How to Deal with Subtle Acts of Sexual Harassment

How to Deal with Subtle Acts of Sexual HarassmentAs many of you already know, I work in the film industry as a stunt performer. I also work as a background performer in between stunt days, to keep gaining on-set experience, keep up-to-date about industry goings-on, and to make extra cash. In doing so, I end up being put in social situations to help manufacture the atmosphere of the film.

Since you don’t always get to choose who you’ll interact with and the ways in which you’ll be interacting, sometimes you end up having to be in social situations with people you might not be 100% comfortable. Now if all people involved behaved in a way that was purely professional, without crossing natural personal space boundaries, all would be good. Unfortunately, not everyone abides by the same code of conduct. While it is rare that someone would do something that was clearly crossing the line, a lot of subtle personal space invasions occur on set, ones that are harder to identify as such. I imagine this sort of thing also happens in the normal working world, but when you’re on set, people are more likely to do it in the guise of trying to “set the scene” and “act in character,” making it easier to dismiss as an innocent mistake, either in the mind of the recipient as well as in active defense of the perpetrator.

Hidden in Plain View

Last summer, I was working on a show as a background performer in which we were playing guests at a cocktail party. We were all dressed in our finest. In my case, I was wearing a sexy, shorter, lower-cut cocktail dress. I rarely go to formal events, so I felt very aware of the amount of skin I was showing. In one scene, I was directly in the foreground of the camera next to a guy who kept pretending to lean in and whisper in my ear while putting his hand on the small of my back in a familiar way. It made me very uncomfortable, but he was doing it while we were on screen, cameras rolling. I tried to put space between us in a subtle way a couple of times, but the director of photography repeatedly told me to stay put because I was going out of frame. From the angle they were shooting, they couldn’t see his hand creeping on my back, nor did they pick up on the fact that he was leaning so close he could have kissed my neck. I tried my best to create as much space as I could without ruining the shot. After all, I didn’t want to create a fuss while they were in the middle of an important shot. Nor did I feel comfortable confronting the guy who was doing this. I just figured he probably didn’t realize what he was doing and was just getting carried away in playing the part. I later asked a woman who seemed to know him better if I should say something to him after we cut. Every fibre of my being wanted to be assertive and tell him that he had made me uncomfortable, but she said, “If he does it again, maybe, but I don’t think he meant anything by it.” So I didn’t. The most I did was apologize to the director of photography for not staying in place. I explained the reason why, but it was more motivated by not wanting to appear unprofessional. I did nothing to correct the behaviour. And I kick myself whenever I look back on that day in retrospect.

Avoiding Negative Attention

In the film industry, too often people don’t take a stand for what they think is right. They don’t want to be seen as “that person” who is kicking up a fuss over something that seems insignificant, especially when the show is several hours behind schedule, and the production is in “get ‘er done” mode. That day last year, I fell victim to that mentality. I didn’t want to rock the boat and be seen as a problem extra, possibly endangering my potential to get work with the same production company in the future. If the guy had grabbed my butt, I would have had no issue calling him out, and would have had no trouble getting the production to take appropriate action. But his creepy invasion of personal space was subtle. I worried that the crew would see me as over-reacting and messing with the shoot with my behaviour. I also worried that if I told the guy about how uncomfortable he made me, he would have told other people how I made a big deal over nothing, making for a toxic work environment. So I said nothing. What I didn’t realize at the time is that this sort of subtle, yet creepy space invasion happens quite often among extras while on set, as I came to discover after having a conversation with a background wrangler later on.

Why We Need Whistle Blowers

Now I wasn’t mentally scarred by that experience or anything. It was mildly uncomfortable at worst, something I am emotionally equipped to move past with ease. I think that was part of the reason why I didn’t say anything. The problem is, of course, that the perpetrators get away with this creepy behaviour. To be fair, some of the guys who do this sort of thing may not even realize that they might be making the woman uncomfortable. Either way, if someone draws a line and makes a clear refusal of the behaviour, it may make them reluctant to do it again in the future, for many of the same reasons why women might be reluctant to say something in the first place. They don’t want to raise a stink on set and create problems at work either.

