In high-pressure industries, interns work for little to no pay at jobs that could make or break their careers—rendering them among the most vulnerable to harassment and abuse.
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“This is cutthroat.”
“Only the strong survive.”
“You can’t be weak.”
These were the messages Briana* says she received when she began an unpaid internship at a Boston television station. “And part of what’s denoted as being weak is ‘complaining,’” she says. “You don’t want to be the person who can’t handle it.”
But Briana had a lot to complain about. In 2012, the host of a public television show commented on Briana’s clothing, approving of her summer outfit, as they drove to a shoot two hours out of town—stuck in the car until they arrived on location, she couldn’t get away from him, or her feelings of discomfort. On a different show on the same network in the winter, another host made her wear his coat even though she felt it was an odd and inappropriate request. Briana was 20 years old and didn’t know what to do other than just play along.
At a journalism internship for a Latino lifestyle site in New York, Tania held her tongue as the editor-in-chief placed his hand on her knee or claimed she “owed him a dance” at a work party, then proceeded to grind on her. This was in 2008, before New York passed legislation to protect unpaid interns. It’s one of only seven states that currently has this type of legislation.
In 2014, as an unpaid intern at a local Boston news channel, 21-year-old Emily found herself in a troubling situation: She felt uncomfortable with how a morning anchor was interacting with her, but she was an unpaid intern—what could she do?
“He would call me while he was walking his dog and ask me to come meet up with him. He asked me to come stay at his hotel room when they were covering a snowstorm one year. He constantly [told] me how good I looked at work and how he wished he could come see me. And the whole time he was married.”
Emily, like Tania and Briana, laughed and deflected—who was she supposed to tell? No one had ever introduced any of them—Emily, Tania, Briana—to a point person or HR employee to talk to if they experienced anything inappropriate.
The Fair Labor Standards Act requires “for-profit” employers to pay employees for their work—unless they’re students and interns. Fact Sheet #71 outlines what constitutes an internship to avoid any confusion about whether pay is warranted or not. But it fails to address the issue of sexual harassment and interns in the workplace because they provide unpaid labor, interns don’t qualify as “employees” and therefore aren’t offered any protections.
“But just because interns are not protected legally doesn’t mean companies shouldn’t try to create a harassment-free culture,” says Jerin Arifa, the activist who spearheaded the sexual harassment, assault, domestic violence and anti-stalking policy for the City University of New York. “Even if [organizations] are not being altruistic, sexual harassment in a workplace causes a loss of profits due to a loss of productivity.”
By creating a specific and robust sexual harassment policy complete with mandatory trainings, companies can preemptively address sexual harassment—before the harassment happens. A change of industry culture starts with a mandatory change of company policies within that industry.
There’s this notion says Briana, “that you’re so lucky to be there and like you don’t deserve to be paid, so how could you—the lowly servant—dare to complain to these people who have given you this magnificent opportunity?”
Beginning in 2014 and throughout 2015, this is exactly what Emily felt at her unpaid internship as the anchor continued to send her messages on Snapchat.
“It was a very small floor. I would have seen him there eventually,” she recalls, “and I didn’t know how to get out of it because I had to see him every day. And he’s the anchor—I’m just this little intern.”
The idea of “don’t bite that hand that feeds” in the media industry perpetuates this unbalanced power dynamic and continues to make unpaid interns choose between their wellbeing or work. A letter of reference or a negative appraisal from someone well-established in media could mean the difference between a future job in the industry or a “pass.”
“I never felt like I could tell anything because I thought it would ruin any chance I had,” Emily reveals. “I had the ability to be hired as a writer after this internship and I thought that would ruin it. I thought that no one would believe me…so even if there was a platform for me to tell, I don’t even know if I would have at the time.”
Similarly, Tania stuck it with her internship because she “really needed the credit and didn’t really know who to go to either.”
