Tuesday, October 24, 2017

#metoo, what next?

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

If you have Facebook, twitter, or have listened to any news media outlet in the last week, you would have heard someone say #metoo.

In response to the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Alyssa Milano tweeted the following:
If you've been sexually harassed or assaulted write 'me too' as a reply to this tweet.
Within 48 hours #metoo was posted about one million times. Think about the impact of one million people publicly acknowledging having been sexually harassed or assaulted!   

I have heard a lot of people commenting that this in not new. That is true, sexual harassment and sexual assault being pushed under the rug or people turning a blind eye, leaving victims to feel ashamed, embarrassed and at fault, has been going on forever.  Why now are women (and some men) coming forward?

Perhaps it is because there is a safety in numbers. Much of the sexual assault cases that are coming out publically now, were well known secrets. It was considered to be part of the territory and a necessary evil. Sexual assault is seen as a part of our culture. Think about the Access Hollywood tapes of Donald Trump. Even after admitting to groping and forcibly kissing women, he was elected to be President of the United States.  How is that possible? The response from many was “that’s just locker room talk.” Rape culture is normalized and excused. So much so that statistics show that 85% of all rapes go unreported. Sometimes we hear the counterargument about a risk of false accusations, however the reality is that accounts for only about 2% of all accusations. Take a look at this data from the website www.rainn.org

There is very little accountability.
No wonder so many women blame themselves for what happened to them.
It is important to point out that sexual assault is not just a problem for women. Men are also victims of sexual assault and women can be perpetrators as well.

Too often we dismiss perpetrators and make excuses like “boys will be boys.” There are so many examples in our culture where we romanticize behaviors where men “don’t’ take no for an answer.”  Just look at the most popular movies and shows where male characters persist and persist despite being told no. Movies like, Say Anything make us believe it is cute for a guy to stand outside of a girls house in the middle of the night with a radio to get her attention after she has repeatedly said she is not interested. Subtle messages like these can be confusing and contribute to a culture where it is acceptable for a man to be elected President of the United States after admitting that he sexually assaulted women and gets away with it because he is wealthy. Ask anyone connected to the media industry and they would tell you they knew of these “open secrets” about Harvey Weinstein or about Bill Cosby before it became the center of media attention.

Statistics show that one in five women are sexually assaulted by the time they get to college. The FBI Uniform Crime Report of 2013 reports (with a very narrow definition of rape) that one person is raped approximately every six minutes.

So what do we do? 

Right now, we teach our girls how not to be victims. We tell them to not put their drink down in a bar, be aware of their surroundings, don’t dress provocatively or get “too drunk”, make sure they don’t walk alone in the dark, etc.

The majority of the attention, accountability and responsibility fall on the victim. No wonder so may sexual assault victims blame themselves for things that happen to them? That is a big part of why they don’t come forward. That was the case for me almost thirty years ago. 

That is not ok.

An expert in treating sexual assault victims, Psychologist, Charity Truong, PsyD describes a “just world myth” that perpetuates the guilt and blame following a sexual assault. We believe on some level that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. When bad things happen, we start to think we must have done something wrong. We also have what is called a “rape script” in our mind of what an assault looks like. It’s a stranger, in a dark alley, late at night. That is different from the experience of many people. That discrepancy between what we think constitutes assault and what we actually experienced leads to self-blame and guilt.  We rationalize away what happened.  We make excuses for the perpetrator and we bury the emotional pain, shame and hurt.

Again, that is not ok.  So what now?

As a therapist and as a parent, it is important to me to be a part of a changing culture and here are three thoughts I have on how to begin:

  • Recognize this is a problem. A problem not isolated to a select few perpetrators but a culture that condones, romanticizes, and rationalizes inappropriate behavior. Most of us can agree and publically agree that Harvey Weinstein, Brock Turner or Bill Cosby cases are unacceptable, but what about the smaller, sexist micro aggressions that happen every day? Can we call out sexist language, harassment, slut shaming, mom shaming, stereotyping, and objectification of women?  Do we step in and challenge our friends, coworkers, or family members when they say and do things that perpetuate a culture of sexism? Can we stop condoning a culture of entitlement that makes excuses for “locker-room-talk?" Take a stand and speak out against the notion that “boys will be boys,” or that the way someone dresses or acts means they were “asking for it?” One of my favorite social workers and authors, Brene Brown, writes about having the courage to speak truth to bullshit in her newest book, Braving the Wilderness. Silence around these issues is a form of condoning. I get that it isn’t easy. If it were easy, this would not be as big of a problem. Speak up and step in.
  •  Get really clear on what sexual assault looks like, not the extreme “rape script” we imagine. Understanding the definition of sexual assault can help to better clarify what is happening. It allows people to know clearly what is and is not assault and create more accountability and less victim blaming. The Department of Justice defines sexual assault as:
 Any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape.
  •  The responsibility of preventing sexual assault does not fall on would-be-victim; the responsibility falls on the would-be perpetrator. We need to spend more time teaching our girls AND our boys about respecting boundaries, accountability and what IS and WHAT IS NOT consent.
Changing our culture starts with changing ourselves.