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.
Good article, Ted. I was pondering your question, "why do we automatically question the motives of the accuser rather than the actions of the perportrator?"
It made me wonder if our justice system might play an unconscious role in this. It in ingrained into our minds that a person is "innocent until proven guilty". When on a jury we are instructed that the prosecution must prove guilt without a reasonable doubt. Inevitably, this forces our brains to question things, to be suspicious of the charges, and almost find innocence before we find guilt. I wholeheartedly agree with your article and all your points.
However, it makes me wonder if what we are taught in America about innocent until proven guilty sways us unconsciously to question the motives of the accuser?
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