4 Reasons Sexual Assault Victims Don't Step Forward
If you're anything like me, a person who rarely pays attention to the ins and outs of Hollywood (beyond the Air Bud franchise), the sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein barely registered in your brain. He is only one of the many, many, many high-powered men who have been accused of sexual harassment and/or assault in the last year. It's almost impossible for a girl to keep all of those names straight in her head -- HW is just a blip on the rapey radar.
To my discredit, it wasn't until beautiful, powerful women with bigger names than Weinstein's stepped forward and told their stories that I started clicking on the headlines. In other words, I literally didn't pay attention until Angelina Jolie -- the prettiest, richest, most Hollywoody lady I can think of -- said she was a victim, and even then, I didn't faint with the vapors in shock. No one did. In fact, thanks to a hashtag originally created by activist Tarana Burke and a tweet by Alyssa Milano, we all learned at once that just about every woman each of us knows has been harassed or assaulted at one point in her life.
And by the way, #MeToo.
So here's the big question: Why now? Why did it take the public exposure (gross) of a high-powered movie man for ordinary women to step forward and announce to friends, family, colleagues, and Becky H. from the seventh grade that they've been victimized?
For me, the answer is that announcing yourself as a sexual assault or harassment victim to the people you love, respect, and/or barely know in any capacity is awful. Not shameful; I'm more embarrassed that I didn't click on some celebrities' painful stories about Harvey Weinstein than I am about my own background. #MeToo asked women to just step forward and align themselves with fellow survivors, and even that simple act was tough. Here's why ...
Justice Is Vague, While The Promise Of More Pain Is Concrete
Imagine that a Bad Thing just happened to you. Not your mother, sister, daughter, friend, co-worker, or an actress you like, but you. (I'm making this distinction because I believe that most of us actually care more about our loved ones than we care about ourselves. More on that in a minute.)
Now that you -- an interesting, fun, smart, ambitious person who has a million things to accomplish -- have been assaulted or harassed, you have a choice. You can tuck this Bad Thing away in your brain and keep living your life as normally as possible, or you can step into the second part of the nightmare of assault: the part where you describe the experience over and over again in front of people who may or may not believe you, who might actually be paid to tear you to shreds in public, and who can destroy every dream or ambition you've ever had for yourself. Oh, and if you choose to step forward, your name and your assailant's name will be linked forever and ever, even after you die. When people think of you, they'll also think of him. That's what you're signing up for when you come forward.
The best-case scenario is that everyone believes you, no one blames you for what happened, and no one thinks your pain is too insignificant for discussion if you weren't raped. The worst-case scenario is that you end up on national television telling old men how your boss used to describe porn to you and once asked you "Who has put a pubic hair on my Coke?" before he was placed on the Supreme Court.
Whether we're talking about persistent unwanted advances in the workplace or rape, it takes a Batman-level sense of justice and ovaries of steel to walk into the hellscape of naming names. A lot of women (and kids and men) coldly and carefully look at the path ahead of them, then say "Nope!" and just keep living their lives as best they can.
Until they realize that someone else might get hurt.
I'm not a therapist or an expert or a historian of sexual misconduct, but I suspect that the nebulous concept of "justice" is rarely what compels a victim to come forward. The harm is done and will never be repaired. I think victims come forward when the fear of this same assault or harassment happening to other people becomes so gripping that they can't handle it anymore and they have to say something. It's the love of other humans, future unknowable victims, which fuels a woman's fight through rape kits and police interviews and HR hearings and the courtroom glares of their assailant's loved ones. And only the bravest, most selfless heroes can do it.
Most Victims Don't Have The Money Or Power To Say Anything
I've done the math. As of this writing, the average Weinstein accuser is 44 years old and is describing things that happened about 20 years ago. If it took a mini-army of famous, rich victims and the combined efforts of journalists working for The New York Times and The New Yorker to tease those stories out of them, how in the world can we expect women who are living paycheck-to-paycheck to do the same? We shouldn't.
There are waitresses, housekeepers, retail workers, teachers, and housewives out there who can't afford to tell their stories. They don't have another job lined up, and most people can't bank on the justice system or HR department to make sure everything turns out OK in the end. Especially not when history tells us it won't. And what really sucks is that their harassers know it too.
Even kids can imagine the financial cost of confiding their abuse. A child who is in a dangerous situation at home may not worry about their career trajectory, but they know that telling grownups about molestation by a primary breadwinner might lead to a divorce, a separation, a move, a change in schools, or actual hunger and years of poverty. And that might be the best scenario -- that's if the child has someone whom they can trust will take action to protect them. Kids aren't dumb. They know their teachers aren't going to adopt them and make sure the lights stay on at home once the abuse is known. Some kids do the math and decide they'd rather just continue in pain than disrupt their world.
