Sexual harassment in the workplace has been a major topic of public discussion in the past few weeks, due in large part to the numerous allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. These allegations have placed the movie business under a spotlight, exposing behaviors that have long been considered “open secrets” among many people, and causing more than a few people in positions of power—mostly, but not exclusively, men—to consider their own behavior. Despite this newfound attention to the issue, sexual harassment in movies and television has been a well-known phenomenon for some time. It even has a nickname: “the casting couch.” Sexual harassment is also a pervasive problem beyond the movies. In New York City, sexual harassment is essentially considered part of the culture of many businesses, from Wall Street to neighborhood restaurants. A survey of more than 2,000 women by the magazine Cosmopolitan found that one-third of the respondents had experienced sexual harassment at work. Hopefully, the attention that is currently focused on Hollywood will also consider the many other places where sexual harassment can occur.
Anti-discrimination statutes, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and laws in New York and New York City, view sexual harassment as a form of unlawful sex discrimination. It may consist of unwanted and inappropriate comments, jokes, or overtures of a sexual nature, as well as non-consensual touching and overt sexual assault. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that actions such as these constitute sexual harassment in a legal sense in several possible situations, including when obtaining a job is conditioned on agreeing to some form of sexual activity. Sexual harassment also occurs when harassing conduct is severe or pervasive enough that it creates a hostile work environment. These situations can occur in nearly every type of workplace.
The movie business might offer the archetypal example of the EEOC’s first definition of sexual harassment. The term “casting couch” dates back to at least the 1930s, in the early days of the film industry. It refers to the notion that actresses—and sometimes actors—must submit to sexual activity with a producer or director in order to obtain roles in films and build their careers. Over the decades, the term has come to represent the industry’s tendency to tolerate this sort of behavior, even if it nominally claims to oppose it.