With so much noise coming through my Twitter feed, and just the general busyness of life, it’s not uncommon for me to scroll past good articles and links without reading. But wow! When I saw the story about David Schwimmer (yes, Ross from Friends) making six short videos about sexual harassment, I’m so glad I didn’t miss it. They are brilliantly made, directed by Israeli-American director Sigal Avin, and achingly, shockingly real.
In the space of less than five minutes, each one illustrates a perpetrator preparing their victim for the consent violation, the violation itself, and then their tactics afterwards to rationalise their actions and prevent subsequent disclosure. They are all in a context of power imbalance. And yet, they are also all different. What’s more, they show abuse outside the obvious examples that people think of when they think of sexual abuse. In all but one, the victim is fully clothed; in all but another, the perpetrator is fully clothed. None of them involve a man forcibly grabbing a woman. None of them include one person touching another’s genitals. All of them are more subtle than that.
These are so well acted and scripted, I’m half tempted to present them without any commentary at all. However, one of the insidious things about abuse is its deceitfulness; I’ve therefore shared some of my thoughts in the hope that other people will feel more able to articulate theirs. It does mean this post is rather long, especially if you watch all six, so make a bookmark or come back when you’ve got the time. These reward close attention.
CONTENT NOTE: There are six videos here, all of which show sexual consent violations, and I discuss the coercive behaviours in detail. I’ve put notes above each video so that (if you want to) you can consider each one before you watch it, but needless to say – you might still find them difficult viewing.
What happens in the consent violation? In preparing for one of her first shifts at a bar, this woman’s colleague warns her of the treatment she’s likely to face from customers – like lewd comments, touching her bum, licking her ear. Except that he doesn’t just tell her about these things, he does them himself.
So, notice how the whole time, he frames himself as the friend who’s helping her prepare for the job. He keeps saying he’s not like the people he’s describing, when the fact that he’s prepared to do the same actions shows that he is like them. He rationalises what he’s doing by saying she has to be prepared for the job and for the kind of treatment that goes with it. But in doing this, he’s actually passing judgement on her. He’s saying she can only be prepared for the job by actually experiencing the treatment in advance. He then makes it his moral obligation to prepare her for this. And he does so without her consent.
Of course, it’s not the case the case that lewd behaviour has to be expected in the job. A decent colleague would be talking about how they would try and stop that kind of behaviour from the customers, even if they also acknowledge the limits of that they can do to prevent it. Even if this was a context where there were unavoidable hazards, it’s false to say that the only way for a newcomer to prepare for those hazards is by experiencing them. It’s also false for him to appoint himself as the person to make her ready, and to top it all off, it’s utterly inexcusable to attempt any kind of re-enactment without her consent.
She tries to name what he’s done after he grabs her bum, but is too embarrassed to say it. This doesn’t mean she’s consenting, it means she’s overwhelmed. Instead of putting her concern first, he distracts her, pretending they’re equals by saying she can grab his bum. This is a classic derailment tactic based on the false premise that people experience things the same way. Even if she did grab his bum, it would be in a different context: he’s OK with his bum being touched (she isn’t) and he would be consenting (she didn’t).
He also uses an escalatory tactic – each time he does something, he makes a show of checking in with her to see if she’s OK. Then, once she’s calmed and normalised herself, he takes that as his cue to take the next step. In her mind though, she keeps thinking that each time is the last – because this is a man who’s just described himself as the biggest feminist he knows. Also, because she wants to stay on good terms with him (remember, she’s the newbie) she’s concerned about making a good impression rather than making a fuss. He’s already made it clear that if she gives him a “feminist rant bulls***” then he won’t be impressed. This creates pressure on her to accept his actions.
It’s also probable that she hasn’t fully clicked that this guy is abusing her. You see her get more and more confused because he keeps saying he’s helping her. He also uses flattery and exploits her remark about having a low self-image to pretend he’s her friend. And then at the end, he exploits this confusion to get her to say that they’re totally OK as friends. That’s not him making up – it’s a tactic to stop her from naming what he did as abuse or disclosing what happened.