In fact, and I'm sorry I have to tell you this story, the #MeToo campaign was inspired by a little girl named Heaven who told a counselor that she was being sexually abused at home. The counselor couldn't handle the little girl's pain and sent her away with instructions to find someone who could "help her better." The counselor was Tarana Burke, and it was her shame that drove what happened next:
"I watched her walk away from me as she tried to recapture her secrets and tuck them back into their hiding place. I watched her put her mask back on and go back into the world like she was all alone and I couldn't even bring myself to whisper ... me too."
#MeToo started with a woman not helping another victim because the pain was too hard to handle. Survivors of assault and abuse know you might not believe them, and that you probably won't know what to say or how to act even if you do believe them. They get it. So they just don't tell you.
Victims Might Get A Powerful Person's Reprimand
For years, Corey Feldman has been screaming that Hollywood is full of child molesters who prey on young actors, that some of them targeted him and his friend Corey Haim, and that at least one of the predators is still working in Hollywood. Nobody has taken him seriously ... ever. He even said he named names back in 1993. None of those names were Michael Jackson, so no one cared. Here's a 2013 video of acclaimed journalist Barbara Walters looking at Feldman like he's an idiot before cutting him off mid-sentence by exclaiming, "You're damaging an entire industry!"
Walters has not apologized yet. I predict she'll say something in a few days. On a related note, here's what acclaimed fashion designer Donna Karan said in the immediate aftermath of the Weinstein allegations:
"... how do we display ourselves? How do we present ourselves as women? What are we asking? Are we asking for it by presenting all the sensuality and all the sexuality?
In other words, "Ladies and girls, are your yoga pants and bare midriffs inviting assault? Maaaaaybe?" (Update: She's since apologized.)
Meanwhile, acclaimed former child star and current working actress Mayim Bialik wrote a New York Times op-ed about how she probably hasn't been harassed or assaulted because she dresses modestly, doesn't flirt in public, and never got plastic surgery. I kid you not. In other words, "Ladies and girls, are your perfect bodies, tiny noses, and charismatic attitudes inviting assault? Maaaaaaybe?" (Update: She's since apologized.) Neither Bialik or Karan are on my short list of people I'm turning to for opinions these days, but guess what? I'm on nobody's list either, and here I am.
Do you know who is on my list of people I'm looking to for opinions? Acclaimed politician Hillary Freaking Clinton, but I don't think she gives a flying flip about women who are harassed by their bosses. Sidebar: Does everybody know that Clinton called Monica Lewinksy a "narcissistic loony toon" in the wake of Lewinksy's affair with President Bill? (Update: There isn't one! Clinton has supported her husband through one rape allegation, one groping accusation, one harassment allegation, and multiple affairs in the decades they've been together. I voted for the woman in spite of her Bill-shaped blind spot.)
My point is that women aren't always that great at caring about the suffering of other women. Sometimes we actively suck at it. Speaking of sucking ...
Victims Might Get A Powerful Person's Weird Attempt At Empathy
As the Weinstein scandal unfolded, nonvictim and documented molester Ben Affleck stepped forward with a statement denouncing Weinstein's actions. He also said, "We need to do better at protecting our sisters, friends, co-workers, and daughters," which caused the world to make a collective record scratch before answering, "Wait, what now?" Apparently, nobody told homeboy that Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Donald Trump, and Bill Clinton also have daughters and have historically sucked in their relationships with women.
Obviously, no one should have to bring a female human into the world to grasp the seriousness of sexual assault. And protection shouldn't be a part of this conversation. Women don't want their dads and co-workers to act like bodyguards when other people's dads and co-workers walk into the room; they want to not be raped. So, bad job at reading the room, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.
That being said, I get it. The Blunder Twins were each putting their brains in the scariest spot in the world, imagining that someone out there could hurt your child. My list of all-time worst fears range from falling down a gentle hill to the general concept of fire, but number one is someone sexually assaulting one of my children. I'd rather fall down an elevator shaft and land on a pack of evil clowns (who are on fire) than imagine one of my kids being violated.
I'll put it this way: I don't know Rose McGowan or Ashley Judd or the more than 40 (!) other women who have so far stepped forward with accusations against Weinstein. I've read their stories, and I imagine that if Weinstein had asked me to watch him shower or give him a massage, I would have responded with the same disgust they did. But if someone told me that it was an adult version of my daughter or son in the same scenario, my emotions go into overdrive. If the victim is me, I'm grossed out. If the victim is my daughter, I'm Liam Neesing. When Trayvon Martin was killed, President Obama said "this could have been my son," and that was the most intimate, empathetic thing he could say in that moment.
So yeah, men, if it takes picturing your child (or a friend or sister or mom or me, whatever) as a victim for you to get interested in the conversation, that's fine. Just make it a mental exercise and don't be weird about it.
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For more, check out 5 Ways Modern Men Are Trained to Hate Women and 7 Reasons So Many Guys Don't Understand Sexual Consent.
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