We live in a culture that blames and shames girls and women who survive sexual violence—whether it be a girl raped by a family member, a guy who rapes his date, a Hollywood director forcing women to give him oral sex or a politician sexually abusing a coworker. When women share stories about these experiences, the speculation that follows often points a finger at their complicity: Was she dressed provocatively? Did she flirt with him or bait him? Did she send mixed messages? Why did she go to his room? Why did she continue to work with him?
As we celebrate women coming forward and sharing their stories during this #MeToo moment, we cannot lose sight of the long-entrenched cultural norms that have both allowed and protected the men who harass, exploit and assault them. While we are seeing some accused men resigning or being fired as of late, in other arenas we are seeing them double-down—blaming the victims, insisting on their innocence and declaring war against women. It is a less visible fallout that stems from the backlash against women that’s already begun in the wake of these powerful men’s fall from grace.
We need to keep our eye on the backlash in a continued effort to support the women who are telling their stories.
Accusing a violator doesn’t end once a woman posts her story on social media, or outs him in some other way—that’s just the beginning of the unraveling. After women share their #MeToo stories, they may have to contend with whether or not their family and friends believe them, with having to return back to work with the very person they’ve accused, with finding the support they’ll inevitably need (especially if it’s the first time they’re speaking out about such abuse).
Right now, we’re focused on high-profile accusations. But what about those girls who live with their abusers? Or women who don’t have the financial means or education to extricate themselves from much-needed jobs and continue to put up with sexual harassment and abuse every day because they feel they have no other choice? For these women, the national fallout is not playing out the same way as it is in Hollywood or Capitol Hill.
As psychotherapist who’s worked closely with incest and sex abuse survivors for the past three decades, I hear harrowing tales of what happens when people don’t want to believe them, even when all signs point to the obvious fact that the violator is guilty of his crimes. I’ve worked with daughters whose mothers throw them out for disclosing abuse at the hands of their father. I’ve worked with teen girls going to court to accuse their rapist only to watch him go free. Girls are slut-shamed, blamed for dressing too provocatively and told they deserved what they had coming to them. Sometimes the woman is already an incest survivor and she has been taught to keep her abuse a secret.
Every time a girl or woman blames herself, she’s re-traumatized. Her actions perpetuates this subordinate culture in which we find ourselves—a culture that does not honor women and children, but instead blames women for men’s weaknesses, digressions and failings. But as we enter into groundbreaking territory amidst the swath of women speaking truth to powerful men, journalists and talking heads—even the most well-intentioned—are missing the point.
In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, David Brooks refers to “the very few” men who abuse, lamenting that “there hasn’t been enough research into what goes on in the minds of harassers.” But what about the countless studies and books about date rape, rape culture, pimp culture, frat culture, sports culture? What about the countless memoirs of abuse survivors?
Here is what the research has taught us, David: One in four girls will be sexually abused by her 16th birthday. 91 percent of rape and sexual assault victims are female. 96 percent of perpetrators are male. And while rape and sexual assault are the most unreported crimes, much ado has been made about the specter of the life-ruining “false rape accusation.”
I don’t think we should be having a national conversation about the “very few” male perpetrators. The experiences we are hearing about at this time—and those we have yet to shine a light on—are part of the everyday experience of being a girl and woman in this country. The focus needs to be on the women’s experiences.
We have spent too long trying to decide why men abuse. We know why: a misogynistic culture that does not protect women and children allows them to, and occasionally even rewards them for doing so. Already complaints are mounting that “men have to be so careful” at work, perhaps even putting—imagine this—an end to their hugging practices. We must push back, and swiftly. We must womansplain this moment. We must insist that this is a time, the time, to confront misogyny and patriarchy.
Men should want to be allies in the fight to end sexual violence, and they play a pivotal role in changing social norms within their communities. But it is women and girls who must give voice to this issue and tell their stories on their terms. And it is on us to honor those who come forward.
We can no longer be bystanders to the abuse that’s being perpetrated in every corner of our society—in homes, in schools, in sports, in the workplace, in our institutions. When you hear someone victim-blaming, say something. If a friend or coworker shares their own story, give them your support. When you witness the backlash, speak out. Speak out on social media, in one-on-one conversations, in conversations with family and friends. Let us all speak out—scream out if you have to.
Sex abuse is wrong, and the survivors are never at fault. Cut the “boys will be boys” mindset. Let’s stop blaming society, culture and pornography for men’s behavior. Let’s stop dismissing their misdeeds as “locker room talk,” as an inevitability of our times. Instead, let’s spend our energy continuing to uncover the truth and supporting survivors with passion and strength. Let’s do all we can to ensure that our daughters, our colleagues and our friends never have a #MeToo story.