Half of the country seems to be having an awakening, of sorts, regarding sexual harassment, assault, and intimidation, due to the Harvey Weinstein scandal. The other half of the country (let’s call this half women) have experienced this behavior our entire lives and many of us are kind of astounded that most men are just becoming aware of how pervasive sexual harassment and intimidation are, not to mention more serious forms of sexual assault.
I probably don’t know a single woman who has never been sexually harassed. Harassment is so normal that it’s just par for the course for most women. Whether it’s cat-calls when walking down the street, improper comments in the workplace, or actions that intentionally demean, belittle, or intimidate, women have to carefully weigh any reaction against the potential consequences.
With sexual assault, the trauma is often worse, and the fear or intimidation factor increases as well. Thus, while the sexual assault and harassment allegations in Hollywood are horrifying, there is also a sense of hope. For the first time, society seems to truly be listening to women and punishing powerful men for engaging in predatory behavior. If everyday society follows Hollywood’s lead and starts to support women who come forward with sexual assault or sexual harassment allegations, more women will feel comfortable reporting this behavior.
This issue also impacts the LGBT community, as actor Kevin Spacey is accused of sexually assaulting and harassing several young men throughout his career. While we do not know the sexual orientation of the men that Spacey assaulted or harassed, like many predators, he most likely targeted those who he perceived to be vulnerable, which often includes members of the LGBT community.
Due to their high-profile nature, it is possible to use the horrific aforementioned situations as a catalyst for long-lasting societal change. However, if we are going to do that, everyone needs to play a role, especially those who most likely will never be victimized.
When it comes to making this a safer world for women and youth, men need to do their part. Men cannot continue to silently witness other men mistreat or abuse women and say nothing. The idea that it is only the victims’ obligation to speak up is ridiculous and is a form of victim shaming. Women often do not speak up due to fear of retaliation, such as not being believed, suffering damage to one’s reputation and potentially risking one’s career. Members of society who find themselves in a position of privilege should feel a moral obligation to stand by those who are more vulnerable in a particular situation. Men are the privileged ones in most sexual harassment and assault cases and can really move the needle forward on this issue by checking other men when they engage in these behaviors. Men can also stand by victims, support victims, and speak up for victims.
Let’s all use this increased awareness of sexual harassment and assault as an opportunity to challenge sexism and misogyny throughout society. That means if you see someone mistreating someone based on their gender, race, sexual orientation, gender identity or any other factor, say something or do something. Don’t be OK with being privileged enough not to be on the receiving end of hostile behavior because for those of us who are part of marginalized groups, we don’t have that luxury.
Even factors such as being of a certain age, obtaining advanced degrees, and partaking in a well-regarded career field will not shield you from mistreatment when you are part of multiple marginalized groups. Speaking from personal experience, being a 41-year-old Georgetown-educated attorney, who has been licensed to practice law for 14 years, has not stopped people from viewing me, a 5’2” Black woman, as someone beneath them and someone who should be put in her place.
I have been physically intimidated by men a foot taller than I am and had my character assassinated when I dared to assert my opinion or challenge the opinions of men or others perceived as more powerful. In professional settings, I have been referred to by demeaning so-called “terms of endearment,” such as “sweetie” or “precious,” as a way to dismiss me as a “little girl who should not be taken seriously.” While I knew that I was marginalized, I never truly considered myself vulnerable until I felt the full wrath of patriarchy, misogyny, sexism, racism, and heterosexism/homophobia. While I have found my voice again, it’s not enough for the survivors to speak up. All people of conscience need to speak up to make a difference.
Lateefah Williams is a D.C.-based attorney and community advocate. Reach her at [email protected].