SANTA ANA – Nondisclosure agreements, such as that signed by Mel Gibson's ex-girlfriend that recently cost her $500,000 for discussing domestic abuse in their relationship, is one way to make assault victims shut up, a noted women's rights activist said during a recent interview.
"Nondisclosure agreements are very common, especially in sexual harassment and sexual assault cases," Santa Rosa attorney and women's rights activist Tanya Brannan said during a Northern California Record interview. "It’s a way of throwing a little money at the problem without actually allowing anyone to know what happened. It has a very negative impact on women in particular."
Silencing one victim often means not hearing from others, Brannan said.
"Often, once one woman comes out about harassment, other women will come forward with their experiences as well, à la the Bill Cosby case," Brannan said. "But if no one knows it happened, then no one else comes out. Nondisclosure is almost always required in these kinds of settlements and the victim has to take it or leave it - agree to nondisclose or stay in court for who knows how long. Sad but true, and legal. It’s one reason that it’s so important for cases like this to actually go to trial, rather than settle, as winning at trial means you can say whatever the hell you want!"
Brannan, a well-known activist since the women's movement of the 1970s and a Jack Green Civil Liberties Award Honoree, founded the Purple Berets in 1991. The grassroots women’s rights organization is dedicated to supporting those who stand up to sexist violence and discrimination and to insure victims have someone in their corner.
"Someone who’s truly on her side," Brannan said. "Not someone on the DA’s side or on the cops’ side (most public 'victim advocates' work for one or the other) but on her side. That’s why Purple Berets became independent victim advocates, not beholding to police or prosecutors, so they couldn’t rip away our funding when we went public about police abuse. It’s tough to make it happen, but so necessary."
Brannan's comments followed California's 2nd District Court of Appeals recent ruling that singer Oksana Grigorieva broke the terms of nondisclosure agreement with Gibson during a 2013 interview on the The Howard Stern Show. During that interview, Grigorieva discussed Gibson's hostile behavior during their relationship.
The court ruled that Gibson no longer has to pay Grigorieva $500,000 of a $750,000 settlement because of the Howard Stern interview. The deal had been part of a custody agreement between Gibson and Grigorieva, according to court documents.
Gibson and Grigorieva, referred to in the appeals court's ruling as "M.G." and "O.G.", separated in 2010 in an ugly and widely reported breakup. Reported included repeated allegations of domestic violence, some of it backed up on audio tape.
Widely reported stories such as the Grigorieva-Gibson case have a chilling effect on abuse victims' willingness to speak out, Brannan said.
"It’s very hard to get a settlement without one," she said. "And knowing that the court case can drag out for years, many women feel they have no choice but to agree."
Celebrity victims of assault and abuse have pressure peculiar to their place in the limelight, Brannan said.
"I think there’s more pressure on celebrity victims just because the balance of power is so skewed against them," Brannan said. "The men have all the money in the world to fight and humiliate them, the media is likely to be vicious and tend to act more positively toward the well-known than the unknown. And it usually ends up with the victim being tainted, as in this case, and not the perpetrators."
Nondisclosure agreements and litigation are not the only subtle ways that victims of domestic violence are told to be quiet, Brannan said.
"Domestic violence victims are always told to be quiet by nearly everyone around them," she said. "The family is embarrassed or unbelieving, often blaming her for the problem. The police don’t believe her and/or minimize the danger and damage, partly because they’re too lazy to do a real investigation, and partly because a huge number of police officers are also batterers."
Police often discourage women from reporting domestic violence, especially if they have children, all problems that are magnified for women living in the U.S. under undocumented status, Brannan said.
"Even when he [the abuser] kills the woman, the media tend to write about what a great dad he is, etc.," Brannan said. "Employers don’t want it in their workplace, even though there are technically protections for her in the law. The perpetrators routinely threaten her if she calls police or talks publicly - that he’ll take the kids, he’ll kill her, he’ll kill her family in Mexico or wherever. He’s probably been telling her to shut up for years. The pressure to be silent comes from everywhere."