The #MeToo movement has inspired women around the world to speak out, but whenever a victim of sexual assault or harassment comes forward, she is still put on trial.
Does she have an axe to grind about her former boss? Is she trying to cover her regret about a decision she made? Is she misinterpreting an innocent comment or gesture? The answer to all these questions is: it doesn’t matter.
The vast majority of victims of sexual misconduct do not have the documentation—and the luck—to convince police, prosecutors, juries or even HR that their assailant deserves punishment. Courtroom victories can be empowering and healing for victims, but punishing individuals does not address the systemic forces that enable men to harass and assault people, mostly women, with impunity. We need to build ways to support every victims and help her recover, whether or not her abuser is punished.
Sexual misconduct on public transit is a good example of how focusing on punishing offenders fails to help victims. When we imagine sexual assault in public space, most of us think of the dangers of isolated places late at night. However, most transit sexual assaults occur in the middle of crowds, often at rush hour. In Bogotá, Colombia, where I interviewed victims, 37 percent of female passengers had been subjected to unwanted sexual contact while taking transit. In El Alto, Bolivia, 22 percent of women had been victimized. I heard story after story of men grabbing, grinding against and groping women, using the crowds as camouflage or excuse. These cities are far from unique.
Most of these crimes are impossible to prosecute. Many victims are afraid to speak up in the moment, which allows their assailant to disappear into the crowd and become impossible to locate. Other victims never see their attacker’s face, an experience I personally share. I could tell the hand grabbing my rear end at a crowded street festival wasn’t supposed to be there, but I couldn’t figure out to whom it was attached. I didn’t say anything, but I reached back and dug my fingernails into the disembodied palm. Nobody visibly reacted.
Crowding generates ambiguity by obligating passengers to be in close contact. Victims I interviewed described subtle cues that distinguish assault from the normal unpleasantness of having one’s face pressed against a stranger’s armpit: I didn’t realize anything was wrong until I turned and saw that he had plenty of space behind him. I felt his fingers searching for my inner thigh. He didn’t just brush against me once; he stroked my arm over and over. He was breathing heavily while he pressed his pelvis against me.
Many (mostly male) transportation policymakers and planners I spoke with did not believe transit sexual assault was a problem. They thought of each case in terms of the criminal standard of guilt, and determined (correctly) that most could not be definitively proved. They worried that women can’t tell the difference between crowding and assault, or that they were making false reports maliciously. Even when nobody was on trial, many men privileged worries about the potential consequences to an anonymous perpetrator over the documented suffering of identified victims.
Men who think reports of sexual assault are sometimes mistaken get the math wrong. Let’s imagine that half of the 37 percent of bogotanas who report being sexually assaulted on transit were mistaken. Mathematically, that would still mean nearly one in five has experienced sexual violence on transit. Instead, the men I spoke with rounded down. If every case is unprovable, transit sexual assault doesn’t exist.
When so many cases are unprovable, treating sexual assault like a crime can become a trap. If we focus on individual alleged predators, we underestimate the scope of the problem and distract ourselves from proactively making all women safer. We can reduce extreme crowding on transit. We can encourage bystander intervention. We can address predatory behavior at college parties. Sex education courses can better cover consent and mutual pleasure. We can protect victims and their allies who speak out against powerful predators.
“Beyond a reasonable doubt” is an important part of our legal system, but to protect women and prevent future violence, we need to make sure this criminal standard of evidence stays in the courtroom—and that our vision for a world without rape, assault and harassment extends beyond it. Otherwise, we risk dethroning villains without changing the system that crowned them in the first place.