The real impact of NDA abuse: ‘I struggled with reading my emails or answering the door. Being silenced is choking’

Hundreds of women are sharing testimonies through a new campaign, committed to ending the misuse of non-disclosure agreements.
NDA Abuse What It's Like To Be Unfairly Silenced As A Women

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. 

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”. 

“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

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“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.

“When we consider trauma, what we don’t often realise is that often the ‘body keeps the score’ after the event if we do not get the opportunity to process the event in a way which allows us to heal. That means our bodies and minds will ‘hold on’ to the experience in an attempt to protect us. Pushing us to cope in harmful ways; to detach and self soothe, to avoid, to overcompensate. Using work, alcohol, food, shopping, or even over exercise as tools to help us ‘cope’ with the experience, and find a sense of ‘safety’.”

“Healing from significant trauma often depends on the support we have around us, and being able to vocalise to them what happened,” she explains. “NDAs can in these instances be seen as an added layer of trauma after the event itself, as they effectively prevent us from processing the event with others in a way that feels right for us.”

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“During my days at Rape Crisis, some clients wanted to simply process their trauma or traumas with friends, family, and myself. Others took a legal route to help process it, holding the perpetrator or perpetrators accountable. Some took other options, starting charities, beginning grassroot organisations, even becoming successful spokespeople," Ruth adds. 

And trauma is certainly something that Sarah* experienced first-hand when her company made her sign an NDA while pregnant. 

“I was 10 weeks pregnant and experienced a hematoma (localised bleeding outside of blood vessels) – as a consequence of being classified as high risk, I decided to tell my employers early that I was expecting. I sat down with my two male bosses and one stormed out the room. 

Over the next four weeks, he would start to make my life hell. Humiliating me in front of my team, in client meetings, passive-aggressively slamming doors, walking out of rooms and excluding me, then literally throwing work at me. After a month of this behaviour I had a series of panic attacks, I sat down with my other boss and explained the behaviours shown against me – he brought in another senior member to verify – she did and then I was sent home. That afternoon I decided to see my GP as I’d never had one and I thought maybe I was harming my baby. He put me on stress leave immediately.”

“A week into my stress leave I had a call from my employer's solicitor to say I was sacked with immediate effect and I was being given a months severance. I knew that it was wrong, I rang a friend of mine who's a lawyer and she put me on to her friend who was an employment lawyer. She gave it a name – sex and maternity discrimination – it didn’t even occur to me, that sort of language didn’t exist in my vocabulary.”

"We then took forward a legal challenge, during this time, I struggled with hearing my phone ring, reading my emails or answering the door. At the same time trying to deal with a pregnancy and enjoy it. Every legal letter felt like a risk, as it cost £500 a go (fortunately, my lawyer (my friends friend) ended up capping it).

 “After seven weeks of to'ing and fro'ing, I couldn’t do it anymore, my mental health was on the floor. I was offered a healthier settlement on the proviso of signing an NDA. It was explained to me as a confidentiality agreement, meaning I couldn’t talk about it. I didn’t realise it at the time but wanted the whole ordeal to stop, so I signed it. ”

“Once it had all stopped, I started to feel guilty. I felt guilty I didn’t take it forward, I was frustrated he got away scot free and I was angry that I had agreed to pretend it didn’t happen.”

When I ask Sarah how informed she felt she had been made about the nature of an NDA, she tells me “not at all.”

“It was explained to me, but I didn’t understand the repercussions of not speaking about it or how I’d feel being silenced. Being silenced is choking,” she says. 

“I wish I'd been told about the ramifications of being silenced, it still feels unfair that I can’t tell people – openly – what happened. And that it would have absolutely no bearing on my former boss.”

And stories just like Sarah's are exactly the reason that Zelda decided to launch 'Can't Buy My Silence', a campaign that aims to stop the expanding misuse of NDAs by demanding new legislation and regulation that stops “gag orders” from being used to settle these cases.

“Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) have become the default solution for organisations, corporations, individuals and public bodies to settle cases of sexual misconduct, racism, pregnancy discrimination and other human rights violations," the website reads. 

“They are used not just to cover up misconduct and abuse in workplaces, universities and religious institutions – but to hide faulty products, addiction issues in gambling, the abuse of minors in sports training, the use of public funds in settlements and more – the list is long and shocking.”

The campaign website now offers victims information, support and the opportunity to tell their story – a right denied to them for all too long. 

If you have been impacted by anything discussed here, you can contact Can't Buy My Silence for support, as well as mental health charities such as (0300 123 3393). 

*Names have been changed.