It has been quite the year for highlighting the issues of sexual misconduct in the workplace and how we as a society have dealt with it. As quickly as empires are built, we have found they can crumble just as fast. Many powerful men have lost their positions as society is no longer accepting the behavior of those who abuse. The balance of power is shifting and there will be those who will be uncomfortable with it. As with change, it is either swift or slow, and in this case, it has been a swift blow to many industries, especially the movie industry. It is a great feat for us to see that change is possible simply by changing attitudes and mindsets and not through the imagined upheaval of the earth. We sometimes do not court change because we have seen no change in so long, but change is here. However, it is also disheartening to know that it has taken this long for the shoe to drop. Sexual harassment, misconduct, and abuse by any other name has existed for this long because we have let it exist.
Why is it that attitudes are now changing this year when more than 40 women came out to identify Cosby as a rapist just a few years ago? These were the same allegations we are hearing now, but these women’s stories were dissected and belittled everywhere until a veritable voice spoke up and enabled their right to fight for their cases to come to light. And still, the shoe didn’t drop. Sexual abuse was business as usual even in light of this high-profile case. Women have faced sexual abuse for centuries, but why was it finally important now? One of the reasons, unfortunately, is that the women’s voices were corroborated. As with Cosby, Hannibal Burress cemented Cosby’s fate with a joke on stage when many people in the industry already knew about what was happening. With Weinstein, his downfall came in the form of a New York Times article. It is not enough that women speak up, but they must also be corroborated to be believed. It is disturbing that it takes this level to bring to light the atrocities that these women have endured when their own voices meant nothing. All of a sudden, sexual misconduct was legitimatized and people were allowed to speak about it. It was no longer a secret shame they were forced to carry.
What this speaks to is a system that is failing these women. We live in a society that does not speak about sexual assault. We talk about the prevention of it, but nothing about what to do in the aftermath. It is an unsavory subject, and as such, we sweep it under the rug in hopes that it will not come up again. What this does is creates an air of secrecy around sexual assault, causing the victims to be shamed because they are breaking the unspoken rules of society. Sexual assault is the odd cousin we never talk about at family gatherings because we don’t want to think about it. When we don’t think about it, we have no idea how to manage it when it dos happens. The ideas we are living with are arcane and out of date, for they are not helping us in the current climate that we live in. If we can change how sexual assault is viewed, we can change how we deal with those who serve up these charges. Instead of dismissing them, we can learn to listen to them and not be ashamed of what has happened. There is no shame in being raped. The only shame that exists is when the society that you live in decides that you should not talk about being raped.
The balance of power is shifting and those who are losing power are those who have held it for a very long time. People like Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly were relieved of their jobs, but with great payouts. They felt no shame in their dismissals and didn’t even acknowledge their sexual misconduct in the workplace. To them, it was business as usual and they didn’t understand why they were forced to leave. When Fox gave them a hefty severance package, Fox was also saying that the sexual misconduct meant very little to them. Sheryl Sandberg warned of a blowback about the #MeToo campaign, and it may not be as pervasive as you’d think it would be, but it will come For those losing power, they may try to regain it by reasserting themselves in other ways. Power is a very powerful motivation and when someone tries to take it away, there will be unintended consequences. As when the government enacted new laws to protect Black Americans, some White Americans saw this as a blow to their power. What happened was the White protest in America that protested Black children attending their schools, Black college kids sitting at their counters, and marrying into their race, with miscegenation laws still on the books into the late 60’s.
Power is a tricky thing to deal with, but more tricky is how systematic race, sex, and sexual-orientation issues are in our society. As with race, we ask if there is still racism if we elect a Black president? Then with sex, do we then equate the same thing; that there is no more sexual abuse of power if we hire more women into higher positions? The answer to all of these is no. Abuse of power does not stop simply because we hire people of color or women. The problem is the entire system. If you do not overhaul the system, the abuse will still occur. Yet, even more problematic is how we view the problem. We view the problems as someone else’s problem: an issue that is touchy and not to bring up. Sexual abuse if everyone’s problem and not to be hidden away. When you can talk about it casually, when you can see bold demonstrations of protecting victims in your workplace, and when you can feel confident in opening up about your sexual abuse, then you will know the issues are being dealt with. Sexual abuse, racism, xenophobia, and hate crimes will always happen. The more we are on board with the idea that these things are here to stay, the more we will know that we must develop effective ways to deal with these issues rather than denying their existence.