Updated: Oct 11, 2018
The public outpouring of revelations by women about their experience of sexual abuse—ranging from harassment to rape—at the hands of prominent men across all domains of society is a watershed moment in our nation’s history. It is also a seismic wakeup call to action.
As the leaders of two organizations that function as an umbrella for organizations, agencies, academics, advocates, and survivors committed to ending sexual abuse and violence in all of its forms for all people across the lifespan, we believe that making sexual abuse prevention a national priority is the key to lasting change.
The courage of the hundreds of women who have come forward in the past few months to identify their high-profile abusers in the media, the entertainment industry, government, and business has unmasked a pervasive social problem that has been hidden for decades by forced secrecy and denial. These brave women have helped to “lift the veil” over a culture of tolerance of the sexual maltreatment of women and children by individuals in positions of authority (mostly men) that has persisted in the United States for generations. This is an important first step in addressing a problem that traumatizes its victims and that costs our country billions of dollars a year. But it is only a first step in opening up a national discussion of a problem that is systemic: the objectification of females and our failure to protect women and children from abuse and exploitation.
That a person can run for president of our country and make statements that objectify women speaks volumes about institutionally and culturally sanctioned bias and sexism. Not surprisingly, rather than calling for a zero-tolerance cultural and legal standard regarding sexually abusive behavior, the statements and motives of victims are instead questioned by members of the political elite, the press, and the public. This has deterred women from reporting abuse. It has also obscured the number of women who are being sexually assaulted and harassed on a daily basis and in the process denying them justice and enabling their perpetrators.
The effort to discredit the female victims of abuse by men in a variety of fields and disciplines, including celebrities, athletes, and people running for political office, has already begun. Foremost among the arguments employed to absolve the perpetrator and blame the victim are: Why didn’t she do anything to stop or prevent sexual harassment or assault? And why did it take so long for her to come forward? Implied is that the victim either did not object to the abuse or did not think that it was a serious problem when it took place. Worse still is the claim that she lied.
In a society that worships the powerful, too often Americans believe that the victim must have done something to contribute to her (or his) own victimization. The belief that “I would never allow that to happen to me” logically leads to “you allowed it to happen to you, and you are therefore at fault.” Many victims internalize this faulty logic and hence are ashamed that they were unable to prevent or stop the sexual abuse from happening. Our legal system continues to perpetuate these erroneous beliefs by allowing the victim’s sexual history, attire, conduct, and consent to other behaviors to serve as mitigating circumstances in sexual harassment and assault cases.
Many of the hundreds of women who publicly have described in detail what they have suffered at the hands of high-profile men have reported receiving threats from individuals who support their abusers. Therefore, it is no surprise that victims—ashamed, traumatized, and frequently legally threatened—are afraid to speak up against their bosses and coworkers, and especially when the perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault are celebrities, politicians, and business moguls.
We praise the “#MeToo” movement for conveying through social media to Americans in every race, class, gender, and religion what we as professionals in fields related to women and children, along with advocates for victims and survivors of sexual abuse, have always known: Namely, that since most sexual crimes occur in private, and since the power differential between perpetrator and victim is almost always considerable, the perpetrator’s word customarily prevails. And typically the victim fears that if she refuses, she may lose her career, her reputation, or even her life. The time is long overdue to stop questioning the victims.
When it comes to sexual assault against women and children, our country has arrived at a critical moment of reckoning and change. We look forward to the day when women are no longer re-victimized by our providing protection to their predators. And we also look forward to the day that America aspires to eliminate sexual harassment and assault in the federal government, the military, public- and private-sector businesses, sports, academia, and the media in order to make nonviolence and gender equality a reality.