Women Will Keep Speaking Out—And The World Must Keep Listening

I know where the Weinsteins and Cosbys of this world come from. I know one personally.

A few years back, a student at the school I attended, and now work for, raped another student, who I am also related to, and stalked me and my young daughters.

I didn’t hesitate to speak up. I detailed my experiences in police reports. I attempted to get a restraining order—twice—on behalf of my daughters and myself. I talked to my colleagues, the security department, the president of the school and pretty much anyone who would listen about the concerns I had for the safety for my family as well as for the students and faculty at his new school. I even wrote about them for Ms.

But while he was expelled for the sexual assault, that same student continued to come back to campus until the police got involved; eventually, he easily transferred to another school close by, where his parents are alum and his father teaches. I was denied both of those restraining orders. And it wasn’t until after he was arrested for indecent assault of a minor and banned from yet another campus that victims from the student’s second school started to come forward to publicly tell their stories.

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These women’s stories were the same: The same student had raped them. They had reported it to campus police. The administration had done nothing. They had been speaking out for years—but it was not enough to keep them or their peers safe. A rapist was thus allowed to remain on campus, growing his list of victims year after year.

His arrest was a turning point, an incredible #MeToo moment of relief and grief, the formation of a group none of us wants to be a part of. Just like when we are growing up and told not to go out alone, women still find safety and strength in numbers. We find ourselves a bit braver, our voice a little louder and our hearts a little stronger because we are able to see that the fight is no longer just about ourselves.

Having seen campus rapists like Brock Turner walk out of jail after just a few months, I can’t say I had ever put much faith in the criminal justice system to handle this case. Unfortunately, the system proved me right. The accused student was out on bail but monitored with an ankle bracelet, and the case never even made it to trial—dismissed due to “lack of prosecution.” The arc of justice rested solely on the shoulders of a child.

What comes next for that student and for his victims remains to be seen. I have asked the same question over and over: not if but when will be the next time. Will this young man in his mid-twenties attempt to go back to college for the third time to finish his degree? Will he choose another underage victim? Am I and my daughters still at risk? How many women will be hurt before he is held accountable? I have no answers, but I refuse to be silent in the meantime.

Some women do not speak out because they are not yet ready. Some choose not to. Some are threatened by their perpetrators. Shame is strong, and typically those who are being accused have more power than their accusers. In many ways, our culture discourages truth-telling and accountability—after all, no one wants to known that the producer who makes their favorite movies, or, in my case, the successful pastor and family counselor’s son they once trusted, is capable of heinous things. Unconsciously, and perhaps consciously at times, we would rather reject victims because they threaten our sense of safety and security—we would rather not believe them, and go on believing we are safe instead.

It is a false sense of security that sexual assault and harassment “couldn’t happen here,” perpetrated by people we know and might even like. In rejecting the narratives of victims, we reject the truth—and put ourselves and those we love further at risk.

Women speak out anyway, against all odds. Women report sexual harassment and assault even when their job may be on the line. Women go to the police even when they know they may not be believed. Women go through the grueling process of investigations and trials, reliving their pain and trauma, even though they know the system might fail them. Women speak out against powerful men only to have their reputation questioned and their character maligned. Women have spoken when no one is listening and women have spoken when the whole world is listening.

A narrative persists that women who come forward about sexual harassment or assault years after the crimes are doing so out of malice—perhaps for financial or political motivations. If the #MeToo moment we’re experiencing has taught us anything, it’s how badly we must scrub that narrative from our canon. If we scrutinized the accused as thoroughly as we do the accuser, we might actually get somewhere in changing the culture and systems that have allowed this conduct to go on for far too long.

Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby have over 80 accusers each, with allegations spanning decades. These men, and other men like them, do not just come from nowhere. Rather, the constant failure to hold them accountable leaves a wide and long path of destruction in their wake.

Their victims, along with many other survivors, are speaking out right now. Listen to them, and let them know that you believe them. It just may be the push we need to make this moment a tipping point.

Ashley Clark is an adjunct social work professor, bleeding heart and reluctant academic. She lives and works on Boston’s south shore. 

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