The other day I was reading a Facebook post from a friend who heard about a female co-worker who was sexually harassed at their place of work.
He argued that this is not acceptable, saying, “Well, it’s not acceptable. We as a society really have to grow up and address the inherent gender inequalities and sexism that exist. Yes, that means calling it out. Full stop.”
I agree completely.
His response, while good, missed one key element – we have all heard about what women have had to endure over the years – sexual harassment, sexual assault, unwanted sexual advances.
The reality is that there is nothing new about any of this. For years I would hear about incidents of sexual harassment and abuse and it has become ingrained in the culture, from the corporate culture to the political culture and even the law enforcement culture.
What is new is that we are hearing about this and what is new is that women feel empowered to speak out about it. But this has been going on for a long time.
The problem that we have with a lot of these incidents is that, by their very nature, they happen in private situations where there are no witnesses. That means there is a tendency for
skepticism. Adding to that, the power discrepancy means that women, fearful of social ridicule, of being disbelieved, and in many cases in fear of their jobs, are reluctant to speak out and, when they do, it is often years later.
As Ken Armstrong and Christian Miller point out in a November 24 Op-ed in the New York Times: “The women accusing the Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore of sexual misconduct have faced doubt and derision. Other women, who have alleged sexual assault or harassment by powerful men in Hollywood, Silicon Valley and elsewhere, have become targets for online abuse or had their careers threatened. Harvey Weinstein went so far as to hire ex-Mossad operatives to investigate the personal history of the actress Rose McGowan, to discourage her from publicly accusing him of rape.”
Thus there are many reasons for women to think twice about reporting sexual assault, but a big one is the potential for prosecution.
They note: “This month, a retired police lieutenant in Memphis, Tenn., Cody Wilkerson, testified, as part of a lawsuit against the city, not only that police detectives sometimes neglected to investigate cases of sexual assault but also that he overheard the head of investigative services in the city’s police department say, on his first day in charge: ‘The first thing we need to do is start locking up more victims for false reporting.’ It’s an alarming choice of priorities — and one that can backfire.”
In 2015, these authors wrote an article for ProPublica and The Marshall Project about Marie, an 18-year-old who reported being raped in Lynnwood, Wash., by a man who broke into her apartment.
They note: “What happened to Marie seemed unthinkable. She was victimized twice — first raped, then prosecuted. But cases like hers can be found around the country.”
They cite three instances where women were charged with lying and, in all three instances, the accusation was true and the men who raped them were identified, tried and convicted.
There is a lot of debate over the low number of false reports on sexual assaults, but I think we end up going down the wrong rabbit hole by focusing on false reports and not starting by focusing on true reports.
To me the biggest factor here is that this is really about power. As Marci Hamilton writes in Verdict, “Each sex abuse, assault, and harassment case is about a man abusing his power over a child, woman, or man who can’t match his influence. Those in the headlines have had astronomical power over their victims, and they exploited it.”
She also argues that, because of this, we tend to trust our instincts regarding who is and who is not a predator. But she argues that this endeavor is “foolhardy” and that the common response to these allegations – “it cannot be true” – ignores the fact that we are looking at people who “spent their whole careers persuading you that they are who they appear to be—but in reality they are not.”
She writes: “Ken Lanning, the now-retired FBI expert on child sex abuse, has explained pedophiles in a way that also makes sense for the sexual assaulters and harassers: the reason that these guys have succeeded at harming others is because they earn people’s trust–either through accumulated power or through being the super nice guy. Their trustworthiness creates the access. So the fact that you have known someone ‘forever’ and never seen them do one bad thing is basically irrelevant when it comes to those who sexually abuse, assault, or harass. What they are doing is not done on the street corner for you to see. Your instincts are wrong.”
Ms. Hamilton points out a few other key facts: first that “victims of sexual misconduct rarely make it up” and “often cannot come forward immediately.”
She writes: “They have been accused by some of fabricating their claims either for publicity or because they are seeking a ‘pay day.’”
In addition to being a humiliating event, “not something you want to announce from the ramparts,” she also points out that they often do this at considerable risk. The perpetrators “know how to convince their victims that telling others is risky,” but also there is a clear temptation for the public to blame the victim for allowing the attack to occur.
Moreover, as she points out there is a factor of statute of limitations. She writes: “The vast majority of these victim’s claims are well beyond the statute of limitations. This is especially true for the harassment victims, whose statutes of limitation are measured in days–180 to 300 days to be precise. They have no legal leverage at this point; they are just trying to do the right thing by telling the public the emperor has no clothes.”
Finally, I have been pondering the more existential question: are men just evil who can’t control their nether-parts? I have come to the conclusion that no, that’s too simplistic. This comes back to power – power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.
What I think men should do is speak out when they see it and support women and create a space where people feel empowered to report sexual assault, whether in the workplace or wherever.
Stop with the immediate assumption that people are making this up. If someone comes up and tells you that so and so was hitting them, your immediate instinct is generally to find out what happened and whether or not the person is okay. Occasionally that will be a false accusation, but false accusations are rare.
—David M. Greenwald reporting