What happens in the consent violation? A famous actor is being fitted out for a scene. The woman dressing him is a big fan. Whilst she’s looking for a jacket, he lowers his trousers and pulls out his penis. She turns round to see it, laughs in surprise and asks him what he’s doing. He jokes saying his penis has a mind of its own. She asks him to put it away. He tells her to touch it. She doesn’t look at him and asks him to stop. Eventually he pulls his pants and trousers back up.
If you want to teach consent to kids, you can go a long way with a single sentence: when a game stops being fun for someone else, stop and don’t argue.
Notice how it all starts off as so fun: she’s super-excited to be working with this famous actor and her niece is super-excited that he might make her a birthday video. He then exploits that feeling of fun to mask what he does when he does it. This is not him taking part in a game and discovering by accident that it’s one she doesn’t like. Instead, there are several things that show he is purposefully manipulating her for his own ends.
First, he allows her to go into her perception of guilt – associated with how she promised her niece a video before asking him. As soon as she mentioned the idea to him, he could have said to her either that it was OK and he would, or that it was not OK and he wouldn’t. But instead he waits for her to apologise for making a promise involving him without asking him first. This is a power play and it puts her into a position of obligation towards him.
Second, he brings out his penis when she has her back turned. He does this because it stops her from stopping him.
Then of course, there’s his behaviour while the penis is still out. Remember, this is a context where there is fun, laughter, excitement — so you see that reflected in her initial reaction as she gets over her disbelief and confusion at what he’s doing. For the record, that doesn’t mean she’s consenting to the exposed penis. In fact, pretty soon she tells him to calm down and behave properly; she’s essentially saying that this is a game she doesn’t want to play. But he refuses to stop. Even after repeated requests.
He even then tries to make her take the “game” further by telling her not only to look at his penis, but to touch it as well. When she just looks away, he actually guilts her a little by saying that it will be over permanently once he puts the penis away. It paints her as boring and him as just playing a harmless game – when the context is that he is in a position of power, doing something she doesn’t want and didn’t consent to.
He also flatters her. This sets him up as her friend and provides a cover for him violating her consent. It makes him able to say he was doing it because she was beautiful, or because he knows she has low self-esteem and wants to help her. (By the way, you do not help someone grow in self-esteem by violating their consent.)
Once he finally stops, he rubs salt in the wound by making a happy video for the woman’s niece. Again, this paints him as a nice guy and makes it incredibly hard for the woman to disclose what happened or later complain about him. Because, on the surface, it looks like he gave her what she asked for. In context, he did the opposite.
Also, if she does give the video to her niece, then her niece may well ask why she doesn’t look happy and even complain and she’s spoiled the video by not smiling. In other words, her lack of participation in this “game” means that she’s not just a traitor to this famous actor, she’s also a traitor to her niece.
What happens in the consent violation? He kisses her without her consent. At the end he requires a hug to make up.
So this is the one where David Schwimmer participates himself.
Notice how he drenches her with flattery over the fact that she’s competent at finding files. It’s not uncommon for people in senior positions to be less in touch with the administrative grind that underpins their work. However. The boss who’s genuinely appreciative will offer thanks for the help they’ve received and tend to do so in a manner that (implicitly or explicitly) acknowledges they really shouldn’t have needed this help in the first place. The boss who is presumptuous – he’s the one who unleashes compliments over an employee because she finds a file. (And let’s not forget, what she wants to be known for is her professional skill.)
Again, major power imbalance here: she’s trying to prove herself and forge her career in a high-pressured, high-performance environment. He has the power to get her noticed in the right ways by the right people – and he reminds her of this in an underhand way as he talks about the responsibility and salary of her role. And so when he flatters her, it sounds at first like it’s the golden gates of opportunity opening for her. She’s understandably a little embarrassed that this is happening because she found a file, but also really wants to show that she’s up for the challenge, so she goes with it.
