When I graduated, I was ready to jump into journalism – a competitive, who-you-know industry – and started as a freelancer. As with freelance work in many industries, that meant that I didn’t have the benefits offered to a hired employee: no sick pay, no holiday and, crucially, no human resources department.
‘He keeps asking for sex. The more I say no, the more offended he gets’
So when something goes wrong, as it does in any job, who are you going to call?
I would be sent to cover glamorous events, from fashion shows to West End productions. At one, I spotted a Famous Face. He was charming, funny and helpful. He gave me career advice, and then a suggestion: “Why don’t you interview me?” As a freelancer, whether it’s in acting or writing, the same rule applies: say yes to every job, as you don’t know when the next one will come. So I said the word that would change my life: “Yes.”
At the Famous Face’s flat
The plan is to conduct the interview at the Famous Face’s favourite local restaurant. But on the day, he suggests we meet at his flat first. I arrive and I can tell he is in a bad mood. He makes us both a drink, sits on his sofa and then asks: “How about we just stay here?”
I insist that we leave to do the interview. This doesn’t work. He points at his bedroom. “How about we just have sex?” I shake my head.
‘I was embarrassed to say what had happened, as I didn’t want to harm my career’
He doesn’t give up: “Do you have a boyfriend?” I say no. “Are you a lesbian?” I say no. He keeps asking for sex. The more I say no, the more offended he gets. This man, larger and more powerful than me, gets angry – aggressively angry – so much so that I am made to feel ashamed for refusing to sleep with him.
I don’t want to lose my Big Commission. In a panic, I go to the bathroom and lock myself in. I contemplate escaping outside of the window, but it’s too high up. I take deep breaths and come out. He looks at me and says: “You can go now.” I reply: “I’m sorry.” He responds: “You had your chance.” I walk around the streets, not conscious of where I’m going, and then burst into tears.
After the incident, I had no clue what to do. I told the magazine that the interview had fallen through. I was embarrassed to say what had actually happened, as I didn’t want to harm my career. Who could I speak with to report a grievance, or to give him a disciplinary warning, or even to warn other women who might interview him? Going to the police didn’t even cross my mind – I didn’t know that sexual harassment could be reported.
Workers on insecure contracts are vulnerable
While the spotlight has been shone on Harvey Weinstein and Hollywood’s casting couches, many industries have not changed since the #MeToo movement. A survey by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) found that more than half of women had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.
‘Ten years later, I wrote my own happy ending’
The use of zero-hour contracts has tripled in the past five years, and those who are on them are often unable to report harassment, as they fear having their hours reduced or being unfairly dismissed. Frances O’Grady, the TUC general secretary, said: “The report also tells us that sexual harassment is more prevalent for younger women, and those in precarious forms of work such as zero-hours contracts and agency work – precisely those who are much less likely to belong to a trade union.”
Who can women speak to? Most do not take legal action because of the cost and lack of evidence in a “he said, she said” harassment case, where incidents often take place behind closed doors and without witnesses. They are silenced.
I confronted him
Ten years after the incident, and before the #MeToo movement, I wrote my own happy ending: I confronted the Famous Face about what had happened.
While he was making an appearance at a party, which was in a public space that felt safe, I took him aside and called him out on his behaviour. Older, confident and now a magazine editor, I was no longer afraid. In one glorious moment, the power shifted and I was in control.
I found closure. Many women do not get the same opportunity.
Until there is more protection for such workers, abuse will continue to go unreported. We need to create a culture where we support women who make a stand, whether it’s in HR departments or the Supreme Court. They may feel like victims, but, with the right support, they can be heroes.
The fee for this article has been donated to My Body Back Project, which helps women who have experienced sexual violence