Sexual violence has taken center stage at mainstream news outlets, with new allegations and testimonies surfacing what feels like every day. The accused parties are from all walks of life, but mostly those in positions of power are being featured. This means that guilty politicians, once-beloved actors, television hosts and journalists are witnessing the consequences of their actions. And it’s about time. The culture of silencing and burying the stories of sexual violence victims is waning, though it still faces resistance the more that we’re made to realize the situation our country is in.
Time magazine named some key participants of the #MeToo campaign as “Person of the Year.” The movement was founded by Tarana Burke, and has been attributed as a huge player in opening the floodgates of sexual harassment allegations. Burke has been working to help victims of sexual violence for years — long before #MeToo was a hashtag and a viral movement rippling through social media feeds. Actress Alyssa Milano first used Burke’s mission statement “Me too” in a tweet, which birthed the official hashtag. In an interview with The New York Times, Burke mentioned feeling dread at this turn of events, feeling that “…something that was part of [her] life’s work was going to be co-opted and taken from [her].” Milano soon after attributed the campaign to Burke’s work.
The movement’s history is important, since it reflects areas for improvement as our country moves forward in eradicating sexual violence. The #MeToo campaign is a beautiful example of breaking silence. It’s accessible for many, though not the safest or most open platform for victims of sexual harassment to come forward with their stories. There are valid concerns that #MeToo is inaccessible to men, people of color, people in dangerous situations or trans people.
But the movement did its job in rocketing sexual harassment onto American news stations. #MeToo was tweeted close to 1 million times in 48 hours, according to Twitter. The campaign spread to other platforms, such as Facebook, Tumblr and independent blogs.
Harvey Weinstein and Al Franken are only part of the issue. Sexual harassment isn’t relegated to only big-time cases in Hollywood and Congress. Sexual violence is nationwide, and worldwide. It doesn’t discriminate by race, class, sex, gender or religion. Women are commonly targeted, and positions of power are used to normalize and decriminalize sexual harassment, especially in the workplace. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) conducted a study in August 2016 around sexual harassment. They found that only about one in five women who have experienced sexual harassment report it, and furthermore, 80 percent of those few reported cases resulted in no change whatsoever.
When victims of sexual harassment come forward, validity is always a forefront question for journalists and law enforcers. There’s a point, however, when routine checks become a form of violence in themselves. Victim-blaming has a long, rich history in our country. Some studies have found that blaming the victim soothes the person doing the blaming, and allows them to cope with the reality that we live in a sexually violent society.
Sherry Hamby discussed this phenomenon with The Atlantic, citing the “just world hypothesis” which states that people deserve what happens to them. It’s a natural way of explaining our world and our actions, and may be an especially strong mentality for Americans. The Atlantic writes, “Holding victims responsible for their misfortune is partially a way to avoid admitting that something just as unthinkable could happen to you—even if you do everything ‘right.’”
Sexual violence is reality for our country — on the larger level of Hollywood stars, down to the local level of campus culture. The push to acknowledge and listen to survivors is a step in the right direction, but we can’t just idly listen to the stories. Sexual violence has been built into our lives. It’s rarely shocking to hear about, and this is a bad sign for where we’re headed as a country. We should be working to dismantle the structures that allow these situations to keep happening. This means speaking up if you witness something uncomfortable, demanding better legislation and training from our government, and saying no to the normalization of violence.
Listen to survivors, believe them and demand persecution of those who are tearing down the women, men and children who haven’t been allowed a voice before.