The big tactic used here is paternalism. Is it OK for her to go home by herself on public transport? His offer of taking her home himself is an attempt to get her into a situation where he would have even more control. (And she does well in refusing him.) Are people treating her right? This is not an expression of genuine concern, it’s a tactic to paint himself as someone she can feel safe around.
And then after bringing himself close to her, he closes in rapidly and kisses her.
She’s weirded out by this and he clicks pretty quick that she’s not about to play sexy games with him. So he accelerates into damage-limitation mode, using tactics to prevent disclosure. She says she has a boyfriend, he says it’s all OK because he’s married. Not only does this erase the boundary that she’s trying to set with him, it also normalises his behaviour towards her.
Then he goes back into major flattery – giving the excuse (which is actually a lie) that he only did what he did because she was amazing. His earlier flattery was preparation for this moment, so that he could hide his real motives.
Having excused his behaviour, while she’s still in a state of confusion, he then forces a make-up hug. Notice that by standing between her and the door, he retains control of the situation. Also, by insisting on a hug, even though she didn’t want one (notice how her arms are still up), he is further normalising his previous physical contact with her. He is again reinforcing the idea that there was nothing wrong in what he did. Methinks he protests too much.
What happens in the consent violation? A woman sees a stand-in doctor for a sinusitis diagnosis. He insists on using a stethoscope on her front chest. When he does this he changes the subject to breast cancer and demonstrates how she should be checking for symptoms by feeling her breasts.
In this video, the first thing to notice is that he’s not her usual doctor. He gets to walk away from the situation. If she complains later, her task will be more difficult because it was a one-off encounter. I’d be willing to bet this doctor has plenty of other patients whom he’s never violated. By picking on a patient who’s not his own, he has chosen a context where his reputation is more likely to prevail than any accusation against him.
It’s important to recognise with specialists and consultants, such as doctors, that they are in a position of power: people come to them looking for insight and solutions that they can’t get on their own. This means that it’s important for specialists and consultants to centre and affirm their customers so as to rebalance the dynamic.
This woman is looking for a specific diagnosis and treatment; you can see her uncertainty as she looks to him as the expert. He exploits this, delaying his diagnosis and setting himself up as not just a medical expert, but a moral expert as well, as he tells her that she needs to learn patience.
Then, notice how he simply reaches underneath the back of her shirt to put his stethoscope on her back. He didn’t ask, he just did it. His actions normalise unnecessary physical contact and non-consent. They pave the way for what he does next.
He asks her to unbutton her shirt, more than she thinks is necessary. Then he throws in a blinder of a surprise and concern: she has an indentation on her breasts. Out he comes with his moral superiority, saying she should check her breasts. When she expresses a level of concern that doesn’t help him achieve his aims, he starts downplaying the risk. This is incongruent behaviour which shows that he isn’t genuinely concerned about her health.
Then when his hands are on her breasts and she looks at him weirdly, like she’s beginning to suspect him, he gets that the game is up and takes his hands away. He knows how to do enough to get what he wants without doing so much that he can’t get away with it. To top it all off, he then says she has a “classic case” of sinusitis. In other words, all the chest examining was unnecessary.
Also notice that this woman is 50 years old. Abuse can happen to anyone.
What happens in the consent violation? A young model is posing for a photo shoot in front of a number of people. The photographer repeatedly tells her to touch herself and then repeatedly tells her to touch her genitals under her jeans. Eventually she complies and then he tells her to do it more. After a while he takes more pictures and then finishes by saying he has an erection from watching her.
FYI, this video is unlisted on YouTube, so you won’t be able to find it by searching for it.
Modelling is not sex work. Honestly, confusing the two is like saying a pianist is the same as an organist: sure, there are areas of overlap, but there are also big differences and it shouldn’t be assumed that the person who’s into one is also into the other.
A person’s body is a huge part of modelling; yes, by virtue of being a human being, that body will be a sexual body, but that doesn’t mean it has to be sexualised. This young woman signed up for a photo shoot: yes with the expectation of being attractive and attention grabbing, but not with the expectation of any kind of sex act. We don’t expect a pianist to play and organ when they come to perform a piano concerto; similarly there should be no onus on this woman to masturbate for the camera, just because she wants to be in the modelling industry.
