Sexual Favors in Media Work

The disgusting case of Harvey Weinstein's decades long history of bullying, pestering, abusing and thereby controlling (young) women in the US film industry is, as the fabulous Emma Thompson and other media workers have testified to, the tip of the iceberg of sexual harassment and abuse of power by (old, white) men at the top of the pyramid of the media industries toward (young, male and female) workers trying to get a break. It is important to realize that this is not just an element of toxic masculinity - it a direct consequence of the way media work is managed and organized.

Ten years ago I wrote about this in my book Media Work on the ways in which media professionals 'make it work' in the games, news, advertising, film and television industries. Below is a snipped specific to this issue. Looking back, I realize I should have spent much more time and space to articulating the complexity of gender dynamics and power relationships across all these industries, which tend to be run and organized and financed by old white men yet at the bottom end overpopulated by eager and exploitable young men and (primarily) women, creating a perfect breeding ground for predators such as Weinstein and a culture of mutual dependency that makes people keep their mouth shut instead of speaking out and risking losing all chances for future employment.

Excerpt from Media Work:

Thomas Borcherding and Darren Filson suggest that the risky, project-based, extremely uncertain yet completely hit-driven nature of the business “creates an environment that can lead to exchanges of sexual favors of newcomers” (2000, p.26), hinting at the so-called ‘casting couch’ problem of alleged sexual exploitation of young men and women entering the movie industry. 

The authors however conclude that with the breakup of the large studio-system and the death of long-term contracts tying certain employees to these companies, their power to make or break the careers of newcomers has diminished. However, as there are many more people wanting to get in to the film and television business than that there are jobs available, tension runs high in finding, keeping and consolidating jobs and, ultimately, a career. 

Scattered evidence from recent lawsuits in the entertainment industry (such as a long-running case in the U.S. ending in February 2006 against the writers of the popular television series Friends), suggest that the courts are sympathetic to arguments from industry lawyers that because of the particular nature of media work a pervasive sexual atmosphere can be necessary for the creative process of producing adult entertainment in general, and comedy in particular.

Helen Blair is among those who warn against both an overtly romantic view of the glamorous nature of working in film and television, as well as against the notion that in these industries everything is unpredictable and uncertain. Blair(2001) considers the film and television industries to be in a state of “precarious stability.”