Even if you've never had to sign one personally, it's likely that you've heard of the term ‘NDA’ before. If not, an NDA refers to a non-disclosure agreement, a contract created to protect trade secrets. However, when used wrongly they can become secret settlement contracts used to hide wrongdoing and sometimes criminal acts by buying the silence of a victim or whistleblower — often at great psychological, and sometimes physical, cost to the signer.
On Wednesday 12 January, a New York judge ruled that Prince Andrew would face a civil trial over allegations that he sexually assaulted Virginia Giuffre when she was 17 years old. The ruling was made after the Duke of York's lawyers unsuccessfully argued that Virginia's claim should be dismissed, citing a 2009 deal she signed with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, in which she reportedly agreed not to pursue allegations against other "potential defendants."
While Prince Andrew has denied all claims made against him, and the case has yet to be tried, it's worth taking a closer look at how some legal agreements – NDAs in particular – may be used to stop women from speaking out about sexual abuse.
The resources and helplines you need to know.
Perhaps one of the most famous NDA incidents of the last decade has been Zelda Perkins, the former assistant of disgraced media mogul, and convicted sex offender, Harvey Weinstein, who publicly broke the 20-year silence on her NDA in 2017, facing the risk of legal action to talk about what she faced and its contents. She was the first person to break an NDA with him and her actions encouraged a stream of others to come forward too.
Zelda worked for the now-convicted sex offender back in the 1990s and signed an NDA as part of her employment with him. In a recent interview with the BBC, she said that she was warned about Weinstein's behaviour when she first joined and admitted that, due to having already experienced “what we would now describe as sexual harassment [and] inappropriate behaviour from men” and so, initially, was not shocked to be told that he was “one of those men”.
Here's what you need to look out for.
“In that agreement it also said that I had to use my best endeavours not to aid the police in any criminal enquiry against Weinstein,” Zelda says in a video clip of the interview. “I was not allowed to the HMRC about the settlement money I received. I was not allowed to talk to my friends, my family, a therapist, a doctor.”
“I mean it was an unethical, immoral agreement, and yet I sat in a room with six lawyers when I was 24-years-old and none of them felt that I should be told that this agreement may not be enforceable because of those clauses," she adds.
Zelda has also previously spoken out about the impact such a contract had on her mental wellbeing, and she isn't alone. A small study conducted by Speak Out Revolution, an organisation that campaigns against the silencing of people who have faced abuse in the workplace, found that 21% had signed an NDA and 10% said they couldn’t say for legal reasons. Of those participants, 90% said it had a negative impact on their mental health
45% of women report being sexually harassed at work.
“NDAs suppress us from speaking our truth, and in turn, can compound our trauma. Trauma is a loaded word, but it’s important to recognise we all experience trauma. Single, complex, on a spectrum of experience. Trauma can be as small as falling off our bike for the first time as a child, to as significant as sexual harassment in the workplace,” counsellor Ruth Micallef tells GLAMOUR.