Rant 52: Sexual Harassment: A Hidden Problem in the Arts?

Rant 52: Sexual Harassment: A Hidden Problem in the Arts? Joanna Kane, Portrait of a Woman: Unknown Woman, 2007-2008. C-Type photographic print. 84cm x 59cm. Credit: Joanna Kane

Sexual harassment in the workplace is traumatic no matter what industry you work in, but Becky Hunter is concerned that in the art world, the blurring of boundaries between work and social life and the informal nature of artist-led organisations means it is hard for those that are suffering to seek help.

The new Equality Act (October 2010) includes in its broad definition of harassment, ‘unwanted conduct of a sexual nature’ which creates an ‘intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.’

According to The Equality Commission, in the year 2000 one in two women experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. 

‘Jane’, an established creative professional, spoke with me about being sexually assaulted after a launch party and routinely harassed (with inappropriate comments about her breasts, weight and sexuality) by a senior colleague during her first arts internship.

As a result, her confidence in her art practice lowered; her eating became disordered, and for several years, it was difficult to sustain professional and personal relationships.

The National Union of Students’ (NUS) ‘Hidden Marks’ survey (2010) revealed that harassment and sexual assault often goes unreported due to embarrassment, and fear that the victim ‘would be blamed for what happened’ or that they would not be believed. 

Jane closely identified with these findings, but pointed out that there are other reasons for keeping quiet in a creative job.

In a ‘private view’ culture, work and social events frequently merge, with drinking (and potentially drugs) as commonplace.

Personal and professional boundaries might therefore be put under pressure, with the informal environment of artist-led projects offering no official disciplinary procedure to rely upon.

Finally, funding cuts and competition for positions might push one to endure offensive behaviour to realise career goals.

The NUS have called for zero tolerance and a ‘cross-institutional policy’ to tackle verbal and physical, sexual violence in universities and colleges.

Similar training and guidelines for independent galleries, studio co-ops and other creative businesses might prevent Jane’s painful experience from being repeated.
Further Information

If the issues discussed here have affected you, the national charity Victim Support (0845 30 30 900) offers emotional support, practical help and information.

Contributed by Becky Hunter 

Becky Hunter is an art historian (in training) and and a freelance writer on contemporary art.


The views expressed in The Rant are those of Becky Hunter and forum contributors and unless specifically stated are not those of Axisweb. See our terms and conditions


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