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Sarah Lindsay

Culture Change and Cautious Optimism

Susanna and the Elders
Susanna and the Elders, Artemisia Gentileschi c. 1610 | via Wikimedia Commons | public domain

When I wrote my #MeToo post last month, I wasn’t very optimistic that change in the way our society treats women was anywhere on the horizon. But it’s been more than a month since accusations against Harvey Weinstein started piling up, and the allegations against powerful men just keep coming, as if the dam on a particularly noxious sewer has burst. In this past week, we saw Louis CK and Roy Moore faced with allegations of assault and just plain ickiness towards women — and both men are facing significant career consequences because of their actions.1

I’m not Pollyanna; I don’t think that somehow everything will be rosy for women from now on. I am, however, feeling some optimism that we have slowly, painfully and imperfectly cleared a hurdle as years of assaults and harassment come to light. Time will tell. But it does seem as if a critical mass of women’s voices has been reached as men are being held accountable for their actions. The elephant in the room has made itself painfully obvious to even the most determinedly ignorant, and it refuses to return to invisibility.

I could vent my frustration that, starting with Harvey Weinstein, most of these men’s improprieties and abuses have been open secrets. I could complain about the volume of accusations needed to reach this critical mass, as if one woman alone can’t be believed. I could lament the time dedicated to protecting the reputations of powerful men rather than to nurturing the careers of ambitious women.

All of the above are valid frustrations that deserve to be acknowledged. But right now, this has the feel not of a moment but a movement.

So what should we do — and not do — to preserve the momentum?

We should not react with some variation of the “Billy Graham Rule” — the rule that tells a man to never be one-on-one with a woman other than his wife. The intentions behind this rule are certainly noble: the desire to protect the reputations of both men and women. But in reality, this rule too often entrenches a boy’s club environment in which women are excluded from the casual settings — lunches, golf trips, after-work drinks — where networking and mentoring happen. This causes the divide between women and men to grow more entrenched and treats women as temptations waiting to become assault charges instead of actual people.

To be clear, I think some boundaries are appropriate: inviting someone to drink in your hotel room alone, for example, is not prudent in most situations.2 But a paranoid avoidance of women cannot be a solution. Most people can tell the difference between a man ambushing a woman while wearing his bathrobe and a man having a business lunch with a colleague. Men don’t need to avoid women, they need to avoid assaulting women. (Katelyn Beaty, an editor for Christianity Today, had a thought-provoking op ed in the New York Times yesterday on this topic.)

We should not continue to question women who don’t come forward immediately after the abuse takes place. Women remain silent for many reasons: the fear of repercussions from powerful men, the belief that they will not be believed, the shame that somehow they brought the abuse upon themselves. Especially when accusations come at an inconvenient time, as in the case of Roy Moore, the alleged victim is often treated with undue skepticism.

We need to be wary of the specter of false accusations, however: although hard numbers are difficult to pin down, false accusations of sexual assault are no more common than any other false accusations, and may be even less common. Over the last month, the sheer volume of women coming forward has made their accusations seem believable. But given the way that women are often shamed and treated with skepticism when they make allegations of assault or harassment, whether they come forward immediately or years after the fact, it’s not surprising that women hesitate to make their abuse public. We should not dismiss women because they do not react to abuse in a way we deem appropriate, especially since what is considered an “appropriate” reaction tends to vary wildly.

We should say something when we witness abuse or harassment. This one especially applies to men, who often have significantly more power and influence than women, but all of us can commit to calling out abuse, harassment, or demeaning language. Because much of the harassment women endure is low-level (a slightly too-touchy colleague, a friend who makes off-color jokes, a boss who relies on sexist stereotypes), we must become more willing to call out even minor harassment. Without consequences, formal or informal, this type of harasser has no reason to stop. We need to strongly and consistently notice and condemn harassment and sexist language, rather than simply shrug it off.

Someone here will object to policing language and behavior as mere “political correctness.” But these days, “politically correct” often means “acting with common decency,” and it’s hard to see why decent people would want to be sexist. As a society we’re currently renegotiating the boundaries of common decency especially around sexist and racist language, which does mean that some things are now offensive in ways they weren’t twenty years ago. But it’s not really that hard to avoid unwanted touching or sexist language, jokes and assumptions when we talk, especially since this is the necessary baseline of an environment that welcomes and supports women.

We should examine our own behavior and how we contribute to environments that silence women and enable abusers. Most of us don’t actively enable abusers, but our collective cultural attitudes towards gender have caused harm. From a very young age, we condition girls to be emotionally sensitive and concerned for the well-being of those around them; we withhold emotional education from boys and excuse their bad behavior with a shrug and a “boys will be boys.”

And as they grow older, we feed these young men and women with ideas about love as a pursuit, with man as the hunter of the woman, who will put up a fight even if she doesn’t really mean it. With this conditioning, it’s not surprising that some men believe they can get away with assault and some women believe that they have to put up with it. It can be difficult to escape these strong and often unconscious cultural assumptions, but we have to be willing to do the work to change the script for ourselves and for the generations that come after us.

Cultures change slowly and painfully, with steps backwards and sideways for every step forward. But let us make the last six weeks one of the steps forward, a moment that changes how we treat women. Let us acknowledge our own responsibility to foster a culture that does not enable abusers and harassers, and commit to nourishing a culture that treats women as human beings equal to men.

  1. Roy Moore might still win the Alabama senate seat in December, but he has lost the support of most other senate Republicans and the Republican National Committee.

  2. Note that hotel meetings, which are common in some industries (including my own, the academic world), typically involve more than just two people and thus aren’t immediately suspect. Harvey Weinstein’s meetings, for example, wouldn’t have raised red flags for the women who agreed to them.

Tagged: feminism