Are We Seeing the Silver Lining Yet?

by ZontaDoris

Geez, what a Domestic Violence Awareness Month this October has been!

Not only has our Club been busy with our service and advocacy agenda, our national discourse on sexual harassment, abuse, and assault has entered terrains never before traversed.

HERE’S HOW IT WENT DOWN:

Taped conversation of two famous men in 2005 discussing their pursuit of women for sex became public.

IT LED TO:

thousands of articles, blog posts, newscasts, and conversations on mainstream media and social media;

the younger man being fired from his NBC hosting role;

the older man trying to reframe his sexual boasts as inconsequential locker room talk;

at least ten women alleging that it wasn’t idle chatter because said man had groped, kissed, hugged, and pursued them for unwanted sex;

and an unprecedented national focus on what sexual assault is and isn’t.

Like many, I was alternately appalled, perplexed and fearful. I witnessed the degradation of women as they described the harassment/assault they had endured. Their coming forward took courage. I don’t think any of them benefited from the public attention. Yet their speaking out prompted a tsunami of similar stories about sexual aggression against women and girls who had remained quiet for years.

kelly_oxford_tweet_2016-10Camila Domonoske wrote about our culture of complicit silence on NPR–“One Tweet Unleashes a Torrent of Stories of Sexual Assault.” Domonoske’s article featured Kelly Oxford’s invitation on Twitter for women to come forward with their first sexual assault experiences. Thousands and thousands did, sometimes creating accounts with new names because they still did not want to reveal their identities. The effect was mind-blowing as it became clear that the victims, because of their shame and fear of negative exposure, had chosen to hush themselves, thus letting predators violate again. The victims’ distress was a bugle call to the rest of us to stand up to protect the vulnerable among us.

You know, I am trying to make sense of recent events and how they affect my role as an advocate for women and sexual assault victims. I have found a few resources that have helped me gain perspective; maybe they’ll be useful to you, too.

Amanda Taub’s article for the New York Times on October 23 helped ground me. Taub cited Estelle B. Freedman, a history professor at Stanford who “studies the evolution of laws and norms surrounding sexual assault.” Freedman explained that:

This is a moment of transition. We are having a national conversation about new rules. We are nationally trying to rethink issues of sexuality, consent, autonomy, relationships.

Taub tackled three aspects of this conversation in her article: 1. Redefining consent; 2. To speak or stay silent; 3. Naming names.

REDEFINING CONSENT

We are “redefining consent” to make it affirmative and spoken. No longer can silence in the emerging stages of a sexual encounter be assumed assent. Saying “yes” as part of new affirmative consent rules in new age schools like Antioch College was ridiculed as “political correctness run amok” only a few years ago. Now colleges and universities are adopting affirmed consent as the standard for their students to make their intentions clear.  Professor Harry Brod, University of Northern Iowa, explains how affirmative consent protects everyone in the short video (under 5 minutes) below.

TO SPEAK OR STAY SILENT?

Taub notes that for many survivors of sexual violence, “silence is often the rational choice.” This assessment is echoed by Sasha Cagen, who survived a sexual assault herself, in this post on Vice.com:

Would you enjoy telling the world about the time a powerful man groped you, in the process perhaps inviting him to come after you? Even if your abuser is not rich and famous, it can be a terrifying experience to tell anyone about your violation. Speaking out takes huge courage, and that courage needs to be recognized.

Cagen resented the positioning of sexual violence against women as a “distraction” to the “big” issues. Her views are amplified in a full page ad signed by 3,000 sexual assault survivors in the Washington Post earlier this month. Claire Landsbaum reported on the ad in the New York Magazine on October 11 and pulled from the ad to say “one in five women will be sexually assaulted…the vast majority of perpetrators…will get away with it. When survivors of sexual assault come forward, they…are often blamed, shamed, and disbelieved.” The signers said that sexual assault survivors deserve better.

These examples of women coming forward may encourage other sexual assault survivors to come out of the darkness and share their stories and seek accountability for sexual predators.

NAMING NAMES

But, as Amanda Taub pointed out, “one thing notably missing from most of the survivors’ stories: perpetrators’ names.”  The omission happens because…

“…making an accusation against a specific individual is a different matter.

There is a sense that a ‘good victim’ merely shares her story to raise awareness or make people feel less alone,” Ms. Brodsky said. “But the minute there is a desire for accountability or change of retribution, suddenly she’s untrustworthy.”

…”peers and friends are much more inclined to be sympathetic to victims if they don’t make anyone’s life more complicated.  Naming names creates an inconvenience,” she added.

Ms. Brodsky is Alexandra Brodsky, a graduate of Yale Law School and co-founder of Know Your IX, an organization to end sexual violence on college campuses.

Perhaps anticipating that naming names will create a divide between those who believe the accuser and those who don’t, victims remain silent.  This opinion is supported by a resource developed by the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault. It shows that a victim who knows the perpetrator of sexual violence is much less likely to report a crime. And these include serious assaults such as rape.

A survivor’s relationship with the offender has a strong effect on the likelihood of reporting. • When an offender is an intimate partner or former intimate partner, only 25 percent of sexual assaults are reported to the police. • When an offender is a friend or acquaintance, only 18 to 40 percent of sexual assaults are reported. • When an offender is a stranger, between 46 and 66 percent of sexual assaults are reported. U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, T. Hart and C. Rennison, “Reporting Crime to the Police, 1992-2000,” 2003.

lockers-932113_640Finally, something I have been reminded of recently is the risk of so-called private conversations that may be recorded in voice, text, or video becoming public. One unhappy participant or observer can make them part of the public domain at almost any time. The first amendment protects our right to speak, criticize, and express dislike for other people. But when our comments might incite harm or mistreatment, then our comments can not always be justified or protected. That’s why a reflexive defense of “locker room talk” as a puffed-up, good natured, private talk between men holds only as long as the subjects of the conversation don’t give evidence to the contrary.

This Mashable article by Rebecca Ruiz offers 5 red flag standards for how men might discuss sexual attraction without dehumanizing women.

1. Would you say any of this to her face?

2. Are you just talking about her body parts?

3. Is the sexual attraction mutual?

4. Are you talking about her as if she’s a conquest?

5. Would you regret your comments if they were captured on audio or video?

Ruiz ends her post this way: “Speaking up will always come with risks, but only men can stand up for the dignity of women in private settings.” I hope we all remember our responsibility to stand up for the dignity of women and men, in public and private settings.   

*****
Photographs courtesy of artists at Pixabay.com
The views expressed in this blog post are mine and may not reflect the stance of the Zonta Club of Pinellas County or Zonta International. — Doris Reeves-Lipscomb