The many accusations against Harvey Weinstein are an opportunity for us to talk openly and honestly about sexual assault and harassment.
We've been conditioned to believe that rapists are strangers who hide behind bushes or underneath cars in parking lots, just lurking and waiting to assault women. Women are told to be ready and on the lookout! Be careful where you park, hold your keys in your hand with each key between your finger and be ready to attack! Look under your car, and in your back seat before you get in your car. Walk with a friend, park beneath a street light, pay attention, don't walk like a victim, if you are attacked, yell "fire" not "rape" otherwise, no one will respond, etc. etc. I've seen lists like this even on Facebook, shared multiple times as "reminders" to women to always be on the lookout for the stranger-monster lying in wait.
It's exhausting to read these lists. Not because of the impossibility of checking off every safety tip multiple times per day (but let me assure you, we women try), but because lists like these are lies.
Most likely, the person waiting to sexually assault a woman is not a stranger but someone she knows. A friend, a neighbor, family member, boss, a friend of a friend. Stranger rapes are statistically not as common as we think. What is common is that a rapist is someone you know, like Brock Turner, the "nice guy" who sits next to you in class, or a highly successful and powerful producer like Harvey Weinstein, who because of his achievements, gets away with (until now that is) his many sexual assaults and repeated instances of sexual harassment. There are no lists to help protect us from these dangerous men.
Rapists aren't monsters. They are regular people who commit repeated crimes and are not held accountable for their behavior.
Serial rapists are not sex addicts either: they're criminals trying to get away with their crime by attempting to appeal to public sympathy by attempting to use a diagnosis of a mental health disorder that isn't supported by scientific evidence.
One out of five women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime (Black, et al., 2011) and according to survey research, one in four women have been sexually harassed at work. These numbers are made more personal by the #metoo campaign that was trending on social media in the last week, where women shared by virtue of posting the hashtag they too have experienced sexual assault or sexual harassment. Incidentally, this hashtag was started 10 years ago by an African American woman wanting to raise awareness for women of color who were sexually assaulted. Her documentary comes out next year.
The hashtag has gone viral, and many Facebook news feeds were flooded with women sharing #metoo, and from my limited experience, most posts were met with supportive, yet often, surprised comments. I find it surprising that people would be surprised to see how many women experience sexual assault. Is it really surprising? One out of five women in everyday life means that at least one woman in your family, several women in your class, and several women at your job, have been sexually assaulted. Why don't we know more about the lives of women?
Maybe what's surprising is how commonplace sexual harassment and assault are for women? Most women I know have at least one story to tell. That's at least one story. Jessica Valenti wrote a whole book, Sex Object, on her many experiences of sexual harassment and sexual assault. What's unique about this book isn't the sexual assault or daily sexual harassment Valenti experienced, but that any woman could have written this book. It's just that Valenti did it first.
But let's get back to the rapists and sexual harassers, and men in general. Most men don't rape, but those that do tend to do so repeatedly. Harvey Weinsteins and Brock Turners don't reside just in Hollywood or at Stanford, they can be found in every state and every city. Trauma, shame, and victim-blaming prevent many women from reporting sexual assault. Sexual harassment can be difficult to prove. Women are in a double-bind: we're not believed when we tell our stories but are also blamed if we don't report them.
I'm glad that as a culture we're having these conversations, but #metoo isn't enough. I'd like to see men post #metoo for the times they didn't call out a sexual predator, or for their own complicity with sexual harassment or assault, or for blaming and shaming or not believing women. I'd like to see men respond to women's #metoo post with messages of support and compassion, instead of "Men are sexually assaulted and harassed too!" Yes, men are sexually assaulted and harassed too, but how is that an appropriate response to a woman's self-disclosure of trauma?
Of course, it's not just men who don't believe women. Women can sometimes be our own harshest critics—one reason why attorneys don't want female jurors to serve in rape cases. But women aren't responsible for solving a problem that they didn't create. I'd like to say that men need to take on a bigger role in this fight, but really it's come down to we need men to step into the ring.
Finally, let's shatter this myth that men who sexually harass and assault women are monsters. Let's start identifying them so that there is no confusion that most sexual harassers and rapists are someone that we know, even if it's not someone we know well. I'll go first: The men in my life who sexually harassed me include a gas station attendant who I saw weekly (when I was much younger and didn't drive a hybrid), and confused my distant, but polite kindness and friendly smile with his plans to marry me. He found my home address through my credit card company, and brought flowers to my home. He seemed to just appear every time I was at a local convenience store. Once he waited outside the store for me, and handed me a letter in which he told me that he was in love with me and planned to marry me. I didn't even know his first name. A friend of mine who was a police officer spoke to him, and that ended that.
The man who sexually assaulted me was the friend of my boss. This was more than 20 years ago, and I don't remember much about him other than he was a hockey player from Canada who was visiting the United States. He sexually assaulted me while I was sleeping. I was in my early 20s and didn't tell anyone for almost a year because I was in denial, and, like many women who are sexually assaulted, wanted to pretend that it didn't happen. I also assumed it was my fault. I had nightmares every time I went to sleep. At the time I was afraid that no one would believe me. Now I don't care.
Black, M. C., Basile, K. C., Breiding, M. J., Smith, S .G., Walters, M. L., Merrick, M. T., ... Stevens, M. R. (2011). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 summary report. Retrieved from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control: http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/NISVS_Report2010-a.pdf