Amidst all of the women coming forward to share their stories of sexual assault and harassment committed at the hands of high powered men, I can’t help but notice one common theme: most of the men in my life are shocked and appalled to learn that men they admire have likely committed awful acts, but I am not. For example, a few weeks ago, my husband and I were watching the Daily Show. Trevor Noah was discussing the latest sexual assault allegations, and showed the image of Al Franken “playfully” fondling a sleeping Leeann Tweeden’s breasts. My husband reacted with shock and anger. While he had certainly reacted with disgust to the previous allegations, this one seemed to hit in a different way. Franken is someone we had admired. When he had previously appeared as the guest on the Daily Show, we had agreed that perhaps he should run for president.
I turned to my husband and said, “I am not shocked.”
He was confused. “Why not?”
I was not shocked, because I am all too familiar with having to reckon with fitting sexist comments and abusive actions into the identities of men that I admire and must continue to look to for leadership.
Growing up in the 1990s in a liberal family, with liberal friends, I was taught to overlook Bill Clinton’s “unsavory” actions. They had nothing to do with his ability to lead the country. An affair was part of his personal life; we were to ignore this as part of his public identity. Growing up I bought into this message and even repeated it to others.
Clinton’s affair was not an affair of two consenting equals. He was the president and Monica Lewinsky– an intern. The power differential meant there could never be consent, but as a child in a liberal family, I didn’t learn this lesson. I learned that calls for impeachment were wrong and driven only by political differences; the morality of his actions was not in question. Not until recently have I reexamined this evaluation in light of Title IX and workplace policies and in light of my own understanding as a young woman about how differences in power cloud the ability to give consent.
We live in a society where liberals will accept Clinton’s behavior when it is convenient and conservatives, for the political win, will accept Trump pridefully boasting that he “grabs women by the pussy”. We are in a unique historical moment where giants are falling, and where women feel empowered to call out their attackers by name: Louis CK, Al Franken, Matt Lauer, Ruben Kihuen, and the list goes on. Nevertheless, we will not overcome these ubiquitous male conquests by individually calling out all of the men who have acted inappropriately, which is not to say that women should stop calling out their attacker and that we should stop responding with collective outrage. These individuals should have consequences for their actions, but for every Blake Farenthold or John Conyers, whose abuses we learn about publicly, there are many more men, even at the highest levels of our government, who will never have their actions exposed. They are too powerful, able to cover up abuses behind close doors, buying their way out of public shame. Their assaults may be too horrific for anyone to speak up and relive the trauma and pain again, particularly with the risk of not being believed.
We cannot place the burden upon women to call out their attackers, when we have not believed the women who have. This onslaught of outcry, however, is opening new doors and we must not let them close. Many well intentioned men, have been blind to the extent to which this violence and abuse occurs. I hope that now they believe. I hope they remember. But much of what women face is more insidious, more pernicious than the blatant acts alone such as college boys ranking women on a scale from 1-10 like grading meat, teachers telling young girls that boys are mean to girls when they like them, and workplace policies that stymie women who try to report their abusers.
There is no required sexual harassment training on Capitol Hill. Those who wish to report must wait 90 days before reporting their abusers, and during these 90 days, those wishing to report must participate in therapy, mediation and a 30 day cooling off period. The lack of information combined with a multitude of obstacles for reporting means that many of those committing sexually abusive behavior ranging from lewd comments to assaults and rapes do not face any type of consequence.
We must use this time of mass outcry not just to persecute the known perpetrators. We must take a deep look at the culturally normalized and institutionalized ways our society permits sexist, misogynistic and abusive behavior. We have a great opportunity to call for policy changes on local, state and federal levels; people are angry on both sides of the aisle, and we can harness this anger! And when we do, we must ensure that the policies put in place are well communicated to the public and make meaningful changes.
Ask about the policies in your own workplace, and if they do not provide victims with full protection against sexual abuses and all employees full protection against sexism, then gather like minded colleagues together to ask for policy changes. The ingraining of cultural values and beliefs begins young so we must talk to our young people in new ways. We must not excuse the behavior of our boys with adages like “boys will be boys”. We must raise our girls to know that when they stand up for themselves, they will be heard and the adults that they trust will respond.
Women cannot fight this fight alone. We need men to support us in our cries for change, and we need men who are willing to take the risk and call for that change themselves. We all must examine how our own behaviors perpetuate a rape culture, a boys club, a world where boys grow into men that think grabbing a woman’s breasts without consent is not only okay, it’s funny. We can do better, and we must.