2017 has become the year of the rich, old predators, from President Trump in the White House to Bill O’Reilly’s ousting from Fox News and Bill Cosby’s trial for sexual assault. In early October, the New York Times reported on Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexually predatory behavior, and this week, sexual assault allegations against Kevin Spacey surfaced.
Each of these scandals traced a familiar pattern: the actions of powerful men continually shocking and disgusting us as we move on from one scandal to the next. What’s different this time is that women from all walks of life have taken to social media to proclaim that sexual harassment and assault is a common experience in most of our lives, by tweeting #MeToo.
Most of these women aren’t referring to the rich and famous. They are referring to that one time at a party when they got groped by someone they knew, endless catcalling on the streets, or lewd off-handed comments at the workplace. As women, we have learned to internalize the shame and to not make a big deal out these incidents. We have learned to live with low-level sexual harassment: The kind that doesn’t technically harm your body, the kind that is not worth muddying your name for, or the kind of unwanted attention that you don’t want to classify as harassment because you don’t want to be victimized.
We have grown comfortable with low-level harassment, which is much more rampant than the likes of Weinstein. One in four people face sexual harassment in the workplace. We wonder why victims don’t speak up without assessing the level of risk associated with that decision — whether it comes down to her word against his, or the likelihood of being seen as an HR liability.
Besides, it can be incredibly daunting. Hollywood royalty Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow did not open up about Weinstein’s sexual advances until after the story broke because they were afraid of retaliation and did not want to jeopardize burgeoning careers. As one of Weinstein’s victims, Brit Marling, writes, both he and his victims knew that he could make or break an actress’s career, ensuring economic exile for any who humiliate him. This is also familiar to victims of low-level harassment, who are forced to make a simple calculation: Is speaking up worth my job, career, and perhaps, reputation? Apparently, 75 percent of the time, it’s not.
Sadly, we as a society have pushed the burden of speaking out against harassment to the victims, protecting ourselves from that responsibility. We were nauseated by the tapes of Trump saying he “moved on [a married woman] like a bitch” and Weinstein telling a model that he is “used to” touching the breasts of an unsuspecting aspiring actress. America was outraged when Stanford student-athlete Brock Turner walked out of jail after serving just three months of his meager six-month sentence for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman.
Does unwanted sexual attention have to rise to the level of brutal assault before it is worth our disgust? In each of these cases, the predator was a rich and famous man or the subject of media attention to deserve our outrage. Perhaps we are okay with low-level harassment, and in our culture of complicity, sexual harassment has to rise to a certain level of repugnance before we condemn it.
The #MeToo movement has shown the magnitude of a problem that is notoriously difficult to measure empirically because of underreporting. People who might not have previously given this issue any thought are finding out that their loved ones and acquaintances have their own stories of low-level harassment or worse.
I haven’t been physically attacked, but I have been harassed, and so have so many other women I know. Their predators were not Weinsteins — they were average Joes: coworkers, acquaintances, and strangers. Be enraged. Empathize with the women who Weinstein harassed and assaulted. Acknowledge that there are hordes of women out there with similar stories.
You don’t have to be a father or a husband to feel shame or to intervene when you know someone is being harassed. You simply have to be a responsible member of society to take a stand against all forms of sexual harassment and assault — even when it does not rise to the level of Harvey Weinstein and Brock Turner.
Call it out when you see it. Perhaps if Quentin Tarantino and others who knew of Weinstein’s sick behavior had spoken up, the list of victims wouldn’t be quite so long. Why is it okay for us to ostracize neo-Nazis, racists, and homophobes in our workplace and friend circles, but not low-level sexual predators? Sure, it takes courage to speak up. But remember that we as a society ask that of victims, and it is much harder for her than it is for you.
There is nobility in speaking truth to power. For sexual predators, power manifests both in the social hierarchies that precede harassment and in the fear and control that results from it. No one should have that kind of power over someone else. It's time we take personal responsibility to stand up to all levels and forms of sexual harassment.
Deshani Gunathilake (@dd_gunners) is an advocate for Young Voices, originally from Sri Lanka and currently residing in Washington, D.C.
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