Watching the news lately has been giving me flashbacks. Women (and men) are coming out of the woodwork with their accounts of sexual harassment.
20 years ago my MFA thesis exhibition addressed the issue of sexual harassment. It was the mid 1990's and sexual harassment was in the news due to the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas trial, the military Tail Hook scandal in Las Vegas, and the Mitsubishi lawsuits. The university I was attending had a new harassment policy and my case against a professor I was working for was the test case.
While I officially "won" my case, I went through two years of great difficulty and was vilified by many in my community.
The experience inspired my thesis research and exhibition. My conclusion then – and what is on the headlines now – is that there is a culture of male privilege that starts very young that creates a continuum of degrading treatment toward women. From cat-calling to rape, it stems from a form of masculinity that is based on dominance and power. Harassment is an expression of this power.
The recent "#MeToo" campaign invites women to speak up and to let the world know how widespread this problem remains. This concept is not new- in the 90's there was a wave of women speaking as evidenced by sexual harassment policy that got developed and harassment training that eventually became required at many places of employment.
During my exhibition in 1996, I created a space for visitors to the gallery to add their photographs and stories. Many women did. Several also told me that it was the first time they had told anyone of the terrible secret they had carried. This is true today as we hear so many speaking up for the first time as they feared that their careers would be derailed.
The difference between then and now is the response of the public, the workplace, and the media.
In the mid 90's, the public tended not to believe women. Workplaces were just beginning to apply anti -harassment policies, and the media was not as critical of harassers as they seem to be now.
The Hollywood response is also different. In the movie "Disclosure" (1994), the harasser was a woman and the victim a man. (While men do experience harassment, female perpetrators are rare). "Disclosure" depicted men as the real victims of "false" harassment claims.
The movie "Oleanna", (1994) addresses a harassment accusation by a student toward her male professor. The basic premise is that the "problem" of sexual harassment claims is simply because men and women see events differently, a misunderstanding if you will.
Now, "Hollywood" is speaking out. Women are coming forward naming perpetrators, speaking out in support of victims, speaking up regarding the need to change the Hollywood atmosphere for good.
I applaud the #MeToo campaign and hope it emboldens more people to continue to speak and to hold perpetrators accountable. More importantly, I hope to changes the culture of enabling and silencing that has perpetuated the abuse.
I could only have dreamed of this kind of widespread support in the 90's. The change and accountability is a long time coming and gives me hope for the future.
"Me Too" in 1996