Will we finally learn this time?
Like so many of us, my work day begins with a scanning of the news. Because my job is dedicated to helping colleges and universities address campus sexual violence, the headlines in my inbox can be an amalgamation of horrors: reports of assaults and sexual harassment and infuriating accounts of perpetrators sidestepping responsibility for their actions. As the post-Harvey Weinstein reports of harassment, assault, and rape continue to roll in on a seemingly incessant basis, the inbox of the general public is looking a lot more like mine.
The headlines we are reading are sickening, heartbreaking, and unyielding. Their relentlessness shines light on patterns of behavior that run so deeply, that are so entrenched in American culture, that it is hard to imagine how we will ever successfully unpack them, let alone reverse them. And yet, as I read these daily headlines, I’m noticing a small but certain shift in the way we are thinking and talking about sexual violence. In the wake of these ongoing reports, we are starting to:
Recognize that sexual violence is happening everywhere. While there may have once been a wink and a nod to the way things were done in certain spaces — the Hollywood casting couch or influential offices within the Beltway — we can no longer pretend (nor should we) that sexual violence is relegated to only those spaces. From tech to academia, journalism to the restaurant industry and beyond, we are seeing incontrovertible evidence that no industry is immune from sexual violence, because no workplace is immune from its most powerful players leveraging their position to humiliate, harass, and harm others.
Broaden society’s view of who is considered a “survivor.” For so long, our cultural depiction of a sexual violence “survivor” has been of a woman or girl, a depiction that was often used in film and TV as a convenient plot device. And while there have been exceptions — Lady Gaga’s 2016 Oscar performance of “Til It Happens To You,” surrounded by male and female survivors is a memorable one — more often than not survivors are portrayed as female. Yet the data are clear that men and boys are survivors: a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention prevalence survey found that almost 2% of men have been raped in their lifetime and nearly 24% experienced other forms of sexual violence. As survivors like Anthony Rapp, Eddie Huang, and other men come forward, our societal understanding of “survivor” broadens. And while all acts of sexual violence are tragic and unacceptable, those committed against children are especially horrific. The experiences of Rapp and Huang, who were teenagers when the reported events occurred, and the news surrounding Senate candidate Roy Moore remind us that children, too, tragically fall under the definition of “survivor.”
Believe survivors. For too long, it has been the norm to question and doubt survivors. Many who come forward have been ignored, slut-shamed, harassed, or called liars, despite the fact that research demonstrates that the rates of false reporting are low (between 2 and 10%). Theories as to why our society chooses to discredit survivors include magical thinking (rationalizing away the dissonance between the horror of rape and our desire to believe in a world that is good) and the long and complicated history of women’s bodily autonomy. Thankfully, the tide of disbelief is finally starting to turn. The #MeToo campaign (which, it should be remembered, was created by a Black woman named Tarana Burke ten years ago to connect with survivors in underprivileged communities) has made it impossible to look away from the pervasiveness of sexual violence. As #MeToo reports continue to pour in from friends, family, colleagues, celebrities, and strangers, all of us, especially men, must confront our complicity in perpetuating this toxic culture, or even actively contributing to it.
As I watch many of our old ways of thinking about sexual violence shatter around us, I’m hopeful. I’m also wary. I’ve been here before. I watched the rise of the student survivor movement and the activism that accompanied it, and now am seeing challenges to maintaining those same high standards for addressing sexual violence. I’ve read the powerful words of Emily Doe from the case against Brock Turner, only to see him serve minimal time. I’ve witnessed the careers of athletes, entertainers, and politicians on the brink of disaster, only to see them resurrected.
Still, this time it feels different. Some of those who have perpetrated violence are being held accountable and experiencing consequences for their actions. They are losing jobs and income and facing irreparable damage to reputation and career. This is a start, but by no means the end of our work. In this moment, when we are angry and outraged enough to say that the culture we currently are living in must change, that it cannot, and should not, continue on its current course, we must commit ourselves to doing more. We cannot allow ourselves to be distracted and pulled away from this work by the next big news cycle. We must unflinchingly call out sexism wherever we see it and be brave enough remove perpetrators from their ill-deserved posts. We must challenge the industries that use sexual violence as a plot device and a marketing tool, so much so that violence is cultural background noise. We must continue to believe and listen to survivors, and serve as the catalysts for institutional and structural change to workplaces and schools, where a younger generation of students can be educated in a “new normal” of respect for themselves and for others. This work will not be easy — that much is already clear. But if we do not seize this opportunity for culture change now, when will we ever?