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The questions you’re afraid to ask about sexual assault

The allegations against Harvey Weinstein have set into motion a vast discussion about power, and I’ve had lots of conversations with friends and family about his case and sexual assault in general. But there are some things I’ve found difficult to say out loud.

Some questions seem too difficult to broach and if you do, with your very good friends, then you can often finish the discussion more uncertain than when you started. I want to tackle complicated subjects. I believe that nuanced debate can help us to learn about ourselves and our society. But some of these topics feel impossible to resolve and have left me feeling unsettled and unsure.

One of the dilemmas for me is that I don’t know if I’m being balanced in my conversations. I  become entrenched in one side of the argument because I focus on the dynamics of the discussion rather than the objective: to learn and do better.

Sometimes the issue at hand is just too tangled to find a clear line of thought. For example, as I mentioned in my quick links recently, my reaction to the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. When it first broke in January 1998 was to think that Clinton’s affairs were a personal private matter for him and his wife to deal with. The fact that he conducted the affair in his workplace, with someone that worked for him, seemed disappointing and foolish but didn’t really register as inappropriate.

Now I feel strongly that Clinton’s behaviour, other sexual abuse allegations aside, was incredibly inappropriate as a professional person, particularly given his unique position as a role model and leader. I still don’t know how I feel about the idea that he used his power to coerce Monica Lewinsky into a relationship, whether their affair constitutes abuse or not. I’ve read through excerpts of  Lewinsky’s grand jury testimony and I can’t tell. I don’t want to diminish Lewinsky’s intelligence and agency in the affair, equally it would have been extremely difficult to say no to such a powerful person and her boss.

I do think that he should have resigned for behaviour unbecoming of the office of President. I look back at my thoughts on the events and wonder, how could I have missed so many aspects of it? How could I not have thought about what the other women charging him with abuse must have felt? How could I not have gone back and fore over how Lewinsky felt and whether she was taken advantage of or she fully understood the choices she was making?

I know that if I’m asking these questions and having difficulty untangling some of these problems, then you probably are too. So here are some of my questions alongside some of the possible answers that I’ve found- through articles, podcasts and videos- in the hope that we can have this discussion openly and keep adding to it.

The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress.

Joseph Joubert

Some thoughts before I get started…

There have been many many reputable journalists writing about the recent allegations of sexual abuse against Weinstein and a slew of other people, mostly men. My main thought here is that I remind myself, every time I see a headline with a new accusation or development, to check several sources and read the details of the case before I begin making statements about who is guilty, who should be forgiven, or whether there’s a difference between some of these cases. I’m aware that not every website reports all of the facts or presents a nuanced arguments.

Before I make judgements or give an opinion, I want to make sure that I have reliable information and a good idea of the scope of the issue. All news sources can be biased to varying degrees, so checking several news sites guarantees that you get a range of views. BBC, Reuters and The Associated Press are dedicated to unbiased news reporting so they are good places to start. This article also lists 10 respected news sources.

As I heard about more and more people being accused of sexual assault and harassment, I kept thinking that I felt strongly that I agreed with Beth and Sarah from Pantsuit Politics who stress that we must listen to people coming forward to report instances of assault. If we don’t take every accusation seriously then we will never change the mindset and behaviour of those committing these attacks and the society that ignores them. Equally, they suggest that conversations about consent and protecting yourself from attacks need to be had with all genders.

I use the word ‘attack’ purposely here, because as Liz Meriwether says in her piece on Louis C.K. for The Cut: ‘I’m arguing that what happened wasn’t actually sex at allit was one person finding pleasure in another person’s humiliation and fear. What happened was an attack.’ I think that Meriwether is right to underline the violence, fear and humiliation in these moments and remind us that it is never the fault of the victim. These incidents make someone feel scared and ashamed, they treat the person as an object and possession.

'I’m arguing that what happened wasn’t actually sex at all; it was one person finding pleasure in another person’s humiliation and fear. What happened was an attack.'

Liz Meriwether

So what is sexual assault and sexual harassment?

If you feel that a line has been crossed, or that a situation has become inappropriate and/or threatening- TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS. I found this article by Hayley Nahman on Man Repeller really helpful and clear for advice on how to deal with sexual harassment as it is happening. She links to this useful article on U.S. News and suggests calling RAINN‘s 24 hour hotline 1-800-656-HOPE for help. They also have an online chat service if you don’t want to speak on the phone. In the U.K. you can call Rape Crisis on 0808 802 9999 or your local Citizen’s Advice office- visit their site for the right number.

