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The Pervasive Problem Of Sexual Harassment – And The Arts


by Jerome Weeks 7 Dec 2017

Sexual harassment allegations are rocking the world of arts, entertainment and media. Not just headline celebrities in Hollywood and New York. In Dallas, in the last month, a curator from the Dallas Museum of Art resigned and the director of new play development at The Dallas Theater Center was fired. We look at factors that make the problem pervasive – and how the arts are not so different from other industries, despite longstanding beliefs that they are.

Lee Trull was fired from the Dallas Theater Center Monday for what the theater called “inappropriate behavior.”

Katy Tye is one woman who says she’s experienced that behavior. Today, she’s co-founder of PrismCo Movement Theater. Four years ago, she was a 19-year-old SMU theater student. Trull was the DTC’s casting director. He sent her a friendly Facebook message.

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Katy Tye

Eventually, Trull’s messages turned flirtatious, Tye says – then explicit. He touted the benefits of sex with an older man like himself. Trull was in his early 30s at the time. She saved the Facebook messages, although she never reported the situation to the Theater Center.

“I could probably blow off the messages as like, ‘Eh, what a skeez,’” she says. “But I was a student at the time, and he was casting out of our student pool. So to blow off the biggest player in hiring young women, it’s not even shooting yourself in the foot. It’s a gutshot.”

Trull did not return KERA’s calls for comment.

The town hall meeting at Arts Mission Oak Cliff to be held Monday to hear about Chicago’s efforts to establish a code of standards – even for non-union artists – has established a Facebook page to gauge interest because seating is very limited.

These kinds of power imbalances are not unique to theater. Or art galleries. Or opera companies. They are behind most workplace harassment cases. And harassment needn’t be a blatant request for sex. Or inappropriate touching. Legally, harassment’s a form of sex discrimination. It can be verbal abuse, making a female employee feel unwelcome or overly welcome — entirely as a woman.

But the arts are supposedly different. That’s certainly what artists tell themselves, why they aren’t working in regular offices. In the arts, human relationships are what makes everything work. And those relationships are fluid. You hire me one season, the next season I may know a designer you could use. And Tye says that creates pressure to go along — to keep possibilities open.

“You try to, like, put up the blinders to what maybe is actually happening,” she says, “and you just try to keep a good relationship with the person.”

“The whole industry,” Joanna Grossman says, “has this lubricant of people not burning bridges when they leave and people looking the other way.”

Grossman is an SMU law professor who specializes in sex discrimination and workplace inequality. And Grossman says, despite what artists may think, the arts are not really all that different when it comes to harassment practices and policies. Women face these very same issues throughout our economy.

Lee Trull

Lee Trull

“Women are always making this sort of cost-benefit determination: You know, ‘What will my life look like if I go forward [with a complaint]?’ Or ‘What will my life be like if I ignore this?’ And mostly what women find is that when they complain, their lives actually get a little bit worse rather than a little bit better.”

People often ask, when another harassment scandal breaks, why didn’t she (or he) raise a ruckus when it happened years ago? This is one good reason: Women weigh the options and figure they’ll probably suffer for it. Odds are, they’re right.

“Fifty to sixty percent of people who complain about harassment in a workplace,” Grossman says, “will suffer some kind of tangible retaliation.”

She says this may not even be a matter of supervisors seeking payback. It may be ostracism by fellow employees. It turns out most of us don’t like complainers, even if they’re proven right. Their fellow employees don’t like them, Grossman says, and that’s so even when they know what’s going on. Even when the fellow employees have themselves been victims of harassment.

“People in a workplace,” says Grossman, “like an atmosphere of ‘No Complaints.'”

So added to the harm of the original harassment, there’s workplace ostracism.

But Katy Tye had another reason not to complain.

“I wasn’t an employee of the Theater Center,” she says. “I never have been. Like, I wouldn’t really know who to go to at the Theater Center.”

Most arts organizations have no human resource department. Theaters may post the anti-harassment guidelines of Actors Equity, the performers’ union, but Tye, like most young actors, is non-union. In fact, so are most singers, dancers, designers, musicians, painters — the list goes on. They’re all freelancers. The arts would seem to be the sector of the economy most open to the free-spirited – and it provides them the least protection from abuses of power.

Grossman says these issues actually extend beyond the arts. Most small businesses don’t have human resource departments, either. Welcome to our celebrated new gig economy, where every job is essentially a temp job.

“We’ve always had freelancers,” she says, “but the size of the gig economy puts so many more people in harm’s way. If you’re an independent contractor, you more or less have no protections.”

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Gavin Delahunty

For their part, arts administrations are also now borrowing the bland, self-protective terminology of corporations. At the DMA, curator Gavin Delahunty apologized for his ‘inappropriate behavior’ when he resigned. That’s the same phrase the Theater Center used when firing Lee Trull. The lack of detail is deliberate, says Grossman: “Mostly what institutions are trying to do is minimize liability.”

The fewer details released, the less likelihood of unpleasant questions being raised. This happened over years. Didn’t somebody know about this? Who signed off on that?

In the last week, in the media and on social media and follow-up apologies, some Dallas artists have expressed anger that the words “sexual harassment” weren’t used. Inappropriate behavior sounds vague, even benign. A misunderstanding. They say institutions should take responsibility for naming what happened.

Grossman says, the benign language also helps an organization avoid being marked with a stigma. It’s one thing for the public to remember “something inappropriate happened there.” It’s another if what they remember are vivid details of assaults, verbal insults.

Grossman says she really sees only one remedy for harassment: “It has to come from the industry, it has come from the people who structure things – that they crack down.”  So far, beyond a flurry of arts groups denouncing such activities, declaring they’re revising or re-emphasizing their personnel policies, re-posting Equity rules, few if any solid changes have been offered. (Here is Lauren Smart’s argument for institutional accountability.)

Frankly, I don’t expect major reforms. Arts boards may make bold choices on stage or in the galleries. But backstage, and in the boardrooms, affecting administrative leadership? I cannot recall the last time anything like that happened in North Texas.

For her part, Grossman would like to take hope from the #MeToo movement.

But at the end of the day, she says, victims shouldn’t be responsible for making changes.

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