Sisterhood shatters silence on sexual harassment 

 SF Actors Workshop founder and actor Gio Espiritu (inset and center, in "DykeCentral" series to premiere Feb. 2 on Amazon Prime) knows why victims hesitate to speak up against perpetrators. (Photo Courtesy of Gio Espiritu)

SF Actors Workshop founder and actor Gio Espiritu (inset and center, in "DykeCentral" series to premiere Feb. 2 on Amazon Prime) knows why victims hesitate to speak up against perpetrators. (Photo Courtesy of Gio Espiritu)

Sexual harassment is nothing new, law professor Anita Hill would be the first to assert. But perpetrators truly being held accountable for their behavior was unheard of as recently as 1991, when Hill accused then-U. S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during the time she was his attorney-adviser while he was Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Dept. of Education and then-chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, ironically.

Hill’s testimony before an all-male U.S. Senate committee failed to block Thomas’ confirmation, but it thawed Pres. George W. Bush’s opposition to a bill that Congress passed giving federal compensation to harassment victims, prompting companies to require sexual harassment prevention training programs.

The law apparently did little to deter the high and mighty.

Around this time last year, hundreds of thousands gathered in over 75 cities around the world to support the rights of women and girls.  Triggered by the newly sworn in 45th U.S. President's anti-immigrant rhetoric and campaign revelations of his attitude and behavior toward women, the demonstrations electrified people of every demographic in a peaceful but passionate exercise.

"What's next" was the post-event question foremost among participants, many lamenting similar endeavors that faded out as bleeps in history.

One year later last month, on the first anniversary of the presidency of Donald Trump, the 2018 Women's March unfolded with a vengeance. An estimated two million people marched in 250 cities worldwide, boosted by the presence of movie stars stoked by developments during the previous year.

Women, advocates and their allies raised crucial issues like health care, wage equality and immigration, vowing to take their stance to the ballot box. The loudest message was for those exploiting their positions to prey on the vulnerable.

Moment or movement?

“Sexual harassment is pervasive everywhere, in every industry,” assessed Gio Espiritu, a film actor who runs an acting school in San Bruno, California. Her commute between L.A. and San Francisco prevented her from being present at marches in either cities but not her solidarity. “People think it’s hysteria because we have social media now and the ‘whisper’ network is beginning to get out in the open. It was just something that women did not speak openly about because of the very real repercussions of speaking up.”

Frances Dinglasan-Hall, weather reporter for ABC San Francisco affiliate KGO TV, agreed that the problem intersects all boundaries.

“It’s great that people are finally speaking up about this pervasive but hidden topic,” said the certified broadcast meteorologist who worked briefly in Manila.

 TV meteorologist Frances Dinglasan-Hall raises her son and daughter to respect and work with each other. (Photo by Voltaire Yap)

TV meteorologist Frances Dinglasan-Hall raises her son and daughter to respect and work with each other. (Photo by Voltaire Yap)

California Assembly Member Rob Bonta (D - Alameda/Oakland) conceded that the “movement has shed far greater light on the magnitude of the inappropriate and harmful treatment women have been enduring and it’s absolutely unacceptable.” The chair of the Assembly select committee on Status of Boys & Men of Color and member of the health committee pledged “commitment to doing my part to stop it.”

 California Assembly Member Rob Bonta says men bear the burden of changing their behavior to create a safe environment for all. (Photo by Voltaire Yap)

California Assembly Member Rob Bonta says men bear the burden of changing their behavior to create a safe environment for all. (Photo by Voltaire Yap)

“The current wave of revelations is not just of the moment,” observed Maria Ronson, retired AP Vice President for Sales-Asia. “What is unique is that the victims of harassment have become more emboldened to go public. Social media have given them a voice and courage to expose the abuse.”

 Retired AP Vice President - Asian Maria Ronson sees citizen journalism as opportunity to hold perpetrators accountable provided the story has passed the "rigors of accuracy and credibility." (Photo Courtesy of Maria Ronson)

Retired AP Vice President - Asian Maria Ronson sees citizen journalism as opportunity to hold perpetrators accountable provided the story has passed the "rigors of accuracy and credibility." (Photo Courtesy of Maria Ronson)

Above all, safety in sisterhood seems to have fortified the most visible women in this country to disclose sexual abuse by men who could and did make or break their or their colleagues’ careers.

#MeToo

When actress Alyssa Milano urged peers in October to tweet their experience with professional sexual harassment on #MeToo, she drove them to the movement formed over a decade ago by Tarana Burke.  

Burke had coined the phrase in 2006 after she was attacked by boys in her New York neighborhood only to be berated by one of the boys' mothers and her own mother for playing with boys and potentially getting them in trouble.  In short, the attack was “her fault.”

"If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote 'Me too' as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem," tweeted Milano, a former TV child star.

