This is a special moment. A torrent of voices being raised against sexual abuse makes a big, sustained push to improve the status of women possible and, I think, likely.
This year began with women marching through Seattle and cities around the country demanding to be heard and respected. Now, as the year rushes toward its end, women are stepping forward in a seemingly endless stream to call out sexually abusive men.
It feels like one of those times when significant change is possible, but it’s hard to know in the moment. Sometimes passion and outrage fade before they’ve ignited a lasting fire. It would be a shame to let that happen.
The outrage needs to be used to forge structural changes that lock reforms into place and start us moving toward sustainable cultural change — the kind of change that alters the power imbalance that makes some men feel entitled to mistreat women in the first place, and that too often allows them to get away with it.
Ultimately, we need to raise and educate children who won’t tolerate or practice sexual abuse. Maybe that means parent education and curriculum changes. It also means making sure women are treated fairly by laws and in business practices and every other area of society. That means adopting rules and regulations and edicts with teeth behind them to act like training wheels that help us become a society in which respecting everyone’s humanity is second nature.
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That’s going to be hard to achieve, but it is doable.
I remember when Anita Hill put workplace harassment in the public eye. Twenty-six years ago she accused then-Supreme-Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. He had been her boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission when she was a young lawyer, and she said he asked her out repeatedly and talked about sexual acts at the office and about his sexual abilities. She testified before Congress and was attacked relentlessly by some members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The committee was all male. In the end, Clarence Thomas was confirmed and still serves on the court.
Like I said, change is hard, and it doesn’t proceed in a straight line toward the ideal.
But those confirmation hearings were televised, and they created a national conversation about sexual harassment, making the phrase and the idea it represented commonplace. The phrase was coined in 1975 by a group of women at Cornell University to define a group of inappropriate workplace behaviors. Naming something can open people’s eyes to a phenomenon and give them a way to talk about it. The Thomas hearings put the phrase and the ideas it conveyed in the public consciousness.
Around that same time, courts were beginning to view sexual harassment from the perspective of the accuser. The women at Cornell, the courts, and Anita Hill speaking out were all pushing forward a new way of looking at an old problem. They opened the door for progress, but we still haven’t gotten all the way through.
The country elected a man who gleefully insults women and brags about sexual acts that would get most people fired.
That’s what got people into the streets marching in January. Sometimes a wake-up call has to be loud to be heard.
And now we may be moving forward on a flood of accusations about men in entertainment, media, government, business and every other sphere of life, because it happens everywhere. The accused include Harvey Weinstein; Louis C.K. (he admitted it and apologized); the Ten Commandments Judge Roy Moore, now a candidate for the U.S. Senate; the CEO of Talking Rain Beverage.
The outpouring is happening because Hollywood actresses are speaking up and because the man whose behavior drew their action, Weinstein, is a big-time producer.
Star power has given this moment momentum that I hope carries the response beyond sex and celebrity into a wider and deeper examination of power and inequality.
Sexual abuse is about power. It can be physically violent and is always psychologically violent. Dealing with sexual abuse requires ending violence against women. It requires change in workplaces so that women aren’t isolated or underpaid or blocked from leadership positions.
Inequality is rooted in power differentials, and so is sexual abuse.
We have to stop socializing men to believe they should be dominant and aggressive. We need to help everyone understand what appropriate behavior looks like and, as a society, we should punish abuse and harassment.
Maybe this new outrage will put an end to the shrugging and it will light a fire that gets institutions and individuals to embrace equality and end abuse.
Maybe Hollywood will really get serious about the way it portrays women, which could happen if more women were running the show.
That would also help change the culture.