward to accuse Cosby may indicate just how fiercely intimidated many people working in the competitive film and modeling industries were. 

Cosby faced criminal charges and was convicted at trial, serving prison time, although his conviction was later overturned because of a legal technicality.

The heightened public awareness of sexual assault and harassment in Hollywood led to women from all industries disclosing their stories about workplace harassment and assault. Ultimately, a greater focus has been placed on helping victims seek justice and find healing.

The Importance of the Jeffrey Epstein Case

Perhaps no sexual abuse case has garnered more national attention than that involving international financier Jeffrey Epstein. Epstein was charged with sexual abuse of minors and with facilitating sexual abuse and human trafficking of both minors and adults. 

Epstein’s connections to powerful people across the globe—including European royalty, political leaders, billionaires and prominent Hollywood players—made the case even more intriguing.

Epstein was convicted on several counts of abuse, trafficking and molestation, but he was found dead in a prison cell before many of his affiliates could be named.

The Effects of Sexual Abuse in the Workplace

One of the biggest challenges for people who have been victims of sexual abuse and harassment in the workplace is simply not being believed. 

Like many cases of sexual assault, sexual abuse by someone with power or influence often comes down to the victim’s word against the accuser’s. Many victims are manipulated into thinking that no one will believe them if they disclose the abuse.

Part of the power imbalance between a victim of sexual abuse and the abuser is the abuser’s position of authority over the victim. 

This power in the workplace can affect a person’s current job and career prospects. Abusers may imply or outright state that the victim may lose their job if they don’t comply or may promise a promotion or raise if they go along with the abuser’s requests.

Women are the majority of workplace sexual harassment and abuse victims, with one 2011 study finding that 38 percent of working women experienced sexual harassment. Abuse victims experience higher rates of workplace absenteeism, dropped productivity and negative relationships with co-workers.

Many victims of sexual abuse may suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and can feel shame, anxiety and depression. It’s not uncommon for abuse victims to quit their jobs soon after the abuse starts or to have difficulty finding employment afterward. 

Many people in smaller or niche industries may fear the influence that the abuser has in their industry, such as in hiring decisions at other companies, aka “blackballing.” This fear for one’s career isn’t limited to Hollywood actresses but can affect both women and men in any type of employment.

What to Do If You’ve Been Sexually Assaulted at Work

1

Ensure your own safety. Leave the area if possible

2

If you’ve sustained injuries or were raped, seek medical attention

3

You should also file a police report

If you’ve been assaulted at work, you have the right to protect yourself. First and foremost, ensure your own safety. Leave the area if possible, and find someone to help you until you feel comfortable taking further steps.

If you’ve sustained injuries or were raped, seek medical attention. If you go to the hospital because you were sexually assaulted, the medical professionals will need to collect physical evidence. 

Even if you don’t have physical injuries, the hospital can still collect evidence of an assault, so try to avoid going to the bathroom or washing your clothes, face and body until you’ve sought medical help. Registered nurses are trained to treat your injuries and to provide compassionate support.

You should also file a police report, which you can do while in the hospital. Filing a report doesn’t mean you have to press charges against the person who assaulted you, but the police report is an integral part of your case if you decide to take legal action.

Once you’ve secured evidence of your assault, it’s essential to seek help and support. The hospital may be able to recommend a support group or provide a referral to a therapist or counselor. 

Sexual assault victims can suffer many kinds of emotional trauma and mental distress, and the sooner you’re able to begin therapy, the greater your chances will be for healing.

Have you been a victim of workplace harassment?

Workplace harassment and sexual assault aren’t limited to Hollywood. Sexual abusers can come from all walks of life. It’s important to note that victims can be men, too. Oftentimes, men may feel even more reluctant to disclose sexual abuse or harassment, although the effects of sexual abuse for male victims are just as damaging as for female victims.

Many victims may be confused about whether they consented to sexual contact or interactions, but a victim cannot truly consent if there are threats or coercion. 

You aren’t alone, and you may have legal options to bring your abuser to justice.  

Professional counseling and therapy from someone trained to help survivors of sexual abuse can help you heal. And a personal injury lawyer who specializes in sexual abuse cases can help you fight for your rights against your abuser.