Sexual harassment and assault allegations are, as of late, like a game of whack-a-mole. Every few days, there’s another story about a celebrity, producer, lawmaker, journalist or CEO making unwanted sexual advances on their employees or colleagues. It’s astounding, really, that these perpetrators have flown so long under the radar. But now, in droves, their days of reckoning have come.
This onslaught of confessions from affected women – and men – should be celebrated. Every proven abuser must suffer the consequences of their actions – from humiliation to joblessness to jail time. The trend of transparency has likely stricken well-deserved fear into the hearts of many perverts still in hiding, and it’s served as a warning to those with a mind to engage in this kind of behavior. The realer-than-ever prospect of ruining your reputation, hurting your family and squandering your future is plausibly lessening the appeal of sexual predation.
Of course, there are negative aspects to every positive movement. Cultural conversations are a swinging pendulum – they only pass through the logical center for a split second before swinging to an extreme.
Thirty years ago, public discourse about sexual harassment and assault was almost non-existent. Very rarely did women formally confess to being assaulted or harassed, either for fear of her life or her career. And when they did, the responses to their accusations were themselves accusatory: “Well, what were you wearing?” “Were you asking for it?” “Are you just looking for attention?”
Now, increasingly, women are regularly ringing the bell of sexual assault, and anyone who dare ask them anything about their clothes, their actions or their motives are condemned. In my opinion, that’s a good thing. There is no excuse for sexual harassment or assault. Period.
However, there’s still a problem with our current conversations about this issue. While blaming the victim is wrong, so is abdicating her of all responsibility.
Here’s the uncomfortable truth: victimhood and responsibility are not mutually exclusive.
Before you press “send” on your hate mail, hear me: there’s a big difference between responsibility and fault. It might not be your fault that something bad happened to you, but how you handle it, how it shapes you and what you learn from it are your responsibility.
We’ve let the pendulum swing so far in the other direction, that we’re no longer just believing the victim, we’re belittling her. Rather than encouraging women to learn from their experiences, we’re discouraging them from even considering the weight of their own actions. We’re teaching them that they have absolutely no control over what happens to them, when that’s just not always true.
Here’s a metaphor: Say someone hacks the system at your bank. Your account information gets leaked – all your money’s gone. Your bank apologizes but offers no assurances or solutions.
You tell one of your friends what happened. She says, “Oh, yeah. I used to bank there, too. They’re totally unreliable. I stopped using them after my information was leaked. You should definitely stop banking there.” She gives you some tips on choosing a trustworthy bank and explains how to safeguard your account information.
Was it your fault that your bank sucked and someone stole all your money? No. Was your friend blaming you for what happened? Of course not.
But now that it happened, how you deal with it is your responsibility. And, if you don’t want it to happen again, you’re going to have to change some things in your life. You need to switch banks, and you need to go through a more thorough process of making sure your money is secure next time around.
Is that unfair? Absolutely. The bad bank should be the one to get their behavior in check, not you. Why should you be inconvenienced when you did nothing wrong?
Because, well . . . that’s life.
Now, you can still fight to change the bank. You can tell everyone you know how horrible the bank is and encourage them to take their business elsewhere. You can threaten them with a lawsuit. You can do everything within your power to punish the bank into repentance.
But, in the meantime, are you going to keep banking there? Or are you going to go to another, safer bank and take it upon yourself to make sure your account information is secure?
You’re going to take responsibility, and you’re going to do everything you can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
So, let’s apply this logic to sexual harassment and assault: it is not a victim’s fault when she is harassed or assaulted. But what she does about it and the precautions she now takes in her own life is her responsibility.
That’s why, when we hear other women encouraging their peers to dress modestly, police their body language, set clear boundaries at work and take special care in settings in which they’re alone with men, they’re not blaming the victims. They’re saying, “Some people just suck. Here’s how you can, to the best of your ability, avoid a sucky situation in the future.”
If your friend got mugged by a guy walking home from work by herself, would you just say, “I’m sorry that happened to you,” or would you sign her up for self-defense classes and tell her to choose a different way to walk home? Which one actually helps ensure she’s not a victim again?
The fact of the matter is, we can’t change the fact that some men and women are just bad people. And while we should do everything we can to raise awareness about and punish bad behavior, we’d be foolish to ignore the effects of our own actions, too.
While we should do everything we can to raise awareness about sexual predation, to set up systems and processes by which predators are punished and held accountable and to create a culture in which women are comfortable voicing their complaints, we also have to make commonsense changes in our own lives to shield ourselves from assault and harassment.
And, look, I understand it’s not black and white. In many cases, it’s not so easy as buttoning one more button on your blouse. Women in perfectly acceptable situations, in perfectly acceptable attire, can be and have been drugged, raped, assaulted and harassed. Children who suffer this kind of abuse are entirely helpless and can’t shoulder any responsibility. People feel forced to comply with unwanted sexual advances for fear they’ll lose the job that provides for their family.
It’s not easy, and it’s not simple. No one said that it is.
But the path to healing isn’t perpetual victimhood and helplessness. It’s honesty, awareness, education, accountability, and, yes, responsibility.