You may not know how the law distinguishes and defines different types of abuse. In most European countries and the U.S. there is a legal distinction made between sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape. This is useful and important knowledge for both your professional and personal life.

As I’m not a legal expert, I would recommend looking at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s resources which has definitions, information about government policy and guidance. This article on FindLaw is also useful to learn about the legal aspects of sexual assault in the U.S.. For the U.K., the Crown Prosecution Service has legal information and the amazing Citizen’s Advice site has a range of information and advice.

If you need help and advice you can call RAINN on 1-800-656-HOPE or use their online chat service if you don't want to speak on the phone. In the U.K. you can call Rape Crisis on 0808 802 9999.

Why do women make themselves attractive?

I ended up talking about this question at home because of an article by Heidi Stevens for The Chicago Tribune. She explains in her piece that she received this question from a reader in the context of a discussion about sexual assault, he asked: ‘Why do women make themselves attractive?’

The question is wrong-thinking of course because it places the responsibility for sexual assault on the victim. It also ignores that all genders work to make themselves attractive in an infinity of ways. Society often focuses disproportionally on women’s attractiveness- what it is, how to get it, why you should want it. That is not the issue here.

However this is a question that comes up often and Stevens has a very clear and clever analogy to explain how it further demonstrates how skewed our thinking is on sex and objectifying others: ‘I wonder why we understand ownership so much better when we’re talking about a person’s prized possessions than when we’re talking about a woman’s body. I’ve never once heard a man explain away a burglary by questioning why a homeowner bothered taking such good care of his house if not to entice others to break in.’

I wonder why we understand ownership so much better when we’re talking about a person’s prized possessions than when we’re talking about a woman’s body. I’ve never once heard a man explain away a burglary by questioning why a homeowner bothered taking such good care of his house if not to entice others to break in.

Heidi Stevens

How should we react when people are accused of sexual assault? What if people are falsely accused?

Again, Pantsuit Politics has been incredibly helpful here. On a recent episode Beth and Sarah (photos below) read out an email from a listener who said that he had sexually abused a woman at university. He repeats several times throughout his account that being the victim of sexual assault is much worse than being accused of sexual assault. This is an important idea to hold in our minds as we think about this question.

Legally, you can launch a defamation, slander or malicious prosecution case if you feel that you have been unjustly accused of sexual assault (AllLaw has some good information). Socially, it’s much more difficult to take a stance. I think that we should take every report of sexual assault seriously. I think that we should listen to both sides and investigate the facts objectively. Equally, as one of millions of people who listened avidly to the first season of Serial, I’m aware that ‘the facts’ are not always enough to be able to make a judgement.

In a few instances these past weeks my first reaction to some accusations has been to feel unsure. I was initially reluctant to believe some reports about celebrities and public figures. I felt that way when the first reports came in about Jesse Lacey of Brand New, about Al Franken, and about Jeffrey Tambor.  A lot of this is because of my perceptions of them as individuals. I respect their work and extended that respect to them as people. The news that I was reading about them shocked me and caused me to completely reassess my perception of them.

I feel very uncomfortable about my uncertainty in these cases. One one hand, I never want to doubt a victim or believe someone capable of lying about such a horrible experience. On the other hand, I don’t want to accuse anyone of something terrible that they didn’t do.

This is not just about men and women and power dynamics. It is also about how you trust someone and how you find truth in the greyest of grey areas. A perfect example of this is Lena Dunham’s immediate reaction when she heard about the accusations against her friend and colleague Murray Miller. Dunham had previously made a very clear and categorical statement about sexual assault on Twitter saying ‘Things women do lie about: what they ate for lunch. Things women don’t lie about: rape.’ When the news broke about her friend whom she cared for and respected, she found it problematic to hold such an absolute stance. What Dunham is going through is an incredibly painful experience because it goes right to the heart of knowing and loving other people.

There is no way to definitively say how to react or deal with sexual assault because it interweaves so many different elements: Personal experience, individual beliefs, public perception, government policy, historical context and emotions. The vastness of the problem is overwhelming and it’s normal to feel conflicted, to change your mind. To feel uncertain.