Oh but of course, the modelling industry is really competitive so those who are already on the inside can exploit those trying to enter. And so we have our power imbalance. Plus, this gets several layers added to it, because it’s not just the photographer who’s telling her to masturbate, it’s also everyone else who’s watching. It’s not unreasonable for her to think that if the photographer was being out of line then someone would say something. But they don’t. Which means if she objects, she objects in front of all of them and (probably) kisses her career goodbye.
What I hated in this video is how many times he had to tell her to touch herself. She heard him the first time. The reason why she didn’t do as he asked the first few times he told her to was because she didn’t want to. Just because she later complied, this doesn’t mean she consented. Rather, it means that she felt his level of insistence had come to a point where she didn’t feel like she could be seen to refuse.
Then at the end he normalises what has happened by saying how sexy she was and how he now has an erection. Like the erection was a surprise for him. (No it wasn’t; it was what he was after the entire time.) It also staggers me how he can say she was so sexy given that whilst she has her hands in her jeans you can see the awkwardness in her body language.
But if he can convince her that actually this was a lovely, good, sexy thing they did together (notice: that they did together), then it makes her less likely to report it later.
What happens in the consent violation? During a pause in an interview, a politician flatters the woman, puts his hand on her shoulder, flatters her with the insinuation that he’d like to do more, puts his hand on her thigh, and later tucks her hair away from her face.
Oh how the smooth, slippery man tries to take control over the situation and lies through his teeth!
The interview hasn’t really started but he says he needs a break and uses his importance to insist on getting one. He doesn’t need a break, he just wants the recording switched off. Then comes the flattery – his mask for what he’ll do a few moments later. And flattery isn’t what this woman wants: she wants an interview. So although he’s pretending to be nice, he’s actually disregarding her.
Having got the recording turned off, he sees if he can further manipulate the context to further his ends, saying he wants something to eat. She replies innocently “Whatever you need to get through this”, because she’s trying to be accommodating him, because she actually believed him when he said he needed a break. (Even though she was confused when he said so.)
He takes this as a licence to get closer to her and make an overt advance, putting his hand on her shoulder. If he hadn’t gone to such unusual effort to get the recording turned off, you could maybe argue that the hand on the shoulder was a genuine advance based on respectful attraction. However, what happens next makes it very, very clear that he’s just looking out for his own ends.
She rebuffs him politely and tries to take some control of the situation back: she suggests a way to accommodate his request for food, but in a public venue (where he would have less control). She also makes it clear that she’s not interested in him sexually because she mentions that she and her husband eat there. She is essentially offering him a way to back down. But just because she’s being polite, that doesn’t mean she’s consenting. Actually, it could be a sign that she knows that any aggressive behaviour on her part could easily be twisted against her.
So she gives him the opportunity to say something like, “Oh, I hadn’t realised you were married. Well, if you’re OK with us eating together in this Italian place, then I’d like that.” Or better still, “You know, that sounds really nice; but thinking about it, perhaps we should just continue with the interview.”
Instead he shows his true colours: he doesn’t fancy Italian. What he’s really saying is that he doesn’t fancy going into a context where he can no longer do what he wants. And he doesn’t stop making advances towards her, even when she asks him to stop and physically moves away from him. Eventually her persistence wins and she puts the recording back on.
She probably won’t get the interview she had hoped for though.
If you want to share these there is a playlist on YouTube that links all six videos. There’s also the Cosmopolitan interview with David Schwimmer and Sigal Avin (which also hosts the videos).
What were your thoughts on watching the videos? Have you been in similar circumstances?
You’re very welcome to leave comments, though I do moderate them. Comments typically go live within 24 hours of being submitted (and often much sooner that that).
3 thoughts on “#ThatsHarassment: David Schwimmer makes six short videos showing sexual consent violations”
This commentary is spot on. A must read for sure.
Thank you! You’re welcome to share / reproduce – I’d just ask that you attribute it to me and link back to my blog.
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