We Must Shatter Silence—And Shift Our Sexist Culture

The reinvigorated fight against sexual harassment and exploitation has reached Congress, where some of the country’s most powerful lawmakers are now under fire for sexual misconduct allegations.

Lawmakers are now being tasked with shattering the silence around sexual abuse—but it is not a “culture of secrecy” that must end in our legislative sectors. What must end is our gendered culture that has privileged men’s desires and needs over the safety and security of women. It is what I call a “culture of gender” that must be abandoned—not just in the U.S., but globally.

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As long as we socialize boys to believe they have power over women, sexual harassment will continue. And because the issue is about power, but uses sex as the means to exercise that power, women and girls are vulnerable—but so are boys, young men and children as well.

Like racism, sexual harassment is based on socially engineered ideas, not biological facts—including the notions that women are the “weaker sex,” that women are intellectually inferior to men and that it is the “divine” role of men to rule over women (especially sexually). These beliefs are so deeply engrained in our society that boys grow up unaware of the toxic social ideas they have absorbed which position women in subordinance to them, with less value and power.

It is not a culture of secrecy that Congress must abandon, but a culture of gender whose major premise is that women are inferior. And for men to let go of the power they have historically held over women will not be easy for them.

First, they will have to acknowledge that the beliefs they hold are not facts. We know already that people adhere to beliefs regardless of empirical evidence to the contrary; the proof of this is present in the persistent and irrational adherence of many white folks, consciously and unconsciously, to racism and white supremacist beliefs.

Second, no group gives up power without intense struggle. The fact that in today’s diverse world—where women constitute over 50 percent of all college graduates—men, and especially white men, still dominate all leadership positions in higher education as 85 percent of college presidents, in corporations as 7 in 10 Fortune 500 CEOs and in Congress—which is 80 percent white and 80 percent male.

Today, there are 105 women in Congress, with 21 serving in the Senate and 84 in the House. Asking the men who dominate these major arenas of power to censure themselves is like asking a fox to devise a fail-proof security plan for the chickens he plans to eat. If men—who are the majority in Congress and who are now in charge of scrutinizing the male-dominated culture that they have created, lived and breathed since birth—want to see change and be changed, they will have to take radical steps to police themselves.

Unfortunately, just like the societal reaction of most whites to contemporary racism has been utter denial and reverse victimhood, I don’t have much faith that a male-dominated Congress will police itself. (If the few lawmakers being caught red-handed perpetuating a culture of assault, abuse and harassment, however, decide they needed to assuage their guilty political conscious by doing the right thing, they could begin by making sexual harassment a criminal offense—as well as safeguarding Roe v. Wade, putting back into healthcare policies protection for pregnant women and birth control, passing equal pay legislation and protecting Title IX.)

Until the charges of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct levied against Donald Trump and Roy Moore are met with as much outrage as those levied against Rep. John Conyers, Jr. and Senator Al Franken, nothing will change.

Until we stop pointing fingers at a few individual men who got caught behaving badly and start thinking more largely about the social messages that informed their behavior, nothing will change.

Until we acknowledge how deeply rooted sexism is in this culture, and that both men and women are complicit in perpetuating it—women through silence and men through their aggression or benign acceptance of other men’s aggression—nothing will change.

Irma McClaurin is an anthropologist, freelance writer, former political speechwriter and winner of the Black Press of America’s 2015 “Best Columnist” Award. She is the founder of the Black Feminist Archive at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a member of the Ms. Committee of Scholars and former president of Shaw University.

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  1. Excellent commentary. Spot on. Thank you for the sage words.

  2. Thank you for writing this, Irma. I agree that men and women need to confront sexism. I also don’t think men, overall, will easily or quickly give up their privilege or power over women. But the rights for women to feel safe and respected are worth fighting for. I do see some signs of hope from women like you who are speaking out against sexism, racism and other injustices. And I do see some small signs of hope from men who are also starting to speak and write about these issues, such as political/social issues blogger John Pavlovitz. I hope we can start doing better now and raise future generations of men and women to respect and treat each other as equals.

  3. Yes Gender inequality is the main cause of men’s violence against women. The truth is “The masculine is not the feminine. The feminine is not the masculine. But within each we carry a thread of the other. The feminine and the masculine represent and exemplify the symbiotic dance of equal, complementary, interconnected and interdependent forces in the Dance of Life.” Carol Christ.

    Patriarchy is male domination enforced through violence. Messages have been given to boys since birth that they have the right to dominate. Today without the Equal Rights Amendment ratified girls/women are not equal under the law. The only right we have under the Constitution is the right to vote. Men are opportunists and we are inferior by birth. We need the legal foundation of equality and a cultural shift that includes reframing Christianity as a liberating theology. A good beginning is to rethink the story of creation so women, the Life Givers, are honored and respected. Rethinking Eve

  4. Excellent piece Irma, so pertinent and eloquently delivered. Please write more like this.

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