When the sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein shone a harsh light on to the slimy underbelly of Hollywood, starting an unprecedented public dialogue around harassment, rape, power abuse and plain old gender inequality, it heralded a new era for women’s rights.
In the weeks that followed, prominent men from many industries – entertainment, technology, media and politics – were exposed in reports of sexual misconduct almost daily. The new campaign slogans caught on – #MeToo, and Time’s Up – and inspired nascent grassroots movements.
But a prevailing truth lingers: for the average woman, and even more so for those less privileged than most, resources remain scarce, if not entirely elusive.
Now actor Sophia Bush is on a mission to shift the conversation around sexual misconduct so that the less powerful are not left out.
Bush, 35, is best known for her leading roles in television shows such as One Tree Hill and Chicago PD, but has in recent years cultivated a profile as a strong socio-political activist. She sat down with the Guardian in New Orleans after speaking at the 2018 Collision conference, a summit geared toward the intersection of technology and activism.
“Harvey, I think, was impactful because it was a specific conversation about a systemic problem,” Bush said.
“It’s not just a Hollywood issue … and that’s the reason the movement is working so hard to support women in other industries, such as female farm workers, women in medicine, women in academia, women in hotel service work and domestic workers.”
Statistics compiled by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (Rainn), an anti-sexual assault organization, underscore the magnitude of sexual abuse across the US.
One of out every six American women has either been a victim of rape or an attempted rape in her lifetime, according to the group. Young women are most at risk, with those between the ages of 18 to 24 three times more likely to experience sexual violence.
A common theme across all studies on sexual assault is that the overwhelming majority of the cases are not reported to the authorities.
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), roughly three out of four victims of sexual misconduct never talk to a supervisor, manager or union representative.
The reticence to come forward is only amplified among low-wage victims, from fast-food workers to hotel housekeepers, out of fear for retribution, of not being believed, of lack of legal representation, or any number of other roadblocks to justice and corporate reform. For these women, the concerns are myriad: filing a complaint with police could rob some of a much-needed paycheck, or expose others to the threat of deportation.
“This crosses age brackets, this crosses class, race, everything,” Bush said.
“If it happens to women like me in my industry, it makes me want to go to war for women who work the night shift in hotels.”
A longtime proponent of women-centric initiatives, Bush has increasingly focused her attention on combating sexual assault and harassment in the workplace. She spotlighted in particular the work of the Time’s Up legal defense fund, which in the space of the few months of its existence has raised over $13m to help subsidize legal services for sexual assault victims.
“When we can put tens of millions of dollars behind women who have had no resources to pursue legal recourse for their harassment, we can actually start changing industries,” Bush said, while adding organizations such as the legal fund are what will ultimately give the #MeToo movement “legs and longevity”.
Like many of her contemporaries, Bush has had to weather the pitfalls of being a young woman trying to make it in Hollywood.
In November, Bush signed a letter along with her One Tree Hill cast and crew members that accused the show’s creator Mark Schwahn of sexual harassment. In the letter, 18 women who worked on the show claimed they were “manipulated psychologically and emotionally”. Some also alleged Schwahn had made unwanted physical advances toward them.
“We wanted to just make a very united and clear statement that we all went through this,” Bush told the Guardian.
She recalled how women on the show said they would “brace for the behavior” when Schwahn showed up to the set.
“We all just thought it was pathetic. It was upsetting. For some women, it escalated enough that it was traumatizing,” she said.
Days after the women of One Tree Hill released the letter, Schwahn was fired from his role as showrunner on the television drama The Royals. He was subsequently accused by 25 of The Royals’ female cast and crew members of engaging in “repeated unwanted sexual harassment”.
Schwahn has not commented publicly on the accusations or his ousting.
A tally kept by Vox.com listed Schwahn as one of 211 high-profile men in the US – ranging from celebrities and corporate bosses to politicians – accused of sexual misconduct since April 2017.
But even as a wide range of powerful men have finally faced the ramifications of pervasive sexual misconduct, the same accountability measures have yet to be applied to lesser-known harassers.
Advocates emphasize the importance of creating networks to ensure that underrepresented victims have access to resources and, just as critically, know their rights. Grassroots activists have launched several initiatives in the hopes of facilitating the path for victims of everyday workplace harassment to seek legal recourse.
Among them are groups such as BetterBrave.org, an online resource launched in 2017 by several female entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley after former Uber employee Susan Fowler chronicled her experience with sexual harassment while working at the ride-sharing company.
“The point is that women on sliding scales of intensity have been exposed to this everywhere,” Bush said.
“I hope that what gives those women some relief is knowing that there are women out here … trying to build networks to be their allies.”
Although Bush is committed to shining a spotlight on the women who lack the position or platform of her and her Hollywood peers, it is impossible to ignore at least one powerful man whose alleged misconduct has yet to result in serious repercussions – the president of the United States.
More than a dozen women have accused Donald Trump of sexual assault. But the allegations are seldom discussed during his presidency, nor, any more, is the leaked Access Hollywood tape in which Trump bragged about groping and kissing women without their consent.
“I find it so morally repugnant that sometimes I can’t sleep at night,” said Bush. “We have a repulsive person in office. That’s not partisan. That’s simply true.”
Bush has not been one to shy away from expressing her political views in public. She enthusiastically campaigned for Hillary Clinton, and since the November 2016 election has often relied on social media to ensure that Trump’s activities do not go unnoticed.
She has found an unlikely source of hope in Stormy Daniels, the former adult film star who has alleged an affair with Trump – and was paid $130,000 by Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen to remain silent.
“If Stormy Daniels is the one to take us there, I am on her team,” Bush said.
“I just think that her refusal to be intimidated by this man is incredible. And I hope she burns it all to the ground.”
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