Grace Mattern: Cutting the roots of sexual abuse

For the Monitor
Published: 12/3/2017 12:30:18 AM

It was no surprise to me when social media filled with #MeToo, women telling their stories of sexual harassment, abuse and assault in response to the revelations of Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual misconduct.

I’ve worked in the movement to end violence against women for almost 40 years and know how prevalent sexual violence is. In 2007 I was part of a research team that found one in four women in New Hampshire has been sexually assaulted.

For several years I made a point of asking every woman I knew or met if they’d ever been subjected to unwanted sexual touch, not necessarily a criminal assault, but the butt grabbing and breast brushes that happen as women move through the world. Out of hundreds of women I asked only one ever said no. Sexual violation is a nearly universal female experience, yet until recently, it was hardly ever talked about.

Now we have #MeToo, and weekly if not daily stories of women abused and harassed by yet another well-known man. Last year it was #NOTokay, a Twitter feed to counter the backlash against women who’d related stories of harassment and assault by Donald Trump. That too got women talking, almost 10 million of them who posted their own stories of sexual abuse under that hash tag.

But this time is different. This time men are facing consequences for having harassed and assaulted women. Harvey Weinstein was fired from his own company and kicked out of several professional associations. The release of Louis C.K.’s new film was postponed and a Netflix special canceled. National Public Radio news chief Michael Oreskes was let go. Matt Lauer has been fired from NBC and Minnesota Public Radio has ousted Garrison Keillor.

The list could go on and on and hopefully it will.

Because the consequences for abusers mean that women, finally, are being heard when they talk about the sexual abuse and harassment they’ve experienced.

“I believe the women,” Sen. Mitch McConnell said when asked about stories from multiple women in Alabama describing sexual harassment and abuse by Senate candidate Roy Moore.

These are remarkable words. Yes, McConnell had an underlying political motivation for declaring his trust in the women, but it still marks a significant change in how women are treated. Instead of being shamed and blamed when they report sexual harassment and assault, women are now being supported and believed.

We may be witnessing an important step on the path to ending sexual violence.

Women have mostly been silent about sexual abuse because reporting assaults usually led to defense of the accused man and a vicious discrediting of the woman. Why would a woman subject herself to the kind of treatment we’ve seen in media coverage of victims? Think Anita Hill, Bill Cosby’s accusers, or the women who said Donald Trump assaulted them.

That kind of treatment is changing. Knowing that reporting abuse won’t automatically bring attacks against the victim, and perhaps even accountability for the abuser, will undercut the culture of silence that has let abusers get away with their misconduct.

If men know that the women, or men, they abuse will report the abuse and be believed, perhaps they’ll think twice about doing it. Grabbing a quick squeeze of butt, forcing a kiss, or worse, won’t be worth losing a job, or an entire career. More men will stop taking advantage of their power to engage in sexual behavior without consent when they know they won’t get away with it.

There will undoubtedly be a backlash to the current acceptance of women’s stories and the willingness of people with power over abusers to hold them accountable. We likely have more cycles of disclosure, belief, backlash and denial to get through. Already the issues of who to believe and what consequence abusers should face have been politicized as members of Congress grapple with how to respond to allegations against their colleagues.

Still, this cycle is encouraging. Sexual harassment, abuse and assault thrive in silence. Now #NOTokay and #MeToo have given women a voice they’ve never had before. Let’s keep listening and continue to hold abusers accountable. It could be a critical step in creating a culture that cuts off the roots of sexual abuse.

(Grace Mattern is a poet and writer who lives in Northwood. She was previously the executive director of the N.H. Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.)

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