Sophia Bush nails the problem with asking women “why don’t you just leave?”

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Moya Crockett
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The actor was sexually harassed on the One Tree Hill set – and refused to resign over it. She makes an important point about how the responsibility for dealing with harassment is often placed in women’s hands. 

Last November, Sophia Bush came forward – along with multiple other female One Tree Hill cast members and crew – to accuse the series’ creator and former showrunner of sexual harassment. In an open letter, the 18 women alleged that Mark Schwahn had psychologically and emotionally manipulated many of them “to varying degrees”, and said that more than one of the women was “still in treatment for post-traumatic stress” as a result of his behaviour.

“Many of us were put in uncomfortable positions and had to swiftly learn to fight back, sometimes physically, because it was made clear to us that the supervisors in the room were not the protectors they were supposed to be,” wrote the women, including stars Hilarie Burton and Bethany Joy Lenz.

“Many of us were spoken to in ways that ran the spectrum from deeply upsetting, to traumatising, to downright illegal. And a few of us were put in positions where we felt physically unsafe.”

Now, Bush has spoken in greater detail about her experience working with Schwahn – and zeroed in on why women who are being sexually harassed at work should never be asked why they don’t ‘just quit’.

“Look, my mum is a crazy Italian lady from New Jersey,” Bush said, during an appearance on US radio show Andy Cohen Live on Sirius XM. “The first time Mark Schwahn grabbed my ass I hit him in front of six other producers and I hit him f**king hard.”

One Tree Hill stars Hilarie Burton, Sophia Bush and Bethany Joy Lenz at the height of the show’s popularity in 2004 

Bush explained that Schwahn’s predatory behaviour was common knowledge among the One Tree Hill cast and crew.

“We knew about things he’d say to people, we knew about the late-night texts, we knew when he was super-obsessed with one girl on our show that he started trying to bang down her hotel room door in the middle of the night,” she said.

The woman in question had to move hotel rooms as a result, Bush added. “And then her boyfriend came and stayed with her the next month. It almost came to fisticuffs between the two of them.”

Throughout all of this, Bush – who was just 21 when the first series of One Tree Hill premiered – said she was trying to figure out the best way to respond, with little to no support from other senior figures on the teen drama.

“The whole time you’re a kid who is going, ‘I gotta figure out how to protect my friends, and I don’t want to lose my job and I don’t want every person on our crew to lose their jobs’,” she said.

“This is what people don’t understand they go through,” she continued, referring to people who ask ‘why don’t you just leave?’ when women are sexually harassed at work.

“First of all, why am I supposed to suffer and kill my own career because somebody else can’t keep their dick in their pants? Second of all, there is a whole crew that people don’t know about.” 

Bush at The United State of Women Summit 2018, May 2018

Bush’s comments echo the allegations made in the open letter published in November, in which she and her co-signatories described Schwahn’s behaviour on the One Tree Hill set as “something of an ‘open secret’”.

More than one woman on the show “had her career trajectory threatened” after they complained about him, they said, and they were frequently reminded of the impact that speaking out could have on the show’s wider cast and crew.

“Many of us were told, during filming, that coming forward to talk about this culture would result in our show being cancelled and hundreds of lovely, qualified, hard-working, and talented people losing their jobs,” the women wrote. “This is not an appropriate amount of pressure to put on young girls.”

After the letter was published, 25 female cast and crew members of Schwahn’s new show The Royals also came forward with allegations against him, bringing his total number of accusers to 43.

Schwahn, they said, “felt the inclination to abuse his power and influence in an environment where he had it over women who felt they did not. This manifested itself in the repeated unwanted sexual harassment of multiple female members of cast and crew.” He was later suspended and ultimately fired from the show.

Mark Schwahn (far left) with the cast of The Royals in 2015. He was later fired from the show 

Bush’s remarks raise several important points that extend far beyond the boundaries of Hollywood. First, she highlights that the responsibility for putting an end to sexual harassment in the workplace lies with those doing the harassing and those in positions of authority, not the (often more junior) members of staff who are being harassed.

Secondly, women should never be made to feel like the most reasonable response to sexual harassment at work is to hand in their notice. Not only does that fail to eradicate the problem, it also ignores all the reasons a woman might feel unable to quit. She might have a family to support; she’ll certainly have rent or a mortgage and bills to pay. She might not know if she can find another job, or she could worry about the effect her resignation might have on her co-workers. 

Perhaps most significantly, she might love her job, and have worked damn hard to get it, and feel furious – like Bush – that she is expected to suffer because of the actions of a predator.

There are many questions that are appropriate when someone tells you they’re being sexually harassed at work: are you OK? When did this start? Have you reported it? How can I help? ‘Why don’t you just leave’ is not, and never has been, one of them.

If you’re being sexually harassed at work, you can find practical advice and support at Citizens Advice.

Images: Getty Images