Considering that 61 percent of college seniors have internships, with 47 percent of those internships unpaid, a large number of young people are entering roles with no oversight. Officials at Boston University and Emerson College told me they don’t collect data on reports of sexual harassment or misconduct during internships—although Boston University’s director of the Sexual Assault Response and Prevention Office Maureen Mahoney tells me they don’t track data but “may consider doing so.” This fits in line with a 2014 ProPublica investigation that found “exhaustive data on interns doesn’t exist.”
The problem is that the schools expect the employers to protect interns—but the employers aren’t legally obligated to since they aren’t technically employees. Between the time the colleges help students secure internships and the time those internships end, neither school nor employer is ensuring the interns’ wellbeing. Sometimes, the school isn’t even part of the equation when a young adult comes by the internship through another means, such as through an independent film’s LLC’s outreach efforts.
“What these LLCs will do,” a paid crew member named Katy* who witnessed another intern incident explains, “is they will post on these various networking Facebook pages and make themselves sound really professional and ask for interns to work as production assistants and kind of craft this as a ‘It’s going to get you into the film industry.’”
By insinuating they’re able to provide learning opportunities and insider knowledge, these people in positions of power lure in a vulnerable demographic: inexperienced young adults with no legal protections. And often, such as in Tania (her editor in chief offered her writing assignments if she agreed to accept gifts he gave her) and Emily’s (the anchor at her internship invited her along on shoots to initially acquire her phone number) cases, these media men dangle learning opportunities in front of young interns in exchange for silence.
In July of 2017, Katy witnessed an unpaid intern working on the same set as she did experience troubling treatment from the set’s assistant director (AD). But before the abuse, there were other red flags.
“Some of the warning signs were there even before it got sexually creepy,” Katy describes. “The AD would joke around and pretend to throw [prop weapons] at people. And that’s something on a film set that’s pretty serious—you should have a person whose job is it to just handle the weapons.”
Arifa confirms that research finds “most of sexual harassers are men” and these “men who sexually harass are also very likely to be bullies to their male counterparts.” This perpetuates a culture of fear where no one—the harassed or witnesses of the harassment—feel comfortable speaking up. This was the atmosphere Katy found herself in when the AD began claiming to have had sexual relations with the unpaid intern over the crew’s open walkie talkie channels.
In exchange for her not raising complaints, the AD bought the intern alcohol even though she was only 19. And after Katy witnessed the intern becoming increasingly paranoid and nervous on set because of pranks the AD would play on her, Katy decided to check in with her.
“At one point, [I] was like, ‘Are you okay? Are you okay with how this relationship is between you guys?’ And she said, basically, ‘No, but he asked me not to do anything about it or say anything to anyone.’ She knew this guy was fairly well-connected and he would have jobs in the future. And she didn’t want to lose him as a contact.”
Despite her reservations about the interactions between the two, Katy herself didn’t feel she was in a position to advocate for the intern or address the assistant director’s abusive behavior—an example of the fear a toxic company culture creates.
“People still talked behind [the assistant director’s] back and they would give each other the eye like, ‘What is this?’ So they were aware of it, but they would never bring it up to him or try to intervene.”
This is why Arifa suggests victims keep detailed records of interactions—not just for legal reasons but for mental well-being. The gaslighting of these women throughout the period of harassment—from the abuser himself to other crew members turning a blind eye—leads to devastating mental repercussions.
“Being sexually harassed can be very isolating,” Arifa says, “so it’s really important for victims to reach out to organizations or to even reach out to friends for support because it’s very destabilizing. It’s absolutely an abusive relationship. If you’ve ever seen the wheels for domestic violence, you could make one for sexual harassment because it could easily be the same.”
Between the already present sexism in the media industry and the lack of oversight for unpaid interns, a sinister landscape of exploitation thrives. But one way to combat this behavior is speaking out about it, changing company policy and seeing it for what it is.
“As the years went on,” Emily says of her own experience, “and I started to realize how really terrible that behavior was and the more I became comfortable mentioning it when people were like, ‘I want an internship with this department, should I do it?’ [I’d] message them and be like, ‘Don’t do it.”
*Names have been changed
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