Milano's incitement lit a wildfire, illuminating personal encounters in the workplace ranging from verbal innuendoes, exhibitionism and inappropriate touching to rape, with threats of dire consequences should they tell.  

Ashley Judd, Rose McGowan and Mira Sorvino were first among the multitude to share alleged unwanted advances by producers and directors they had rebuffed. They named names -- their careers be damned.

Females in other industries followed: Traditional and new media. Business. Restaurants. Academia. Fashion and sports. Public office.

Icons admired for their success or feared for their authority were forced out of long-held positions after being identified by one or multiple accusers as perpetrators of alleged various forms of sexual misconduct: Miramax producer Harvey Weinstein; Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey; PBS and CBS This Morning anchor Charlie Rose; and Today anchor Matt Lauer.  TV celeb chefs Mario Batali and John Besh.  Media mogul Russell Simmons and Epic Records chair L.A. Reid.  USA Olympics gymnastics team doctor Larry Nasser. RNC finance chair and Las Vegas tycoon Steve Wynn.

Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken was the highest-ranking elected official felled by sexual misconduct allegations before he became a legislator.  Similar raps brought down Arizona GOP Rep. Trent Franks.

Most apologized for causing distress after their alleged behavior was divulged but denied the accusations. Some insisted the encounters were consensual.

Time’s Up

In November, Time Magazine published an open letter of solidarity with the women of Hollywood by the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas.  Written on behalf of 700,000 female farm workers in this country, it added the unseen faces of sexual harassment to the global conversation. 

The letter inspired active response in the Jan. 1, 2018 issue of the New York Times. Bannered "Time's Up" the letter was signed by 300 women in entertainment who invited all victims to confront the problem through legal means. The effort and its companion social media #TimesUp established a legal defense fund to promote gender parity and balance of power in the workplace.

Organizers urged women actors to wear black in solidarity at the 75th Golden Globes, transforming the awards ceremony into a full-throated protest premiere.

Time’s Up complements #MeToo as it encompasses all industries and offers strategies to stop workplace sexism and abuse.

Behind the glitz

#MeToo and Time's Up capped a year of cases culminating in the shadow of Hollywood. 

In April 2017, UC Berkeley doctoral student Kathleen Gutierrez, a Filipino American, and a fellow student instructor filed a complaint against an assistant professor with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing for alleged inappropriate touching and talking offensively about sex between 2014 and 2015.  

Then-UC Chancellor Nicholas Dirks in May "dismissed" assistant professor Blake Wentworth of the South and Southeast Asian Studies Department for violation of the university’s Faculty Code of Conduct and Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment Policy, according to the Daily Cal. Wentworth denied the charges, later countersued for defamation, false-light publicity and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Uber founder Travis Kalanick in June resigned as CEO following a former engineer's blogs of alleged rampant sexual harassment in the ride-share pioneer.

Accusations of sexual harassment by six women also pushed Binary Capital co-founder Justin Caldbeck out the door.


Sexual harassment is pervasive everywhere, in every industry,” assessed Gio Espiritu, a film actor who runs an acting school in San Bruno, California.

We said enough

Toward the end of 2017, three members of the California State Legislature faced scrutiny for alleged sexual misbehavior.

Democratic State Sen. Tony Mendoza (D-Cerritos) has been ousted from his leadership posts pending outcome of investigation for misconduct against three women. Assembly Member Raul Bocanegra (D- Arleta) resigned after being accused by seven women of groping, which he denied, blaming his departure to "political opportunism."

Assembly Member Tony Dadabneh (D-Western San Fernando Valley) quit effective Jan. 1 after being accused by a political lobbyist of having cornered her in a Las Vegas bathroom urging her to touch him.  He, too, denied the accusation, saying he would cooperate with the investigation so as not to allow "injustice to fight injustice."

Dadabneh's accuser, Pamela Lopez, testified at the first-ever hearing on sexual harassment within the State Legislature.  The incidents of inappropriate behavior in the capitol sparked a campaign called "We Said Enough,” in an op-ed signed by 147 women published in the Oct. 17, 2017 issue of the L.A Times.

"Californians deserve a legislature and political system as ideal and decent as the people they serve. We strive for equality in the workplace with zero tolerance for discrimination, harassment or abuse. We need new laws with teeth, accountability, disclosure and independent review of claims," the campaign co-founded by lobbyist Adama Iwu stresses at www.wesaidenough.com

In a role reversal underscoring how power factors in sexual harassment, Democratic Assembly Member Cristina Garcia of Bell Gardens disclosed that she was groped by a male lobbyist when she was newly elected in 2012.   She told a male legislator whom she said advised her against speaking out about the incident, noting the lobbyist's influence in Sacramento.

Who’s responsible

Bonta rejected that advice.

The only Filipino American in the state Legislature issued a statement supporting We Said Enough, blasting the absence of male voices in the equation.

