Step up to stop the abuse
A view from Claire Beale

Step up to stop the abuse

The ad industry has too often failed to deal with the issue of sexual aggression, even when an entire company has been aware there's a problem.

I do have a story of sexual assault. It's not my story, but I have names, dates. I was told it in whispered confidence by the shaken victim, a senior figure in our industry.

He’s a man, and a powerful one. His aggressor was a woman, his client. Even though no means no, whatever the preamble, there was some "mild flirting", the occasional lunch or dinner. After one of which she suggested they go for a nightcap. They did. 

More drinks later and she manoeuvred next to him on the bench and nestled her head on his shoulder. He knew it was time to leave. But wait, now she had her tongue circling his ear and her hand confidently massaging his crotch. He fled to the loo and splashed cold water on his face, before asking for the bill on his way back to the table.

She asked whether his cab could give her a lift to the station, and in the back of the taxi she pressed him into a corner, tried to kiss him and went for his crotch again. He says he said "Please don’t do that, I’m a married man." He says she said "Come on, I’m the client aren’t I?" and cupped his balls. By the time they arrived at the station, he was traumatised. 

As a man, he is so far removed from the vulnerable prey of many sexual predators. He knows he was never really in physical danger, that his career was never under threat, that his reputation would not be dented. He has a voice and a position of authority. And yet he was genuinely distressed by the situation; confused and ashamed. 

He says it has made him acutely aware of how debilitating and shattering sexual aggression can be. He now concertedly refuses to tolerate it in his company and has given his HR department full powers to deal immediately and effectively with any complaints. 

Of course, it doesn’t really matter what the gender of the two people mentioned is; one was predator, one prey. But this story does illustrate how hard it is for people to come forward and give a public voice to their experiences. 

I checked in with the man in question. The client is no longer his client, so how does he feel about coming into the open? No way! He is comfortable with his story being told, names removed, as part of the narrative around the issue (#metoomentoo), but he wouldn’t dream of having his name, or that of the woman, made public. 

Understandable, but frustrating. Despite the best efforts of brilliant champions like Cindy Gallop, even the most senior executives are reluctant to speak out about their experience of sexual harassment. How much harder, then, for all those (mostly, it seems, women) whose abusers have been in more powerful positions. So it wasn’t surprising that when last week someone sent me a list of "known predators" in the ad industry, they did so anonymously. 

The email made for chilling reading. Are all the men named (and they are all men) really guilty of sexual abuse? We won’t get close to properly knowing unless someone goes public with their accusations. For now, this remains a private and confidential list.

In one way, though, their identities are irrelevant. We cannot wait for victims to come forward and perpetrators to be outed before we take general action to support and protect staff from this type of harassment. 

As the stories unfolding privately over the past few weeks have depressingly illustrated, the industry has too often failed to deal with the issue of sexual aggression, even when an entire company (including senior females) has been aware there’s a problem. 

It’s time for HR departments to step up, independent of any undue management influence, and set out clear guidelines and processes on how sexual harassment should be reported and will be dealt with. 

Abuse must stop now. 

Claire Beale is the global editor-in-chief of Campaign.