A History of Sexual Assault in Hollywood
In the week following the accusations against Louis C.K. as a sex offender, my mother called me to ask about it.
“I think it’s gross and creepy,” she said, “but I don’t think his whole career should be destroyed. They were adult women, they could have left at any time. They weren’t risking their careers by rejecting him.”
It’s a conversation we’ve had many times; it’s not just a matter of career, but one of safety, of panic, of trauma and discomfort. Her response is often the same:
“But they’re adults, and these are just accusations. His whole career could be ruined. Things like this can ruin a person’s life,” she repeats. Her words come from a place of outdated misunderstanding. It’s all too common to believe that the majority of rape accusations are false, often as a result of inappropriate and biased media coverage, in addition to frequently enforced gender roles. But the concept of so-called casting couch sexual assault isn’t outdated, and, historically, the backlash isn’t toward the accused, but those who are brave enough to speak out about their experiences.
Although recent accusations have brought Hollywood’s sexual assault problem to the front lines, prompting a call to action and a sea of “Me Too” statements from survivors, it’s the oldest issue in a business rife with sexual violence. In the Golden Age of Hollywood, sexual assault was so common and so overlooked that what was considered mere gossip and scandal at the time of the offense has been completely swept under the rug, as so many sexual assaults are.
The accusations of early Hollywood are often impossible to track down, or are accepted as common knowledge masquerading as drama and seductions by “vixens” looking for money. Very few are discussed, and none have ended the careers of those whose stars will always grace the Walk of Fame. Charlie Chaplin, arguably the most famous actor of the silent film era, married multiple teenage girls following their respective impregnations as a result of statutory rape. The actor continued to make films despite these accusations, and faced very little backlash when these allegations were made public, as is clearly reflected in his historical status.
Clark Gable, the leading man of films such as Gone With the Wind and The Call of the Wild, raped actor Loretta Young and impregnated her, forcing her to go into hiding due to the social climate surrounding pregnancy out of wedlock at the time. Young didn’t publicly admit this until a conversation with her biographer on her deathbed, and, as a result, Gable’s reputation as a heartthrob has lasted the test of time, besides the occasional thinkpiece about his misogyny.
Other accusations are numerous and unnamed, spanning decades of early Hollywood; Errol Flynn and Roscoe Arbuckle were accused of sexual assault separately and, despite standing trial with strong evidence against them, were acquitted. Shirley Temple was flashed at the age of 12 by an unnamed producer. And later in Hollywood’s history, famed actress Joan Collins was asked to sleep with a producer for the role of Cleopatra in a story all too common for 1960s show business.
Hollywood’s sexual assault problem is by no means limited to its early years, as it grew well into the latter half of the century. Perhaps the most famous case is that of director Roman Polanski, who pled guilty to the 1977 sexual assault of a thirteen year old girl, but fled to Europe before he could be sentenced. Charges against him are still pending 40 years later. Although his career clearly suffered, his refusal to appear for sentencing is an allowance that cannot be overlooked. As with many cases, there seems to be a kind of acceptance of rape as the norm, which is still perpetuated today, allowing perpetrators to maintain their reputations as professionals, heroes, or in the case of Bill Cosby, “America’s father.”
Cosby is the face of Hollywood’s sexual assault problem in the 1980s and early 1990s, following accusations from over 50 women stating that he drugged and raped them between the late 1960s and early 2000s. However, in contrast to previous cases, where the offenders of the silver screen were often defended and the accusations against them ignored, Cosby has faced backlash around the world. Many of his honorary degrees and awards have been rescinded and, despite its popularity, The Cosby Show no longer runs in syndication. It’s clear that, in some ways, the climate surrounding sexual assault has changed, and with it, the standards that perpetrators are held to.
But not all sexual abusers face repercussions. In the modern day, are we fighting back against sexual assault by firing the accused? One need look no further than the White House to see the truth. In a world where a former reality television star — who was accused of sexual assault by upwards of fifteen women and who made sexually degrading and explicit remarks surrounding non-consenting people of all ages — is the President of the United States, it’s difficult to believe that instances of sexual assault, both in Hollywood and around the world, can ruin the careers of those who have the power to sweep their accusers under the rug. The survivors are punished in a bizarre, Scarlet Letter-esque instance of irony, called liars and sluts, and manipulated by the media into recanting or settling for less than justice. It’s horrible that the world is not changing enough to prevent survivors from watching their rapist go down in history.
But to a degree, Hollywood’s casting couch problem is changing ? mass outrage has prevented powerful people like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K. from continuing to thrive in the face of their accusers. They will no longer win Oscars or have their names indented in stars along the Walk of Fame. Their movie deals will be withdrawn, their television shows will be cancelled and they will be fired from their jobs. As my mother pointed out, their careers will be ruined by these accusations. But, undeniably, they should be. No matter their status, no matter their influence, no matter their fame, these people are still sex offenders.
: Audra Joiner, Upfront Editor, is a first-year Exploratory major who is ready to see all the abusive men of the entertainment industry taken down. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.