“Give Me Some Space”

I recently had the chance to respond to another situation where a background performer was invading my space in a creepy way. In this case, we were deeper in the background, and we were playing co-workers having a normal conversation in an office hallway. When the guy first came up to me for our pretend conversation, he would come face-to-face, uncomfortably close, within about a foot of my face. I tried to put more space between us, but I had a wall at my back so I couldn’t. At first I thought it was because we were placed in a tight part of the hallway, but then we were placed further forward in a wider part of the hallway, and he did it again.

Immediately after they cut, I said to him, “Could you please give me more space when you come up? You’re so close it’s making me uncomfortable.” He replied by saying that it made him uncomfortable too, but he was just trying to make sure he was on camera, but we were so far away and the camera was pointing directly toward us, there was no way he wasn’t in shot, and I explained as much to him. The very next take, he walked up and did the same thing again. I felt perfectly justified putting my hand on his chest and pushing him back out of my personal space during the shot. We were so deep in the background, of course, no one noticed. But after they cut, I took a more assertive tone with him, “What are you doing? I specifically asked you to stay out of my personal space. Don’t do it again!” Fortunately, after I was more firm with him, he backed off for the rest of the takes.

To be fair to the man in question, I have no idea if he was invading my space on purpose. It could be that he just thought he needed to be that close to be in the shot. But if someone is going to continue an offending behaviour after having been warned, I won’t hesitate to be be firm.

Tips on Dealing with Subtle Offenders

Here are a few suggestions on how to deal with more subtle invasions of personal space:

Say something. There may be situations in which you might not be comfortable saying something, whether it’s being in the middle of a shot in the film industry, or at an important office meeting or party. While you may or may not want to say something at the moment of occurrence, it is still worthwhile to address the issue afterwards. My preference is to politely but assertively tell them what they did and that it made me uncomfortable, and to not do it again. In some cases, you might even say it in a way that allows them to save face, saying something like, “I’m sure you’re not doing it on purpose, but…” to help cushion the statement. Some people may prefer to skip politeness and be more firm. While this may be more effective at correcting the behaviour, I do understand that some scenarios might necessitate a more delicate approach.

Don’t negotiate your “no.” Sometimes the polite approach will not be enough. If confronted with the same behaviour again, skip levels of politeness and use your “bad dog” voice (or attitude) and set boundaries, verbally or physically. In my case, I literally pushed the guy back, but in a subtle way so that I didn’t want to ruin the shot. I also used a stern tone with him when the cameras stopped rolling. The worst response is to offer weaker and weaker protests or refusals. It signals that you’ll keep backing down against their will, rewarding their persistence.

Bring it to the attention of someone in authority. It might be tempting to not bring the issue up again once it’s been dealt with and the person who was bothering you is no longer a problem, but it’s still a good idea to bring the situation to the attention of a manager or similar. In my case, I let the background wrangler know what happened. I made it clear that the behaviour had stopped, but I wanted someone to know in case it happened again to someone else. The goal wasn’t to get the guy in trouble, I just wanted to make sure that he didn’t just move on to someone else who was less inclined to call him out. If someone with authority is aware, they can keep an eye on the situation or escalate it to disciplinary action  if they think the situation comes up again, or if they think it warrants it based the information they already have.

Avoiding future situations. Once you know someone is inclined to act in ways that make you uncomfortable, you might want to take measures to avoid being in similar situations. I’m not saying you should avoid doing things that are important to your job or life, but if you can avoid being alone and/or in compromising situations with a known perpetrator, why wouldn’t you? After my situation with the guy on set, I just avoided being near him in general, which isn’t hard to do on set or in holding for the most part. If he keeps closing in on you, despite your attempts to avoid, then you might have to confront him again, or bring the situation up again with a person in power, but sometimes it’s possible to simply leave well enough alone.

After dealing with my recent situation, I feel somewhat redeemed. I dealt with the situation assertively and maturely, and it had the desired results. I am confident that it was the right thing to do, not just for my own needs but for the overall working conditions on set.

