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"Survivor" addresses sexual harassment after contestant accused of "inappropriate touching"

During the first episode of season 39 of "Survivor," contestant Kellee Kim had a conversation with castmate Dan Spilo, asking him to keep his hands to himself. Now, weeks later, Spilo found himself at the center of misconduct allegations during the show's two-hour episode Wednesday night on CBS.

Throughout the season, 48-year-old Spilo — a talent agent from Los Angeles — was shown giving massages, lying on castmates' laps, stroking their hair and cuddling them while they slept. Multiple castmates complained about the behavior in various episodes, and flashbacks throughout Wednesday's episode supported their accusations.

We Made It to the Merge!
Aaron Meredith, Elaine Stott, Dan Spilo and Jamal Shipman on the eighth and ninth episodes of "Survivor: Island of Idols" that aired Wednesday, November 13, 2019, on CBS. Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment

While contestants had mentioned feeling uncomfortable before, the allegations came to the forefront of Wednesday's episode when 29-year-old Kim, an MBA student, opened up to Missy Byrd about Spilo's behavior during a lengthy discussion on the beach.

Kim said she felt she couldn't address the situation directly because it could impact her chances of winning the $1 million prize.

We Made It to the Merge!
"Survivor" contestant Kellee Kim opened up to fellow castmate Missy Byrd about her interactions with Dan Spilo, which she said made her feel uncomfortable.  Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment

"It's super upsetting because it's like you can't do anything about it," Kim said during the episode. "There are always consequences for standing up. This happens in real life, in work settings, in school. You can't say anything because it's going to affect your upward trajectory. It's going to affect how people look at you."

Kim tearfully opened up to a producer during one of her private confessionals and the producer interrupted her — a rare fourth-wall-breaking moment for the competition show.

"You know, if there are issues to the point where things need to happen, come to me and I will make sure that stops," the producer said from behind the camera. "I don't want anyone feeling uncomfortable."

In another unprecedented move, producers then met with contestants off camera the following morning, both as a group and individually to discuss boundaries. Spilo was issued a warning for his behavior, but was not taken off the show.

Producers said they would continue to monitor the situation.

Following discussions with other female contestants, Spilo's ally Janet Carbin formulated a plan to vote him out in the hopes of making camp more comfortable for every woman there. "I cannot ignore these girls," she said.

However, other contestants seized the opportunity to blindside Kim, who had been targeting Byrd earlier in the episode. Kim was ultimately blindsided and voted out with two hidden "immunity idols" in her pocket.

It was later revealed that Byrd and ally Elizabeth Beisel had exaggerated their uneasiness with Spilo to get him voted out. Carbin even considered leaving the show after learning that some of the women had confided in her based on strategy rather than genuine discomfort with Spilo.

She said sexual harassment allegations were "too powerful to play with," but ultimately chose to remain in the game.

We Made It to the Merge!
"Survivor" contestants Missy Byrd and Elizabeth Beisel admitted to exaggerating their interactions with Dan Spilo to Janet Corbin following a tense Tribal Council.  Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment

The situation came to a head during a tense Tribal Council discussion — the second of the episode — that brought the #MeToo movement to the forefront. The players argued over their perceptions of the situation and Spilo gave an apology speech as Kim sat silently — unable to speak as a member of the jury.

"If I ever did anything even remotely that made her feel uncomfortable, it horrifies me, and I am terribly sorry," Spilo concluded.

Kim responded to the episode on Twitter early Thursday.

"Hi everyone," Kim tweeted. "I'm hurting and very sad watching this last episode too, but please try to be kind and understanding. No one deserves threats or shaming, and we can talk about this in a way that we are all better for it."

While fans initially praised the show for its handling of the situation during the first half of the episode, reactions turned critical following the second Tribal Council, which portrayed Spilo as the victim rather than Kim. Many praised Corbin for standing up for the other women on the show.

"Survivor" host and executive producer Jeff Probst defended the episode in several interviews Thursday.

"I think a lot of players wanted the game to just move forward, and Dan was clearly not happy with me asking him about his involvement," Probst told The Hollywood Reporter. "But Tribal Council is where you are held accountable for your actions, and Dan was the central figure in a very important story. This was a conversation that had to take place, and there was zero chance we were going to brush over it."

"We are witnessing a real and raw example of another layer of the changing dynamic between men and women: You don't have to feel unsafe to feel uncomfortable, and making someone uncomfortable is not okay," Probst continued. "It's new territory, and it's offering us a chance to continue to examine how men and women treat each other and to learn how to respect each other."

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