Friday, March 30, 2018

Sexual Assault is No Joke

Sexual Assault is No Joke

by Ted Miller
(originally published April 2018 in Tumbleweird)

It’s been twenty years since Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about an affair with an intern on his staff. The sordid details became common gossip and the subject of raunchy jokes. I remember thinking that what happened between consenting adults should remain a private issue and not a matter of public debate. In this case, the affair was also a case of infidelity, but that again, I thought, should be a private matter. The issue, of course, wasn’t the sex, but the lying under oath. That was the subject of the impeachment and THAT was what was important, right? What happened between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky didn’t affect his ability to govern the country and, if she agreed to the affair, why did it matter?  At least, that’s what I remember thinking at the time.

But twenty years and Monica Lewinsky’s essay in the February 2018 issue of Vanity Fair has significantly changed my perspective. Until I read that essay, I had never given much thought to her perspective. I never considered how she was blamed for the affair, victimized by the prosecution, vilified by the public, and left utterly alone to deal with the aftermath of the scandal. Their relationship may have been consensual, but the abuse of power should not have been so easily overlooked. The power imbalance changed the focus of the real issue. Bill Clinton should have been held accountable.

We live in a culture that blames the victim for sexual harassment or sexual assault. Consider the common phrases we hear to excuse bad behavior. “Boys will be boys.” “She shouldn’t have dressed like that.” “She was asking for it.” “She should have fought back.” “It was just a youthful mistake, don’t ruin his life over it.”

Youthful mistake? Like Brock Turner, who in 2015 sexually assaulted a woman and then received a lenient sentence because, as the judge stated, a longer sentence would have a “severe impact” on this star college athlete with Olympic potential? What about the impact to the victim? If you don’t remember the case, I encourage you to read her statement (search “Brock Turner victim statement”). She states firsthand what it’s like to be a victim in our current “rape culture.”  As is often the case, she was victimized not just by the assault, but by the lawyers, by the press, and by the public. Brock Turner was portrayed as the golden boy who made a little mistake while the details of the victim’s relationships, dating habits, and every private intimacy of her life were called in to question. In other words, it was her fault, not his.

Is it any wonder that victims are hesitant to report sexual assault?

But then, in October 2017, the #MeToo movement went viral. First used by Tarana Burke in 2006 to foster solidarity among women, Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment and sexual assault victims began using the hashtag to raise awareness of the pervasiveness of this issue. Suddenly, millions of #MeToo posts showed the world that those who suffered weren’t alone. And powerful abusers are now being held accountable.

Harvey Weinstein was fired and the powerhouse Weinstein film company has since filed for bankruptcy. Roy Moore, a republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, lost his election against a democrat in a deep red state. Al Franken resigned from congress following credible allegations of improper behavior against him. And the list continues to grow. Both women and men are feeling empowered to speak up.

One of the most heartbreaking examples is the case of U.S. Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar who sexually abused hundreds of young gymnasts for years until called out by his victims through the #MeToo movement. Larry Nassar is now serving a life sentence in prison. That he was able to perpetrate his crimes with impunity for decades while working at Michigan State University under the authority of the U.S. Olympic Committee is an indictment on us all.

We need to be more aware of the messages in our society that perpetuate a culture of unacceptable sexual behavior. Why do we insist girls follow a certain dress code but never tell boys they are responsible for their actions? Why do we automatically question the motives of an accuser rather than the actions of the perpetrator? Why do we laugh at misogynistic jokes and catcalls instead of holding each other accountable to treat everyone with respect and dignity?

As a society, we must listen to the victims of assault and harassment, shift our response from skepticism to belief, and support them through their time of vulnerability. More importantly, we must all work together to change the culture we live in so that men who abuse their power are held accountable. We cannot tolerate a society where wealth, celebrity, or political position excuses the inexcusable.

Every one of us has a #MeToo story or knows someone who does. Let the stories be told.

