May my heart be kind, my mind fierce and my spirit brave
The title of this essay is a quote on the meme I am using as my Facebook page cover photo. It’s also the mantra I use these days in thinking about and commenting on current events in the social and political world of my community, my state, and my country.
It helps me breathe deep, ground and, sort through the difficult thoughts and layers of chaos and complexity that seem to compound every day. I have needed to say it nearly hourly as the successive waves of women have broken through the tyranny of silence to speak out about child sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and rape. The shock waves are rippling through nearly every sphere of our lives, and like so many women in Minnesota I have had to sort seemingly conflicting thoughts.
I have been a warrior in the cause to end sexual violence since 1970. I have listened and born witness as hundreds of women recounted the disgusting, degrading, humiliating, and life-threatening acts of sexual aggression and violence they endured. The very first lesson I learned and the fundamental principle in victim advocacy is that every response to victims must be framed in empowering and supporting the victim.
Regardless the “character” of the assault, every women experiences a loss of control over what happens to her — some for a few hours and some for the rest of their lives. Empowerment begins with saying, “I believe you” and it also means supporting what it is victims want to do in response to the assault. And, it means advocating for the outcomes they want for the perpetrators; not the outcomes I want to “justly” punish the perpetrators and hold them to account.
I learned, and now know without a doubt, that there is an impact on every victim regardless of the nature of the act. I have learned well, that every victim of sexual aggression experiences their sense of personal safety being compromised, and for some, it is forever shattered. In healing, victims shed the myth that safety from sexual aggression rests with their own behaviors, dress, comportment or through steering clear of walking alone in the dark or walking in certain places, or… In healing victims learn it was not their fault and that they could not have prevented it, if they had just…
I also had to learn that acts of sexual violence occur along a continuum from the degrading fanny pat to violent forcible rape; there are many variances in the motivation of the perpetrator and the force of the aggression. I had to wrap my mind around the fact that the impact on the victim rarely correlates directly with the position the perpetrator occupied on the continuum. I had to learn that only 15% of all offenders are sociopaths and psychopaths but we focus on them because focusing on them helps us sustain the mythical belief that only grossly deviant individuals are perpetrators of sexual violence. I had to learn and grudgingly accept that the 85% of offenders are not sociopathic, psychopathic or just horrid people who should be cast out of society. I had to accept that for the most part, perpetrators are “regular guys” who take the saying “boys will be boys” as permission to seek their own sexual gratification without regard to the targets of those acts. It all added up to knowing, and forever being unable to un-know, that sexual assault was happening at epidemic levels and was in fact socially normed behavior — my degrees in sociology and psychology applied in real time.
What I know firmly, and have known for the better part of those 47 years, is that sexual aggression and sexual violence are also endemic, meaning it, they are part of the very fabric of our society and our everyday lives. I know that the majority of sexual aggression and violence is the legacy of women being regarded as possession and chattel of oldest familial male or her husband, and not a problem of deviance. My hope is we will all learn from women breaking through the tyranny of silence to speak out, and see that this legacy lives on in the remains of inequality that puts women at least one rung down in the hierarchy of patriarchy. I hope we see that the sexual objectification of women is the first step in sexual aggression against women.
I hope we will breathe deep and come to terms with learning that in a process of truth and reconciliation most men would have to admit to having “stolen a kiss” or “copped a feel” or made crude, demeaning, or degrading sexual remarks to a woman at sometime in their lives. I believe that most every woman would have a story and I believe the most fundamental thing that every woman who has experienced unwanted sexual acts wants is acknowledgment that affirms their experience of the act, not an explanation, rationalization or plea for forgiveness.
Quoting Kate Harding, author of a book on rape culture who wrote in her 11/17/17 opinion piece in the Washington Post: “Meanwhile I recognize that men’s sexual harassment of and violence against women is a systemic issue, not a Democrat or Republican problem, a Hollywood problem, a sports problem or a media problem. Its roots lie in a patriarchal culture that trains men to believe they are entitled to control women’s bodies — for sex, for sport, for childbearing, for comedy.”
With all of this in my mind I am settled within myself that I will not be calling for Al Franken to resign. First it is not what Ms. Tweeden is calling for and he has affirmed her experience of his disgusting and demeaning behavior and objectification of her. There is a vast difference between his acts, those of Roy Moore and, for sure those of the man in the Oval Office. Roy Moore is a serial child molester and the man in the Oval a serial perpetrator.
Al Franken is being held to account for acting from entitlement and the training of the patriarchal system — his sexism is not a surprise, I saw it and spoke about in 2006 and 2007 along with others who saw it and believed it a problem. When we continued to speak about it after his endorsement, we were roundly criticized as being rigid in our Feminism.
But Al has accepted full responsibility. I believe his self-condemnation is sincere and the statements from women contemporaneous to the last 7 years are evidence he “got the picture” and changed his behavior AND his thinking. His acknowledgement of Leeann Tweeden’s experience and feelings the best response other than never having objectified her.
Though it may not be anything Ms. Tweeden wants, I am calling on him to commit to championing the final passage of the federal Equal Rights Amendment and passage of an equal rights amendment to the Minnesota State Constitution-this year. Let him use his voice to challenge others in that chamber to examine themselves and take responsibility. I suspect a lot of us know that there are indeed others, and the right wing has signaled there is more to come for Democrats. Putting the prohibition of abridging rights on the basis of gender into law is what sets us on a path of curing the primary cause of sexual violence, and is but a basic act of amends those with the power of being a U.S. or State Senator or U.S. of State Representative can take swiftly.
Prohibiting, within our national and state constitutions, the abridging of any right guaranteed by those constitutions is what sets into law the full emancipation of women. Without safety from sexual aggression, the guarantees of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are null and void for women. Passing equal rights amendments is the first step in breaking the mold of male entitlement, paving a new way of being for women, and for all the men who, to their own detriment, learned the lessons of objectifying women.