The recent allegations of sexual misconduct against movie producer Harvey Weinstein have sparked intense conversations in part about sexual harassment in the workplace, most notably through women using the hashtag #MeToo to tell stories about their experiences. Bringing these issues to light by having real, honest conversations about them is crucial to fighting against the toxic power dynamics that enable such a sexist culture. But these kinds of conversations weren't always possible, as the actual concept of "sexual harassment" is only a few decades old. A new documentary from Retro Report called Why Hasn't Sexual Harassment Disappeared? posted via the New York Times website, sheds light on how sexual harassment in the workplace actually came to be a serious cultural issue that warranted the public's attention.
Up until the 1970s, sexual harassment wasn't even a term. Lots of people simply treated the degradation of women in the workplace as a regular part of everyday life. According to the documentary, the term "sexual harassment" arose from a consciousness-raising session that Cornell professor Lin Farley held with a group of students. During the session, Farley discovered that every woman in the room had been fired or forced out of a job after rejecting a male boss' sexual advances. She realized that the degradation of women could no longer be treated like a joke; it was a serious problem. So, in a book called Sexual Shakedown: The Sexual Harassment of Women on the Job, she introduced the public to the concept of sexual harassment for the very first time.
The documentary takes viewers on a journey through the history of how sexual harassment entered the culture — starting from the 1970s when Farley first introduced the term, to the 1980s when sexual harassment officially became a form of workplace discrimination, to Anita Hill's landmark deposition, to present-day accusations against Weinstein. It features influential figures who have largely contributed to bringing the issue of sexual harassment to the spotlight, including Eleanor Holmes Norton, who helped solidify sexual harassment as a form of workplace discrimination; Anita Hill, who accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment and became a pioneer of challenging men in power; and Gretchen Carlson, who accused former Fox CEO Roger Ailes of sexual harassment and ultimately received a monetary reward and an apology from the network.
"I wanted to find a story that could sort of illustrate a moment in time where we are today with these issues," documentary producer Bonnie Bertram tells Elite Daily. "I also wanted it to be a story that has some sense of empowerment, like how a small group of people can change the course of history."
Bertram feels "gratified" that people are recognizing just how widespread the problem of sexual harassment is and are using words like "tipping point" and "watershed moment" to describe the fact that things might really start changing soon. But based on the history of sexual harassment that she portrays in the short, she cautions against feeling optimistic so quickly. "Looking at the history of this, I would caution that there have been moments that have been 'watershed moments' before, and I'm just hoping that this will actually lead to some kind of real change," she says. "This does feel different, but I think if I put myself in a woman's shoes in 1986 after the Supreme Court case, as excited as I would have been if I was a woman who was dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace, I'm sure that the wind came out of my sails a little bit when that didn't really change people's behavior. Same thing with Anita Hill, [like] 'Wow, maybe this will change the way men treat women!' But the #MeToo campaign shows you it is everywhere."
All we can do is continue to have honest conversations and hope that the real watershed moment is just around the corner. And documentaries like Why Hasn't Sexual Harassment Disappeared? certainly bring us closer.
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