The Boundaries of Boundlessness
Power Structures, Sexual Harassment and Violence in the Film, Television and Performing Arts Industries
The study by Themis – center against sexual harassment and violence – is a qualitative interview study conducted in 2019 and published in April 2020. It contains interviews with 16 experts (14 women and 2 men) from the film, television and performing arts industries. Interviewees were asked about some of the following topics: Industry specific characteristics; responses to, as well as experiences with boundaries and the violations of boundaries; and sexual harassment and sexualized violence within their industry. Furthermore, Themis recorded participants’ recommendations and asks.
To get the best possible understanding of these concerns, Themis selected study participants from different trades and hierarchal levels with varying professional experience in their respective jobs.
Here are some of the conclusions:
Characteristics of the Industries: Working Together and Spending Time Together
In comparison to other fields of work the film, television and performing arts industries are marked by:
- A big power imbalance, including relationships which are characterized by strong dependencies; gender inequality
- mixing of private and professional spaces
- an emphasis on a culture of physical interaction and physicality more generally (especially for performance artists), which brings its own challenges in navigating being close and distant with others
Working conditions are often characterized by time constraints and pressures to succeed, which can lead to an emotional state of emergency. In some instances, actors are also requested to stay in a vulnerable state within the context of a production.
The workplace setting is family-like, but simultaneously shaped by unspoken power imbalances. In the theater and film scenes, where everyone knows each other, issues with dependency become even greater because actors’ future engagements are based on recommendations.
The physical proximity between actors or between actors and directors, make-up artists, costume designers or others is an industry specific challenge.
Handling Boundaries and the Violation of Boundaries
The ways in which boundaries are violated:
- Exceeding planned and reasonable working hours; not sticking to financial agreements
- Initiating „romantic“ relationships from a position of power
- Psychological violence by ignoring individual boundaries as they relate to intimate scenes
- Pressuring someone by, for example, refusing to accept an employee’s sick note; mobbing
- Verbal violations of boundaries; targeted discrimination and insults
- Violating boundaries by rating body parts; sexual comments; sexual harassment
However, during the interviews study participants overwhelmingly discussed physical violations of boundaries: Sexualized touch and kissing without consent, but also bodily injuries. In their descriptions they repeatedly pointed to a connection between these attacks and displays of power.
As related to study participants’ own boundaries, most shared that they responded by complying in a resigned manner. Only few were able to verbally set boundaries, some even left the industry.
Dealing With Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence
10 of the 16 interviewees, shared that they themselves had experienced sexual harassment at work. The others witnessed sexual harassment or heard about incidences from colleagues.
There is a great deal of uncertainty within the film, television and performing arts industries about recognizing and dealing with sexual harassment due to so called “grey areas” or fluid boundaries. Most are unfamiliar with the legal definition of sexual harassment.
Usually others know who the perpetrators are within the industry, yet they are tolerated.
Collegial solidarity was named as particularly helpful when it comes to addressing sexual harassment and sexualized violence. In addition, an overall respectful work culture is helpful as are managers and directors who intervene.
Professionals just starting their careers or women, particularly in feminized occupations, are especially at risks of experiencing sexual harassment. Yet, the fear of having to deal with negative consequences and stigmatization remains strong and many decide not to file a complaint.
Requests and Recommendations
Experts expressed the need for more prevention by raising awareness and establishing clearly communicated behavioral guidelines. They also emphasized the importance of stronger support structures. Experts advocate for interventions through investigative authorities, public outreach and relations, and demand clearly identified consequences for perpetrators.
The entire study is available on the Themis website.