Chantal Cousineau, one of the leaders of the #MeToo Movement, says she hasn’t had a single day of work as an actress since she became the first of hundreds of women to accuse director James Toback of sexual harassment and assault back in October 2017, shortly after the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke.
“I haven’t worked since I came forward, and I used to shoot up to 10 commercials a year,” she said on a recent podcast with SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris and national executive director David White.
Carteris acknowledged that she, too, has been harassed. “In my career, I’ve actually had women who I feel have been to that point of harassment towards me,” she said. “It’s not just men. That’s why I think it’s so important for us to remember that it’s a power issue.” Unlike Cousineau, however, she didn’t name her harassers.
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Cousineau, who testified before the state Senate in January 2018 to strengthen laws against sexual harassment in the industry, said she can’t say for sure that she’s been blacklisted in the commercial industry because of her advocacy. But she makes a strong case that she has.
“I don’t know that brands are necessarily moving away from me because it’s not pretty to be associated with that,” she said. “I can’t tell if I’ve been retaliated against, but I have not worked since. But the fear is real.” Nevertheless, she said, “I’m moving forward, retaliation or not.”
“This movement,” she said, “is far greater than me, so I feel the need to jump in and worry about retaliation later or the work later – just do what needs to be done to move this forward, because it’s across all industries. This is the future and is as important to me as it is raising my son in a positive way with a positive self-image and a strong sense of right and wrong. So I feel that this is as important to me as that.”
Toback has denied all the allegations, and has not been charged with a crime. Last April, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office declined to prosecute him on five allegations of sexual assault and abuse because they were either outside the one-year statute of limitations or, in one case, because the alleged victim did not appear at a scheduled interview.
White, however, suggested that Toback may not yet be out of legal jeopardy. “James Toback is one of many individuals who has been accused of a particular act,” he said, “and in his instance, I think there is further action that is being taken or pursued with him.”
Asked by White if she has any insights to share with others who have been subjected to sexual harassment, Cousineau said, “If you’re ready to talk, you should talk. If you’re not ready to talk, you should seek out resources to help you at least deal with the self-care process of moving forward after you’ve been injured in any way: emotionally, physically.”
White noted that the union has found itself in the “extremely tricky” position of protecting members who have been sexually harassed, while at the same time protecting the rights of members who have been accused.
“Do you have any thoughts,” he asked her, “about when someone who does have a story to tell should feel more comfortable or less comfortable putting a name out there in a space where the other person may not have the chance to respond or to defend themselves? Does any of that go through your mind, and do you have any insight into that? Because part of the conversation that we deal with as an organization that both advocates on behalf of people who are victimized by predators, and in certain instances, are called upon to protect the due process of individuals who are accused who are also our members within an employment setting, and so we navigate both sides of this, and sometimes that’s extremely tricky.”
“I appreciate that,” she said. “You guys are the union in that case, and so you do need to stay somewhat neutral. At the same time, the idea of a guild, of a union, is to protect its members, so you really do want to lend some weight to the person who might have been injured, and at the same time protect the due process of the other side. So I appreciate your position as not an easy one, and I’m not going to sit here with a solution to your problem.”
“Come on, fix it now,” Carteris laughed.
“I really wish I could,” Cousineau said. “But I do feel this issue does not get to the solution phase unless everyone speaks out. So I don’t think that women should hold back because of the due process of their perpetrator. I think if you have a story to tell, then you need to tell it. Because at the end of the day, sometimes it’s a perceived threat – a perceived uncomfortableness, and the other side can learn from that. So not everybody needs to end up in jail over this. There are different levels to it, so in case there are those people speaking out going ‘There are a lot of different levels to sexual harassment. We shouldn’t be bunching them together.’ No one is. But we are saying sexual harassment is sexual harassment. And the Me Too Movement covers the entire gamut, and we want everyone to talk.”
Carteris noted that “It’s not just women who are sexually harassed; it’s men and children. And so I guess I want to make sure that we keep that in the conversation, because it is about power and not sex.”
“People call it the patriarchy,” Cousineau said. “But it happens to men too. So it’s not just the patriarchy, it’s the power-archy.”
SAG-AFTRA adopted a Code of Conduct in February 2018 to deal with what White called an “avalanche of information and requests and demands coming to our doorstep about what we were not be doing and we should be doing and questions about what we are doing” in the wake of to deal with the Weinstein scandal. That Code is part of the guild’s Four Pillars of Change initiative to protect its members and to confront harassment and advance equity in the workplace.
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