Time’s up.

Friday, March 2, 2018

This Time Feels Different

This Time Feels Different

by Ted Miller
(originally published March 2018 in Tumbleweird)

When I heard the news on February 14th of yet another school shooting, this time at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida, I predicted we would see the same tired divisive arguments in the news, on social media, and from our politicians. There would be much outrage, grief, denial, calls for gun control, and “thoughts and prayers.” 

The same script played out like clockwork. And I figured that, as has happened with every mass shooting, the attention of the public would shift after a few days and absolutely nothing would change. I reminded myself that if the December 2012 murder of twenty children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut wouldn’t drive change, if the mass murder of concert goers in Las Vegas last year couldn’t even convince Congress to ban bump-stocks, then surely another mass shooting wasn’t going to be any different.

As I listened to interviews with lawmakers on the news the next day, I heard a congressman repeatedly pivot the discussion to argue about the precise definition of an assault weapon instead of focusing on the problem or propose any sort of solution to reduce gun violence in our nation. I was so frustrated I actually screamed at my radio.

When I saw the same tired, baseless arguments all over social media, I called it “Political Polarization Paralysis” in a social media post. That’s what we seem to have become: Too paralyzed to make any difference whatsoever. I felt helpless. I felt hopeless. I cried.

Then I heard that some of the surviving high school students were speaking up. In the midst of their grief and anger, they were making passionate arguments for change. I read Cameron Kasky’s op-ed published by CNN. I heard David Hogg’s media interviews. I listened to Delaney Tarr address the Florida legislature. I watched Emma Gonzalez’s passionate speech at a gun-control rally a mere three days after the shooting. These teenagers are not taking “no” for an answer. Emma Gonzalez spoke for her peers when she said:

Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the NRA telling us nothing could have been done to prevent this, we call BS. They say tougher guns laws do not decrease gun violence. We call BS. They say a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun. We call BS. They say guns are just tools like knives and are as dangerous as cars. We call BS. They say no laws could have prevented the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred. We call BS. That us kids don't know what we're talking about, that we're too young to understand how the government works. We call BS.

These media-savvy young people know how to get their message out. The news corporations and the public have taken notice. Their message is consistent, pointed, and effective.

And right on cue, the backlash from the extreme right has been severe, attacking the students with conspiracy theories in an attempt to undermine their credibility, claiming they have no right to speak up, and bullying them in an attempt to silence them. Death threats began almost immediately. The rabid mob mentality in our society to attack people for speaking up is shameful. But these young people, who demonstrate more maturity and resolve than the leaders who are supposed to protect them, will not be deterred.

Gun rights extremists are quick to blame gun violence on video games, lack of religion, mental illness, broken families, illegal immigration, or any number of other things. But they will never admit that largely unregulated and easy access to firearms has an irrefutable relationship to the number of mass shootings in the United States. And while other countries have the same violence in video games and movies, the same mental health problems, similar divorce rates, and declining participation in religion, mass shootings are extremely rare.

What is the difference? The number of guns, the lethality of assault-style weapons, and the ease of obtaining them. That is what has to change. We must regulate guns the way we regulate everything else that poses a risk to the public.

Heroes don’t ask to be heroes.  Last month these young activists were worried about mid-terms, proms and their next issue of the school newspaper. Today they are leading a national movement. They aren’t old enough to vote, but they are old enough to make a difference. They are prepared, they are organized, and they are passionate. They are tireless. They are speaking out for their dead classmates and the hundreds of other murdered students who can no longer speak for themselves.

Maybe, just maybe, this time is different. What lawmakers, pundits, leaders, and other gun violence survivors have been unable to do, these young leaders are now doing. Republican Congressman and Army veteran Brian Mast has called for a ban on assault weapons, major companies are cutting their ties to the NRA, and students across the nation are joining forces to bring about change.

I no longer feel helpless and hopeless. I feel hope and optimism for change. The future is in good hands.