Rules of Thumb for the Guys

If there are any men out there reading this, I’d like to offer some advice to avoid making women uncomfortable in the first place. It starts with simply giving women respectful space. This is especially true in a work environment, but it can also apply in social environments, depending on the people and how close you are to them. Here are some good rules of thumb:

1) Don’t be in kissing distance.
2) Avoid touching women unnecessarily.
3) If you have to touch a woman for your job, make sure it’s okay with her first.
4) Avoid conversational topics that are implicitly or explicitly sexual.
5) If a woman asks you not to do something, stop doing it.

Now over to you. Have you ever dealt with similar situations of personal space invasion? Do you have any other advice for dealing with it? If so, please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.

Comments (3)

3 thoughts on “How to Deal with Subtle Acts of Sexual Harassment

  1. I hope I don’t detract from the context of sexual harassment, but this could also be tied in with the martial arts concept of maai. I won’t expand as you are more qualified than I am to do so.

    One “subtle” experience of mine not sexual in nature was the chef at the cafeteria where I worked kept calling me “chico” (in reference to the old sitcom “Chico and the Man”). I’m not sure why exactly but I thought it might have been because I reminded him of Jack Albertson even though Chico was the younger character. This guy was younger than me by the way and neither of us had any Hispanic roots. Anyway I didn’t like it. I tried ignoring it, I countered with “my name’s Gord”. I gave him “stern” looks. None of it worked. I brought it up in group therapy. The feedback was that I should just tell him “look I don’t like you calling me that”. Simply enough, right? but I couldn’t bring myself to do it, in part because I didn’t want to appear to my co-workers to seem aggressive or over-sensitive. I stopped going for lunch in the cafeteria. Over a year later I heard that he was fired because a food inspector saw him returning from the washroom without washing his hands. I don’t know the details but it’s probably not as bad as it sounds. In any case I started going back to eat there.

    My point is, I think you, and my group feedback are right. It’s better to say something, and if it doesn’t sink in, say it more strongly. Instead I still have it with me after all this time. Like yours, this experience wasn’t deeply scarring. As well as the reasons cited above, I also thought it was a “guy thing”. I thought it was easier for women to say “I don’t like what your doing, so stop it” because men should just be able to take it and not seem petty. In hindsight that’s not true. I still don’t know if faced with the same or similar situation how I’d react.

    I realize that there is another level when there’s a sexual connotation, and I won’t claim to have never made a woman feel uncomfortable. I just hope that I’m more aware now. The other side too for men, is that you can perhaps offend someone by over-doing the aversion, or distancing, though possibly not intending to, or just exhibiting passive-aggressive behanour.

    1. Thanks for your comment Gord. I think you nailed it right on the head. Your example is exactly the same kind of feeling I had about my situation. I wasn’t scarred, I just wished I had said something. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks for this. It’s been three years since you posted this but I searched for subtle sexual harassment not knowing what I’ll find. Then, I stumble upon your post and I feel grateful. Tonight, I felt harassed by subtle gestures of this new acquaintance. During dinner, I felt a foot grazed mine, I ignored it thinking he must have been just stretching and reached accidentally reached my foot. After dinner, him, another new acquaintance and I decided to have coffee and he did it again. This time, the movement was more clear and I felt so offended it took me minutes before I regained my composure. So I shifted and moved my legs as far away as possible (almost falling of the chair) but I still see how his feet tried reaching out in the guise of stretching. It was ridiculous but I felt so powerless because I am sure he’ll deny it if I point it out. On ourway to the taxi stand, he gently bumped into me so that his hand or shoulders or part of him brushed part of my butt and almost the side of my boobs. His moves were so subtle. 🙁

    I will surely follow your advice. But also, I’m a mother and I felt so offended. Can’t a mom just enjoy coffee and be respected as a human being!! The subtle moves made me feel worthless because I think he often does this to any woman regardless of their look/status. It made me feel like he simply did it for fun or (he is not aware) that he likes making women feel uncomfortable (Incidentally, he is a Creative Director and owns a studio, so maybe that’s really a common thing in the industry).

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