BLOG—Yes, It Happens Here
- Published: November 16, 2017
The first time a woman who wasn’t my friend told me that she had been raped, I was in my second year of teaching. The assault did not happen on campus, but rather in her Christian high school a year previous. Her story followed a script that I’ve since encountered from more women than I can count: she found the strength to tell her religious parents, who said the shame was on her, and the school, which was more determined to protect the rapist “over a misunderstanding that could ruin his life.” The young woman in question had been triggered when she was at a house party and saw nearly-passed out women being led into bedroom by multiple men. She wanted to do something but she couldn’t. She froze, remembering her own assault, before running out of the house. She dropped out, and I’ve never heard from her again.
We are at an interesting point in history. Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis CK, Roy Moore: the names of those accused of sexual assault are racking up. But this is not really the result in a cultural shift, at least not yet. The occupier of the Oval Office is an undeniable misogynist, and has himself multiple accusations of sexual impropriety against him. Yes, he is innocent until proved guilty. Yet, I encounter people who claim that the president was “just using words” when he made the “grab ’em by the pussy” remark, as though that walking id would hesitate for a second before grabbing something he wants. Or that such “locker room talk” is simply “boys being boys.” Sexually predators operate easier in permissive cultures, where people are quick to defend the accused and are immediately suspicious of the accuser. We call that rape culture.
Back in my drinking days, I frequented a few of our local watering holes. I saw, more than once, women being grabbed by the pussy by local men who would then play dumb, their friends laughing alone with them. The bartenders were getting slammed by customers, so they couldn’t really help; the bar was loud and chaotic, so protests didn’t amount to much. Many of the women I know already have procedures to deal with the situation. Some don’t go to the bar, but sit at a table and a male friend gets their drink. Others keep away from the grabbers, remaining vigilant to be aware of their surroundings. And still others charge into the fray and simply punch any grabbers to draw attention to them.
I encourage any men who feel this is not the case to speak to the women in their lives, and to listen. Really listen. Because you’ll learn a lot.
Turn about is fair play,, though: Do I do anything to stop it when I saw it?
At first, I tried to, but invariably the victim would beg me to stop or would say “it’s not worth it,” so I’d buy her a drink and in that way I became complicit. I’d just shake my head and grind my teeth when men would say lewd things to women who came into the bar. Maybe she knows them and this is just the relationship they have, I’d justify to myself. Sometimes I’d ask if she was okay, sometimes not. I’ve definitely been part of the rape culture.
I just gotta be honest. I’ve been that guy. And I’ve let horrendous violations go by unchallenged. Now that I do not drink, I’m not often in these places but that has not changed the gnawing at my gut that I have a debt to pay to victims in the village. Frankly, many of us men do.
So often, efforts like the #metoo campaign are characterized by some as “witch hunts.” First, you know what’s a witch hunt? What happens to victims who speak up. That’s witch hunt. They muster the unfathomable courage to own their truths, only to have their sexual histories, life choices, wardrobes, drinking habits, and professions questioned and used to dehumanize them. This is so others will feel that anything happening to the victim is of her own making. That’s a witch hunt.
Second, the purpose of the #metoo campaign is to lift up into the light experiences of people who feel that not enough is being done to address a culture that allows it to continue. Third, it is true everyone is innocent until proved guilty, but we can’t act like our current system works. We must acknowledge that an overwhelming majority of assaults and harassments are not reported. Even a smaller number are prosecuted. An even smaller number prosecuted successfully. The burden of impossible proof is on the victim, who too often is treated as the violator because she dare tell the truth about a predator.
The way to stop this behavior to call it out when we see it, and to do so loudly with nonviolent repercussions to follow. And it cannot fall to the victims alone, especially in public places. Some people are simply not aware of what is going on; others may feel powerless or conclude that trying to do anything will be useless; but the more we center local experiences, the greater chance we have of conversations leading to direct action.