"This silence must end if we are going to stop this insidious behavior and transform this unacceptable culture," said Bonta, a lawyer, husband and father to two girls and a son. “Sexual harassment is often an exploitation of power...To be a true ally, men must work to push away the harmful status quo and create a culture that is inclusive and safe for all.”

While praising the signatories of the op-ed, Bonta -- fifth highest ranking in the Assembly -- proclaimed: “It is not women’s burden to solve this problem or to change men’s behavior: Men, it rests squarely with us."

Forty-five percent of Bonta’s staff are women of color, said the representative for the 18th District. All staff have attended sexual harassment training groups mandated by the Assembly every two years and when a new employee is hired.

“I’ve discussed the recent movement and events with our staff and more importantly, I’ve listened to their views on the subject,” he told PF. “We have open lines of communication that I trust will make sure women in our office and those visiting our office will be treated as equal professionals and will maintain a safe working environment.”

Bonta added that he is working with Garcia, who happens to be the California Legislative Women’s Caucus Chair, to “bring in international experts to hold trainings and breakout sessions to proactively change the culture in and around state government.”

Moving forward

Many victims are reluctant to speak up because on top of being blackballed, they get blamed for the attack, Espiritu maintained.

“Rape culture has conditioned society to blame the woman for the violence. Instead of teaching men not to rape, we were teaching women ‘how not to get raped.’ Victims are victimized all over again by the justice system when they have to defend things like their choice of clothing, drinking, or being out in a dangerous area. It is a big problem in Hollywood for sure because Hollywood commodified the bodies of women.”

In her personal life and her acting classes, the single mother tackles key gender concepts.

“I have a teenage son myself, so I’ve tried to be open with him about what it means to have ‘enthusiastic consent.’ We also talk a lot about the media and how it portrays men versus the way women are portrayed in the story. But I also encourage him to be vulnerable and share his feelings… something that toxic masculinity deems as ‘girlish.’ We need to heal the imbalances on both sides of the spectrum.”

Her acting students learn more than Method from their teacher, who is a survivor of child sexual abuse and intimate-partner violence.

“I try to compliment my female students in ways that have to do with their intellect or the effort they put into a project, rather than their appearance. I also try to nurture leadership and anger in their scene work, because those emotions are usually stifled by the desire to appear ‘likable.’”

Be the model, is Dinglasan-Hall’s mantra.

“I show instead of tell my daughter that girls have equal rights as boys,” said the mother to two. “Sometimes, it’s the little things that send a strong message. For example, she sees and has helped me replace broken screens on our tablet. My son and daughter will help with repairs around the home and both like to help cook. I do a lot of things with both my kids that people might consider activities as stereotypically male or female.”

Home is where Hall values form.

“I teach my son and daughter to be respectful of each other and to work together. They are still young but they know that they are special in their own unique way. By raising them with that belief, they will be able to treat others the same way.”

Herself having had a stint as contestant on “The Bachelor” a previous life ago, Dinglasan-Hall, one of three daughters, now “diligently” monitors her children’s TV show choices.

“Older cartoons are so biased that I don’t let them watch something as seemingly harmless as Yogi Bear,” she said, noting that the only female character in Yogi is a “simple-minded pretty female bear who has no goals.”

“It’s a learning process for me because I don’t always even recognize my own biases. However, I’m really hopeful about my daughter’s future. I want to instill the belief that she can do accomplish whatever she decides to do.”

Bonta strongly concurs.

“Belief and behavior systems start forming at a young age. We must teach boys to see girls as equals, show them true respect, and be accountable for their actions,” he shared. “I want my children to recognize the wrongs of society and model their own behavior in a way that treats all people with respect and dignity, but more than just saying it, I want them to see me modeling that behavior. I want all children, regardless of their gender, to grow up to be powerful and assertive, yet respectful and kind to one another.”

Those who did not have that kind of nurturing and crossed the line as adults, “must be willing to be held accountable for their actions,” said Bonta, a former deputy city attorney in San Francisco. “No one should be allowed to get away with inappropriate or criminal behavior. The facts of each case have a lot to do with the punishment. As a general rule, anyone who abuses their power should face consequences.”

In his milieu, “the consequences come from the voters on election day. Sometimes the consequences come as internal suspension or expulsion.”

Between the efforts of traditional and citizen journalism, predatory behavior has no place to hide.

“Truth and facts can be held hostage when anyone who has a cellphone can record, report and disseminate within seconds anything they see as shareable,” said Ronson. But “if the story is legitimate, passed the rigors of accuracy and credibility, new media can amplify a story and drive engagement quicker and possibly more effectively.”


 Cherie Querol Moreno

Cherie Querol Moreno

Cherie M. Querol Moreno is a Commissioner with the San Mateo County Commission on Aging and executive director of nonprofit ALLICE Alliance for Community Empowerment. She is editor at large of Philippine News, columnist for Philippines Today USA and contributor toRappler and GMA News Online.


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