In what has become an anxiously awaited tradition Time magazine selected its Person of the Year last week. Much as has often happened this year’s winner of the cover spot was a group of women known as the “Silence Breakers.” In bold moves that have toppled the reputations and careers of a host of powerful men, women both famous and unknown have stepped forward to reveal acts of sexual harassment and violence long hidden from the public eye. In a veritable deluge of accusations the stories have dominated the news cycle for weeks and pointed to a societal problem that has generally been unspoken but well known. The tales of mistreatment have included men of all stripes and have initiated a national dialogue that heretofore existed mostly in the shadows.Many wonder how and why so many women are suddenly speaking of incidents that they kept secret for decades. Particularly among doubters there are questions about why it took so long for them to reveal what happened to them and what has made the present time so different that the #metoo movement that has gone viral.
I suppose that for some the first thoughts go back to the story of the boy who cried “wolf” so many times that when the sheep were really being attacked nobody was willing to listen. Some wonder if the number of accusations has been exaggerated by a kind of mass hysteria, and I suppose that it might be easy to go to that place. Instead I would venture to suggest that the very reason that so many women have been silent is because of the doubt that is historically associated with such incidents, particularly when the man involved is a powerful person. We only need to consider the denials and insults that ensued when a number of women spoke out against former President Bill Clinton. Paula Jones was described as trailer trash. Monica Lewinsky was defamed. Kathleen Willy was thought to be unhinged. Such are indeed the reactions toward women who have the audacity to reveal acts of personal degradation that have been perpetrated on them. It is little wonder that there is great fear when it comes to speaking of such things. When a man who brags of highly degrading behavior with women then goes on to be elected to the highest office in the land it makes all of us fearful of being heroic.
There is also the strange psychological phenomenon in which the victim actually wonders if somehow she either imagined the abuse or brought it upon herself. I can attest to such situations myself that I did not discuss for a very long time because what happened was so shocking that I was unable to know for certain that it even took place. One of those times occurred when I was a young adolescent at the beach with my family. As I walked along a fishing pier my gaze was suddenly averted toward an old man with a smirky grin on his face. He pointed downward and that is when I saw that he was exposing himself to me. I turned and ran away, but I was so embarrassed that I said nothing to anyone. Instead I stayed close to my aunts and uncles and told everyone that I was feeling sick. I have since learned that my reaction is very typical. My mind twisted the shocking event into something for which I felt responsible.
Even as an adult I hesitated to admit to a situation in which one of my coworkers frightened me with highly suggestive language. I kept it to myself for many days before speaking of my discomfort to my husband who insisted that I inform my boss immediately or he would. I felt a great deal of relief when my employer believed my story and began to investigate other whispers that he had heard about the man. In only the space of a couple of days the offender was fired from his job and a number of us felt immediately safer. The news of the man’s departure was greeted with applause.
Sadly not all such situations turn out so well. On another occasion in which I informed the Human Resources Director of the highly unprofessional behavior of a supervisor I was accused of attempting to foment a rebellion. It was long after I had decided that my only recourse was to leave that job that it was determined that everything that I had said was true and that the reality was even worse than I had described. It had felt horrible to be deemed a trouble maker and someone who might be stretching reality. While I treasured the fact that I had done the right thing, I also understood why so few women are willing to endure the humiliation that I suffered at the time. The pain associated with being a witness can be quite real.
My mother was a beautiful single parent, someone who was quite attractive to men. She often told me of situations that became very difficult for her. In her infinite wisdom she taught me how to proactively avoid the pitfalls. She instructed me to watch how much alcohol I drank when I was out at night so that I might be in control of my faculties. She noted that I would be better served if I did not dress too suggestively. She taught me how to sit and stand and carry myself around strangers. She cautioned me to never ever meet with a man alone in a hotel room. She even worried about the moments when I was in a car at night with a male that she did not know well. At times I thought that she was overly paranoid or that she only imagined her allure, and yet over time I realized that she knew exactly what she was saying to me. Her intentions were profoundly protective and effective in a world that can be hazardous for women.
I’d like to believe that there is a movement afoot that will make things safer for women in both the workplace and private life, but when a politician who is accused of child molestation is ahead in the polls I lose heart. When the members of his party are unwilling to speak out for what is right, I become cynical. I realize that we have a very long way to go and that mothers still need to school their daughters in how to take care of themselves. I also understand how brave the “Silence Breakers” are, because I know that even now there are those who doubt their motives and perhaps even think of them as liars.
I believe that we all have to be silence breakers to the extent that we have to condemn the actions of men who sexually harass women. The process of reeducating our society begins with each one of us. It’s critically important that we teach our children the importance of mutual respect and individual dignity. Our actions will be more important than our words. When we condone sexual abusers by ignoring their grievous actions we are guilty of creating an environment that accepts the degradation of women as simply locker room antics. Instead we must send the loud and clear message that such behaviors are wrong and that those who cross the line of propriety will be duly punished.
We must take this movement seriously, and be just as angry with anyone who falsely accuses a man as we are with the perpetrators of indecency toward women. It is well past time that we make the relationships between the sexes less fraught with dangers. It is obviously possible because the numbers of men who treat women with the respect that they deserve far out distance the predators. We have the capacity for making incidents of sexual harassment less and less frequent if we all agree that we have reached a watershed moment, and if we honor the women who finally took the first step in regaining control of their lives.
Update: In a dramatic election decency won last night. Thank you, Alabama.