That doesn’t make it feel any better. I will probably always be unsure; my reaction shifts with every individual case, with every context, with every discussion I have. Certainty wouldn’t make sense. I will continue to think it through and push myself to take time before making judgements. I will make sure to read as widely as possible about any cases that I am unsure about. If I am not sure what I think, I will be very clear about that in my conversations and explain why. I will try to see both sides and keep re-evaluating my thinking.

pantsuit politics podcast

Can you still love someone when they do bad things?

This question is inspired by the amazing opening monologue Sarah Silverman gave in a recent episode of her show I Love You America and is tied to my comments on Lena Dunham above. In Silverman’s speech she broached the subject of Louis C.K.’s admission that he did masturbate in front of women. By the end of her speech, she is clearly shaken and close to tears, she finishes by asking the question above.

This is a profound and difficult question about love and forgiveness.

If someone has committed sexual assault arguably the only way that they can change their behaviour is to take responsibility for their actions. If they do take responsibility, if they own up to committing sexual abuse do we believe that they can change their behaviour? Even if we do believe they can learn and change, can we forgive them their past acts? When should we stand by someone and when should we draw a line? Again, I think the only potential answer here is to trust your instincts, to only do what you feel capable of doing. And to take time before making any decisions.

What sort of justice is right in these situations?

Following on from the question above- what about punishment? Is there any punishment or action that a perpetrator can undertake to prove that they have changed?

One of the difficult aspects of this question is that incidents of assault are not isolated events. Not only does the victim have to deal with the emotional and physical consequences of that moment but it is highly likely that the person responsible has, by their behaviour, created a work environment that feels threatening and demeaning. The consequences of sexual assault and the mentality that accompanies it are long term and far reaching. This makes it all the harder to deal with and punish.

As Sarah Silverman highlights, forgiveness has both a personal level, which is individual and private, and a social level, which is much more linked to how we punish and rehabilitate offenders. Again remembering that sexual assault is much worse for the victim than for the perpetrator, I think personal forgiveness should be left up to the person. Everyone will feel differently and that is their right. On a social level, we are going to have to find a way to walk the fine line between deterrence and rehabilitation.

It’s going to be a long process but I hope that forgiveness can exist somewhere in there. I’m not sure either punishment or reformation can work without it. I tend towards trusting the justice system for legal punishment- I don’t think we can ever have a fair legal system if we don’t work from within and improving it. I can understand those that feel that the institutional justice system is too lenient or too inconsistent to properly handle these cases. As the Brock Turner case demonstrated, we need to look seriously as how we prosecute sexual assault cases. This is going to require hard work and determination over a long period of time. We can’t be outraged now and then lapse into inaction because Christmas is coming.

Sexual harassment training has now been made mandatory by the Senate in the U.S. This seems like a no brainer. Every workplace should be asked to provide sexual harassment training for their workers. On the other hand, research has shown that corporate harassment training doesn’t change behaviour. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) suggests that to change behaviour then workplaces need to address systemic inequality and that training needs to expand beyond simply addressing legal liability. Essentially the training needs to teach workers how to behave professionally and fairly rather than teaching them how to avoid being prosecuted for sexual assault.

One of our key responsibilities, as I said above, is to stay informed and have nuanced honest discussions. And keep having them. As a trained teacher, I also believe that we need to use the already brilliant resources available (see below) to start conversations about consent earlier and push to have them including in school curriculums as a matter of course.

What age should you understand what constitutes sexual abuse and how do we talk about this with children?

This is an important question because it will determine whether this sort of behaviour continues in future generations. Crucially, we must talk about consent, empathy and sex with all children regardless of gender identity.

The Huff Post has a good article on different steps you can take with children broken into age groups from 1 year olds through to young adults. The focus is on talking openly about asking for permission, trusting their instincts, being comfortable saying no, looking to help others and feeling empathy. Things that we could all benefit from practising daily.

There are lots of really great children’s books that can help to tackle delicate topics and translate difficult ideas for children. Some highly recommended ones (and my favourites) are Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth; Your Body Belongs to You by Cornelia Spelman; I Said No! by Zack and Kimberley King. Cory Silverberg also has a great book about where babies come from called What Makes a Baby that explains clearly using language that can be adapted for any family situation.

cornelia spelman book
cory silverberg book

Finally, the video about tea. To explain consent to adults and teens, Blue Seat Studios made a video that replaces ‘sex’ with ‘tea’. The result is a startlingly clear demonstration of how to ask for consent and to know you if you are crossing the line. The video should be regular compulsory viewing for everyone.

Photo from I Love You America on Hulu

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