Disclaimer: This post is not in any way saying that women are not capable of standing up for themselves, or that women do not also need to support other women and men who have experienced sexual harassment or assault.
This post is specifically for any man who thinks that sexual violence doesn’t affect him.
In the aftermath of the media firestorm as person after person came forward accusing Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment and/or assault over the past few decades, I was horrified that such heinous acts could be hushed up for so long. My heart and prayers go out to the victims, those who have spoken out and those who choose to remain silent because they are not ready to or willing to relive their trauma, and my anger rises up at the realization that we as a society are not doing nearly enough to break the cycle of violence against women.
I was one of the hundreds of women and men who posted “Me too,” across social media to demonstrate the widespread problem of sexual harassment and assault. Many of my dear friends, relatives, coworkers, and classmates shared that they had been victims of sexual violence, and it was devastating to see post after post denoting another person with a story (or multiple) of assault or harassment.
With so many people bravely coming forward to share their experiences, it can be easy to despair. However, I would like to share a personal story with you, and I pray it gives you hope.
In seventh grade, when it was too cold to go out for recess in the winter, we would all go to the auditorium, where we were expected to “find something to do” and be quiet. Most kids totally disregarded this rule, but nerd that I was, I took the opportunity to catch up on my homework.
At some point during these long indoor weeks, one of the boys in my class thought it was funny to sit next to me, say “Hey baby,” and stroke my arm while purring. Just thinking about it now makes me sick. I was 12 years old. No one had ever approached me like a sexual object before, and I had no idea what to do. I was too disgusted and scared to do anything except cringe and turn away until he got bored and left me alone.
One day, a male friend of mine (let’s call him Brian) was sitting on one side of me. When that boy came over to harass me as usual, Brian turned to him and said something like, “Hey! What’s your problem? Leave her alone!” My harasser made a face and left.
Brian then turned to me and said, “Vicky, he shouldn’t be treating you like that. You should tell someone.” But I brushed it off.
I wanted to tell someone. I wanted to make that boy stop. But deep down, I was terrified. What if the teachers didn’t believe me? What if my harasser ignored any reprimand and kept at it? What if he told the whole school I was a liar and a tattletale? What if I got punished instead of him? Or even worse, what if it was my fault all along?
This is why so many victims don’t speak up. It’s disgusting that I have to explain this in 2017, when we’ve seen this situation time and time again. Abuse or harassment is never OK. Period. Abuse or harassment is never the victim’s fault. Period. We’ve heard this a million times at this point and yet we still don’t get it, so it needs to be said over and over again.
After a few more weeks of me consistently declining to tell someone, Brian couldn’t stand by any longer. One day, I was called down to the guidance office. Brian was sitting there when I walked in, and in the presence of him and the guidance counselor, I finally admitted what was going on. The counselor was very understanding. She told me explicitly that it was not my fault, that anyone who touched me in such a way or said something that made me uncomfortable was out of line and their behavior would not be tolerated. I don’t remember what disciplinary actions were taken against my harasser, but he didn’t speak to me again all the way up to graduation, and I’ve never seen him since.
Over the past few days, my heart has been full of gratitude for Brian. We lost contact after high school, but if he is reading this, I hope he knows how grateful I am that he had the courage and wisdom beyond his years to stand up for me when I couldn’t stand up for myself. Unfortunately, many people who experience sexual harassment and/or assault don’t have a Brian. Their cries for help are silenced or ignored. Blame often falls on the victims and not on the perpetrators. And sometimes these perpetrators are promoted or simply moved out of the situation, but their predatory behavior continues.
Men, and all people who believe in the dignity of every human being, this is a rallying cry for you.
I’d like to speak specifically to any man who thinks that sexual violence is not his problem. I know it’s scary to speak up because so often the perpetrators of these actions are your relatives, your friends, your teammates, and your coaches. You’re afraid of being considered “less manly” if you defend the dignity of sexual violence victims. You think that you’d be overreacting because after all, it’s just “locker room talk.”
Let me tell you something. The world doesn’t need any more Harvey Weinsteins or Bill Cosbys or Donald Trumps. The world doesn’t need any more men who stay silent when others are being abused. Simply not engaging in harassment or abuse is no longer good enough. Men, we need you to take a stand. We, as survivors of sexual harassment or abuse, cannot win this war without all of humanity on our side. If you are not actively fighting for us, you are part of the problem.
Here are a few simple ways you can help. Pay attention to your surroundings at a bar or party, in the classroom, the locker room, and the office. If you see something that looks or sounds like harassment or assault, it probably is. Don’t just ignore it; shut it down. If someone you know comes to you saying they’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, listen to them. Ask how you can help. But above all, believe them, believe them, believe them, and tell them you believe them again and again and again.
The world will try to tell you you’re an uncivilized animal with no self-control. I know you’re better than that, and you know you’re better than that.
Please understand that I’m not telling you this out of condemnation or malice, but out of love for you, my brothers, and out of my belief in your individual and collective ability to build a safer, more respectful world for all people. In a world of Weinsteins, be a Brian.
Survivors of sexual violence: I love you. I hear you. I believe you.
Men and all other bystanders: We love you. We believe in you. We’re counting on you.