It’s not just a Hollywood problem: Freelancers and sexual harassment

Nov 14, 2017

Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and, most recently, Kevin Spacey are just a few of the celebrities who have been accused of improper sexual conduct, sexual harassment, and/or sexual assault. Behind the flashing lights, headlines, and cameras, we sometimes lose sight of the actual the victims. Victims who, for a myriad of reasons, may have decided not to say anything, not to come forward immediately, or not to jeopardize their careers and the careers of others.

Within the context of a traditional work environment—think hourly or salaried worker—there is often recourse when a supervisor, coworker or subordinate makes unwanted sexual advances. Usually, there is protocol that involves notifying HR, filing a complaint and then engaging in a process that is ultimately supposed to lead to due process. If necessary, there is also the added protection of filing an EEOC report (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) which most companies take very seriously because of the financial and public perception implications.

Even though a brick and mortar company’s process may not be perfect, there are still safety nets in place.

What About Us?

But what about those of us who don’t have a head of HR or we are our own HR because we are freelancers? Where’s our recourse? What are our options?

Sometimes, engaging with clients who create a hostile working environment is so jolting to our systems that we don’t even call it what it is—sexual harassment. Too often, many of us walk away feeling helpless and disempowered. And in some instances, we just tolerate it because we know that at the end of a project or at the end of two months, we will never have to encounter that person ever again.

My Story

Many years ago, when I first started freelancing, I met a poet named Josh (his name has been changed for the purposes of this post). Josh was in search of an editor for his anthology of work. We had talked on the phone several times, he sent me samples of his work, and I sent him examples of how I would proceed with the editing process.

“If I am going to trust you with my innermost thoughts, I need to meet you in person.”

Josh’s request seemed sincere and I actually thought that it was not unreasonable in light of the work that we planned to do. So we agreed to meet at a Starbucks at noon. When I walked in, I immediately spotted him. His long, blonde ponytail and leather jacket made him stand out amongst the suits and stilettos crowd. As he stood up from the table, I extended my hand; he extended his hand and instead of shaking mine, he used it to draw me in closer for a hug.

My Spidey senses went off, but I ignored them—perhaps he’s just a hugger, I thought. Yet, as our conversation proceeded, he wanted to talk about everything except the work that he needed me to do. I was definitely being interviewed, but not about my editing skills. Finally, I asked, “When do you plan to pay the deposit and sign the contract?”

He seemed offended by the frankness of my request, “I am not going to move forward unless I feel really comfortable with you. We’ll have to have dinner a few times. Maybe I can cook for you while we discuss my work. I admit, it’s going to be hard to focus on work.” His eyes then shifted from my face to my chest area. He reached for my scarf under the pretense of admiring it. The intense and unapologetic ogling coupled with the unwanted touch were my breaking points.

I don’t remember what I said next, but I left immediately.

I wish I could tell you that I stormed out of there feeling empowered and determined to never work on any of his projects. I wish that I could tell you that it was an easy decision to walk away from this freelance opportunity.

But it wasn’t. I needed the money.

I went back and forth in my mind: Yes, he’s eccentric. Yes, he’s a little creepy. Yes, he’s an artist. Maybe just maybe I was reading too much into it and he was just being flirtatious. Thankfully, I rehashed a series of worse case scenarios and I decided to text him and tell him that I was not interested. He sent a nasty text back that read: “You weren’t that good anyway. I planned to hire someone else.”

I share this story because I know it happens to other freelancers—men and women. Even then I did not think of this as an example of sexual harassment. Yet, it was.

What Can We Do?

While some of us have the ability to conduct our work electronically, those in the fashion, music, entertainment, and other service industries must often work directly with people in order to sustain their livelihood. These freelancers and contract workers are particularly vulnerable. So, what should you do if you find yourself being sexually harassed?

It is important to know your rights. There was a recent article in MarketWatch titled, “Why Freelancers Face an Uphill Battle Against Sexual Harassers” that shed light on the frequency in which sexual harassment takes place with freelancers and contract workers. One of the most important takeaways was understanding your state’s laws:

A few states, including California, have laws granting discrimination protections to independent contractors. Those laws may have helped Lidia [a woman whose story was shared in the article]. . . Washington state and Pennsylvania also protect independent contractors from discrimination. But in most other states, independent contractors are stuck if they want to file a legal complaint about harassment. It’s always best to consult a local attorney for the most up-to-date information on harassment laws in your state, said Paula Brantner, senior adviser with the workers’ rights nonprofit WorkPlace Fairness.

Another interesting solution addressed in the article is adding an anti-harassment clause to your contracts. Using the example of another freelancer, they cite a woman who “added an anti-harassment clause to her standard contract, stating that if the project ended because of harassment by a client, they would have to pay the bill within 30 days and would also have to compensate her for the other potential work she lost out on by taking their project.”

Unfortunately there is no clear, uniform pathway for addressing workplace sexual harassment for freelancers. This reflects a national disparity as it relates to equitable protection under the law.

Hopefully, as the American economy expands, its laws will become more responsive to the needs of those of us who rely upon freelancing for gainful employment.

Need help finding an attorney to deal with workplace harassment? Download the Freelancers Union app to find a lawyer who specializes in employment issues.

Tyra Seldon

Tyra Seldon is a former English Professor turned writer, editor and small business owner. Her writing addresses the intersections of race, gender, culture and education.