What has changed for victims of sexual abuse?

I’ve been thinking about my mother-in-law quite a bit lately. She passed away several years ago at age 93, and while I have 30 years of conversations with her that enrich my life daily, lately one conversation has stood out.

It was during the confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas as Supreme Court justice and we had listened to Anita Hill’s testimony. We were standing at the kitchen sink, peeling potatoes (she was a master potato peeler), and my mother-in-law said, “You know, we had that all the time.” “That” being sexual harassment by supervisors on the assembly line where she worked in the ’60s and ’70s. “We just dealt with it,” she said. There was a measure of pride in her voice, the righteous pride of a survivor, but also the acknowledgment that she and her female co-workers had no other options. To complain was to get fired and her family’s well-being depended on her paycheck.

I’ve thought a great deal about that conversation as I’ve heard the pseudo apologies of men called out for their predatory sexual harassing behavior. Often, we’ve heard, “well, it was acceptable then and times have changed.” Certainly times have changed, but let us be clear — it was never acceptable to engage in sexual behavior with someone without their consent. And if you had the power to end their employment or damage their career, they were never in a position to give consent. The issue is not that sexual harassment was OK years ago; it is that the victims had no recourse, no support, no voice. And that is what has changed.

Just this week, Time magazine named its Person of the Year and it wasn’t the president. It was those women and men Time identified as “The Silence Breakers,” those who were courageous enough to speak out about their experiences, to name what had happened to them as wrong. It was those who began the #MeToo movement and continue to tell their stories regardless of the consequences. And make no mistake, there have been consequences. When a man (or a woman) we respect and admire (for me it was Garrison Keillor) is named as a sexual harasser or assailant, our first instinct is to make excuses, to disbelieve the accuser, to agree with the accused that “it was all a misunderstanding.” We don’t want to believe that people we respect and admire could behave in ways that rob others of their dignity, that violate another’s personal space and integrity. It is easier to believe that the victim is in the wrong.

But if we want to build a culture of consent, a community that respects each individual’s personal space and bodily integrity, we have to start by believing those whose space and bodily integrity have been violated. And we have to recognize the dynamics at work when a person more powerful by virtue of employment, age, economic status or gender assumes that he or she is entitled to interact with or touch another person however they choose.

In last month’s column, at the beginning of the #MeToo phenomenon, I wrote about listening to young men I know who seem to understand the difference between flirting and hurting, between using someone for personal gratification and a mutually respectful, consensual relationship. The young men I described understand that at its root, sexual harassment and assault are about an abuse of power and a sense of entitlement. It really isn’t complicated at all. And if at times the lines seem blurry, perhaps we need to change our lenses.

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