Before anyone comes forward with an allegation, mild or serious, they know there’s a risk they will be scrutinized, humiliated, or simply disbelieved.
In the wake of the Hollywood accusations of sexual harassment and assault, a question went around, accompanied by varying degrees of judgement: Why didn’t these women speak out before now? Why, in this era of political correctness and equal opportunity with female prime ministers and heads of state, didn’t these emancipated, adult women report incidents of unwanted sexual advances to the appropriate authorities?
Before the question could be answered, more stories began emerging, this time from the political world: the UK’s houses of parliament. They were similar in content – contrived, late night meetings creating a trap, the abuse of power, and cover-ups.
British celebrity, Anne Robinson, claimed in a Morning TV interview that the answer was fragility and a lack of common sense. She used her trademark style to tell off younger women at parliament for not standing up for themselves and older women for not supporting them. Known for her fierceness, she did not reprimand the men involved, saying only they “are going to go on behaving badly until it is inconvenient.” In other words, the onus was, is, and always will be on women, and the pathology of a man who thinks he can grab something because he wants it is not worth commenting on.
In another context, Robinson would have a point, in that adults should know how to stand up for themselves. But are these cases that simple? The actresses who accused powerful Hollywood men of sexual harassment and rape are multi-millionaires at the top of an industry notorious for its ruthless rejection. They are the opposite of fragile. Women in politics willingly enter another old boys’ club, stifled by sexism and nepotism. They are in the minority and know that to some, they are a buzz kill, taking up space better filled by a man. If they were fragile they would not be there in the first place. So why didn’t these pioneering women talk?
In Selma Blair’s account of being trapped by a producer in his bedroom and forced into a sexual act, she added, “I felt disgust and shame.” Abby Schachner said she “felt very ashamed” when Louis C.K. masturbated during their phone call Reports of the victim feeling shame are typical. But why feel shame for the actions of another?
What do you expect wearing that dress? You sent mixed signals; You must have no common sense to have gone to his office after hours; You stayed quiet to benefit your career; You’re speaking out to benefit your career; The spotlight is on the victim where the perceived responsibility is placed. This brilliant Ted Talk, Violence Against Women is a Men’s Issue, demonstrates how language reinforces this focus. But even without the judgement, if one or both parties are in the public eye, talking about it can lead to a court case and that can lead to salacious details splashed all over the papers, as in the excruciating case brought against soccer player, Ched Evans. Was it really necessary for the general public to know the favorite sexual position of the alleged victim?
Before anyone comes forward with an allegation, mild or serious, they know there’s a risk they will be scrutinized, humiliated, or simply disbelieved. Singer-songwriter Morrissey’s contribution that some of the women were probably just disappointed the exchange wasn’t more lucrative, isn’t that unusual. Angela Lansbury’s comment in a national newspaper that women should take partial blame for making themselves attractive, is unusually blatant but shows old-fashioned misogyny still exists. These responses are called victim-blaming and feed a vicious circle of silencing women and condemning them for their silence.
Despite this toxic culture, political activist, Bex Bailey did tell a member of Labour staff she had been raped and was discouraged from making a claim. U.S. attorney, Anita Hill did accuse Judge Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment and was eventually driven to resign. Opera singer, Meghan Tozer did make an official compliant about her mentor and said it destroyed her career. These warning tales and many like them show how control is successfully exerted over a junior female and must leave other victims feeling like their hands are tied.
The question should no longer be, why didn’t they tell? The answer is obvious. Rape and assault are like robbery – they are crimes. Let’s focus on what these thieves took rather than who they took it from, and figure out how we can change a culture to stop it from happening again.
Gráinne Shannon is a well-travelled senior software programmer, writer and poet. Her day job inspired the award-nominated Orla’s Code, published under the pen name, Fiona Pearse. Originally from Ireland, she lives in the UK, calling London home for now.