We’re living in a powerful moment if you have been affected by gender-based violence or know someone who has — so, everybody.
Since New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey first exposed film director Harvey Weinstein, 35 men and counting have been accused of sexual misconduct. Emboldened by the #MeToo movement, many women have taken to social media to share their own experiences. Some claimed to be “shocked” and “surprised” by the prevalence of sexual violence. But victims are not surprised, and perpetrators are not naive.
The extensive research of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network reveals that every 98 seconds, someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted. That amounts to more than 570 people a day. The Bureau of Justice reports that this violence is not limited to the private sphere; every day, about 50 people are sexually assaulted or raped in their workplace. Poor, POC or LGBTQIA folks are most vulnerable to this kind of abuse.
Weekly Reveal Journalist Bernice Yeung writes, “It’s a problem that affects people in all types of work, extending beyond film, media and politics to the women who clean hotel rooms, tidy office buildings at night or pick vegetables.”
Sexual violence happens all the time — and, depending on the identity of the victim or the perpetrator, it often isn’t acknowledged by mainstream media outlets.
Sexual violence is undoubtedly part of U.S. culture; it is part of our patriarchal, political heritage. From Thomas Jefferson to Donald Trump, you can be an accused-sexual assaulter and become president in this country.
Yet, we’re still taught to think of rapists and gender-based abusers as “other,” as abstractions. They are nameless, faceless “bad guys.” But they have names; they have faces. To appropriate the title of a brave and important Middlebury program, “It Happens Here.”
The National Institute of Justice reports that “85 to 90 percent of sexual assaults reported by college women are perpetrated by someone known to the victim; about half occur on a date.” Queer folks are even more vulnerable. Here are some alarming statistics from the CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey survey and the Human Rights Campaign.
Forty-four percent of lesbians and 61 percent of bisexual women experience rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner, compared to 35 percent of heterosexual women.
Twenty-six percent of gay men and 37 percent of bisexual men experience rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner, compared to 29 percent of heterosexual men.
Among transgender racial minorities, 24 percent of transgender Native Americans, 18 percent of transgender people who identified as multiracial, 17 percent of transgender Asians, and 15 percent of black transgender respondents experienced sexual assault in K-12 education settings – much higher rates than students of other races. Transgender women respondents experienced sexual assault more often than their transgender male peers.
Bernice Yeung said it well: “At the heart of any sexual harassment accusation is the abuse of power. Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein had movie roles to offer. Reporter Glenn Thrush of The New York Times could help young journalists get in front of a top editor. Congressman John Conyers could open doors to a high-powered political career… [And] immigrant women from the working class... face the same kind of power imbalance as the women coming forward today, except the exploitation plays out differently. Their bosses aren’t famous but they still have real influence on the people who work for them. These supervisors can hire and fire, mete out extra hours or take them away. For women living paycheck to paycheck, that’s a significant kind of power to wield.”
We see this power dynamic play out at Middlebury between men and women, straight and queer folks, and upperclassmen and underclassmen. Inappropriate behavior, rooted in struggles of gender and power, happens all the time in our community. We see it when first-years are invited to senior sports team suites in Atwater; the senior men have all the control. We see it when the credibility of student survivors is questioned.
The onus is partially on our institutions. We commend “It Happens Here” and MiddSafe for their admirable work. Green Dot’s current form is a good start too, but we can do more to act preemptively and support women. We suggest more thorough Green Dot training for first years and sports teams.
Moreover, a more effective judicial system is in need for addressing perpetrators. We also call on the CCI to develop further resources for students on how to handle sexual harassment in the workplace. When students graduate they ought to be prepared for employers who try to use their power to take advantage of their employees.
Ultimately, this matter comes down to individuals and it is their responsibility to make a difference. Sexual and gender-based violence is inappropriate — period. To those who seek to trivialize the threat of sexual and gender-based violence: shame on you. Reread the statistics. If you haven’t experienced sexual or gender-based violence, listen to the people, especially women, who have. Their stories are the ones that matter most.
Perpetrators are beginning to be held accountable in a way they weren’t before and that is noteworthy progress. But even if someone hasn’t been indicted in the narrow legal sense — especially via the myopic system on college campuses — that doesn’t mean the perpetrator’s actions weren’t egregious.
There are many reasons why students choose not to report, from revictimization by an exhausting judicial process to concrete threats from perpetrators, whose status and power protects them.
As The New York Times columnist Charles Blow writes, “For most women, the perpetrator is not a Hollywood executive, or a sitting senator or an esteemed journalist. For most, there will be no press conferences if they come forward. There will be no celebrity attorney to sit at their sides and stroke their hands. There will be no morning news shows to praise their courage. For most, the decision to speak up will still feel fraught and without sufficient benefit to outweigh the possibility of negative repercussions.”
If you have behaved in a way that has facilitated sexual or gender-based violence, directly or indirectly, you need to change. Bystanders need to be held accountable too because they are complicit when they remain silent. We all need to be intentional about fighting gender-based violence.
Next time, be the difference between a good night and nightmare. Check your friends and check yourself. Risk losing social capital in order to prevent someone from trauma, and contemplate why holding back is considered “cool.” Junior and senior men, think about your power in spaces and your social capital on a Saturday night. Athletes, leave aggression and force on the field because that has no place in consent culture.
As Blow puts it, “We have to focus on the fact that jokes that objectify women are not funny. And we have to focus on the fact that society itself has incubated and nourished a dangerous idea that almost unbridled male aggression is not only a component of male sexuality, it is the most prized part of it. We say to boys, be aggressive. We say to our girls, be cautious. Boys will be boys and girls will be victims… [People] are not responsible for men’s bad behavior. The idea that horny men can’t control themselves is a lie!”
As one of our editors so aptly put it: Believe it or not, you are accountable for your actions — for the pain you do or do not cause. So act consensually, defend consent culture and, most importantly, be a decent human being.