Sexual harassment and assault are big news at the moment. Apparently it takes a very high profile case, something salacious and gossipy enough to catch the imagination of the public at large, to start a national conversation. It takes a Harvey Weinstein or a Bill Cosby, the very public downfall of a very public figure.
Opera is not in the public eye the way Hollywood is, but we have our own deeply entrenched rape culture. It affects both genders and it is a real and hideous problem. Last year, working on behalf of an online group of American opera soloists, I collected stories from hundreds of colleagues to deliver to AGMA, our union, to encourage them to take a stronger stance on sexual harassment in the workplace. The late Alan Gordon, then Executive Director, was deeply horrified by these stories; he told me that he had had no idea there was so much harassment going on. As a result of this report, AGMA established a confidential system which allows members to report incidents, even if they do not want to come forward and pursue it legally. The idea is that AGMA will collect these stories and reach out to opera companies when they see that a predator has been hired. There is little else they can do if the singer is not willing to publicly name names.
Often the youngest, most vulnerable members of our profession are the ones most deeply affected. Young Artists are in the precarious position of being new to the profession, desperate not to take any wrong steps as they work to establish themselves, and at the mercy of unscrupulous people who use their power and position to take advantage. I will never forget a fellow apprentice approaching me backstage and saying, "Maestro just grabbed my ass. I don't know what to do. Should I report it?" She didn't. Too afraid of what it would mean for her career. I also witnessed, in a rehearsal in full view of the general director of the company, cast, and chorus, a stage director making inappropriate comments to the female apprentices about their bodies. No one, including myself, said a word. I did later speak to the apprentices and was told he did this on a regular basis, but they didn't know what to do about it. At the time, I didn't, either. Like others, I was too afraid to speak up.
It's not just young artists that this happens to, and not just women. A (male) conductor friend was assaulted by a (male) board member at a party. Another male friend was told by a well-known producer, "You're so handsome. I bet you and your boyfriend are just so beautiful together." There was a coach in a program I did who was famous for putting men's hands on his crotch under the pretense of seeing what kind of "reach" they might have on the piano.
Luckily for me, I have not experienced sexual harassment or assault in a professional environment, though I have many, many times in my personal life, beginning at age 10. Most of the incidents were harassment --- catcalls, guys following me through the subway or on the streets yelling stuff, demanding I smile and calling me a bitch or worse when I didn't; teenage boys snapping my bra strap and trying to throw things down my shirt; grown men saying suggestive things to me when I was a very well-endowed 11-year-old. But I've also been groped by strangers, dry-humped on a crowded subway car, pinned against the wall in a dark and isolated storage room by the husband of an employer.
And that's just me. As a child, I saw my mother groped in public. Five women (that I know of) in my circle of friends have been raped, some repeatedly by different assailants. I don't know any woman who has not been harassed or assaulted.
We can't ALL be exaggerating, "crazy", "too sensitive", "can't take a joke", "wanting it", "asking for it", can we?
So, how do we stop it? How do we , in the classical music industry, put our own house in order? Here are some ideas, and I welcome you to add your own in the comments.
Companies --- if it's not already, a policy statement on harassment should have a prominent place in your welcome packet and in your address to the company on day one of rehearsals; and it should be rigorously enforced. This includes taking initiative when you witness it or believe harassment has occurred --- not waiting for a complaint, but privately addressing the individual to hear their story and find out what, if any, action is required. It means letting the individual know you've got her back, are dealing with the offender, and are actively keeping an eye on the situation to make sure she is safe. It means talking to your board members and your staff to let them know artists and especially young artists are off limits and bad behavior will not be tolerated. It means educating and empowering your young artists and not putting them in vulnerable situations.
I love Dayton Opera's policy statement: "The Dayton Opera maintains a pleasant and productive work environment, and verbal abuse will not be tolerated. Abusive language includes racial, sexual, ethnic, or other ephitets as wella as profanity when directed at any company member... Sexual harassment in the workplace is a violation of state and federal law. Sexual harassment or intimidation is defined as unwelcome sexual advances and other verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature which is presented as a term or condition of employment, which interferes with an individual's work performance, or which creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. Dayton Opera will not tolerate such behavior."
Men --- Call. It. Out. Right then, right there, out loud and in public. That includes not only sexist or harassing comments, but gaslighting, which is possibly even worse than the comments themselves. "Aw, can't you take a joke?" "You're crazy, I didn't mean it that way." "You're so emotional!"
Listen to a woman when she says someone or something made her uncomfortable and don't make excuses for someone else's bad behavior.
Amplify women's voices on these matters.
Check yourself. Review your own behavior. Ask yourself if you've ever insisted on attention from a woman who didn't want to give it, ever catcalled, ever snapped a bra strap, remarked on a woman's body publicly, told a woman she's crazy or too sensitive or can't take a joke when an incident goes down, laughed and made with the guys when a woman walks by. Ask yourself if you've ever done anything worse. Better yet, ask the women in your lives. It's very uncomfortable, but the exercise is not intended to make you feel guilty. It's to help you understand, really see the problem, and start making a real difference.
And, BTW, these "guidelines" are not just for men, but for ANYONE who sees bigoted or harassing behavior --- whether it's against women, or LGTBQ, or POC.
Women --- First and foremost, SUPPORT OTHER WOMEN. Don't body shame, don't talk trash about their outfit, hair, or makeup. That sort of BS feeds into rape culture in a big way and besides, it's tacky as all get out. (Yes, I've been as guilty of it as you have. And I've stopped).
Don't call other women "sluts" or "whores". Don't police other women's sexual behavior. Women can be just as bad as men about trashing other women. Stop it.
Be there for your friends. If someone tells you they've been harassed or assaulted, treat them like you think you'd want to be treated. Listen to them. Believe them. Get them medical help (that includes mental health help, if needed). Speak on their behalf if they want you to. Stand up to the abuser if you can. But most importantly, take your lead from them.
And if it's happened to you --- don't blame yourself. I can't say it any better than Rachel Flynn, a friend of a friend who posted on Facebook:
Everyone --- Call any harassment, bullying, or assault out --- no matter who is the victim, no matter what type of abuse it may be. Sexual, racist, homophobic--- if we want a better society, we have to squelch bigotry of all kinds and excise it to the greatest extent possibly from our culture.
Teach your kids body autonomy. Teach them the correct names for their body parts, and teach them that their bodies belong to themselves. Don't force them to touch people or accept touch if they don't want to ("Come on, give Aunt Flo a kiss!").
Teach your daughters that their value is in their minds and souls and work ethic and how they develop and use their talents and how they treat other people ... not in their appearance. Teach them that no one has a right to place limits on them because of their gender or the way they look. Teach them that men are not there to be toyed with or manipulated. Teach them that the responsibility of supporting a family is to be shared with their partner. Teach them that masculinity is not defined by stoicism, and that it takes many forms.
Teach your sons the same thing, and teach them that women are not there for their entertainment and do not owe them anything. Teach them that women's bodies are not there for them to comment on or touch unless invited to do so. Teach them to stand up to their less educated friends. Teach them that it's okay for them to cry, to be scared, to not want to play rough sports, to like and to do things that society at large considers "feminine". Teach them that the responsibility of supporting a family is to be shared with their partner, and that their worth is not defined by how much money they make.
We all can do better. We all can change. It starts with recognizing and speaking out, followed by action. You can make a difference.