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The Pussy Roars Back Against Institutionalized Sexism

How Do We Turn This Moment Into Lasting Change?

The unprecedented legion of women coming forward with claims of sexual assault and harassment in recent months shines a glaring spotlight on a troubling issue: the corrupt use of power by the men who hold it. Enough people have decided they will be disempowered no more that a tipping point has been reached. Like it or not, we have been forced to reckon with a culture that has allowed men in power to violate others without consequence. This has the potential to be a watershed moment, but in order to make a lasting impact, we need to determine exactly what needs to change and how each of us must participate to achieve it.

Almost daily, new allegations emerge of prominent men utilizing their status to manipulate less powerful women. Even Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie, some of the most influential women in Hollywood, stayed quiet for years, believing they would be silenced or, worse, punished, even vilified, if they spoke out. They feared losing their livelihood and reputation.

Donald Trump speaking with Access Hollywood host Billy Bush, who was fired for egging Trump on during their lewd conversation, sexually objectifying actress Arianne Zucker and joking about sexual assault

The accusations range from inappropriate remarks to rape. All of these actions echo then presidential candidate Trump’s sentiments about women on that Access Hollywood bus, bragging that when you’re rich and famous, you can “grab them by the pussy.” One month after his vulgar comments surfaced, in the ultimate display of our country’s institutionalized sexism, Trump was elected President of the United States. His campaign downplayed the recorded statements as “locker room talk” and enough Americans agreed blatant misogyny is not enough to make someone unpresidential.

Trump’s victory was a wake-up call to anyone who thought women and men were on an equal playing field. Women began to recognize the necessity of using their voices to bring about change.

Now a domino effect has begun. People who have been abused by powerful men are speaking out and sending a clear message: we will not accept this treatment anymore. Men in important positions have believed, and history has demonstrated, that they can say or do anything they want without concern for the effect on the other human beings involved, and get away with it. Who would dare attempt to take down Harvey Weinstein? Until someone did. And it turns out he has a sordid history. One brave woman paved the way for dozens who had been afraid to come forward, and now the world is listening.

Harvey Weinstein with longtime friend and collaborator Ben Affleck, who has also been accused of sexual misconduct

The allegations against Weinstein, made public in early October, opened the floodgates to a mass outcry of astonishing force. Dozens of high profile men including Russell Simmons, Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose, Al Franken, Ben Affleck and Matt Lauer, have been accused of sexual misconduct. Prior to this moment of reckoning, men like these were invincible. It is becoming apparent that no one is above reproach. These men have been marched to the town square and placed in the pillories of the media’s harsh glare. As they carry out their sentenced public humiliation, the world is watching, learning and ostensibly changing.

We have the opportunity to transform from a culture in which men call the shots, no matter how self-serving they may be, to a society run by decency. Victims are taking back the night, and the day. They are declaring: “We will not tolerate your vile behavior regardless of the number of zeros in your bank account or your ability to offer or deny me a career-changing opportunity.”

A previously shameful issue has been made public. Women are realizing they are not at fault, and they are not alone. Most, if not all, women have experienced subtle or overt harassment at the hands of a man in a position of power. The #MeToo movement has painted a compelling picture of the prevalence of this sort of abuse. Men have largely been ignorant to the pervasiveness of this phenomenon, but now they know. No one has an excuse to look the other way anymore.

The men who have used their power in this way knew exactly what they were doing, may have even seen it as a perk of the job, as our President indicated on that bus. In some cases, their narcissism likely led them to believe that anyone who resisted was stuck up or playing coy, and that no one would actually mean it when she said “No.” Not to them. So they didn’t have to listen, and a culture that condoned their behavior and instilled fear in their victims made them untouchable.

If a centuries-long history of sexism has been tacitly overlooked, the last few months have pulled the curtain back on the sleazy underbelly of sexual politics and been an admonition to us all. This is the society we get when we allow those in power to treat others with contempt and subdue them into suffering in silence. No one can blame ignorance now. We have an opportunity and an obligation to inform friends, spouses, partners, parents, siblings and children about the perversion of power that has gone on for too long.

Some people in power, men in particular, may see the recent outing of abusers as a “witch hunt.” They may have difficulty understanding how inappropriate it is to utilize their influence to serve their own ego while making other people feel worthless.

Nothing here should be construed to mean that a man in a high position cannot pursue a relationship with someone he has interest in, but he must consider the dynamics at play, given the power differential. As comedian Louis C.K. offered in an acknowledgment of contrition, he had excused his own predatory behavior for years because he never forced anyone to do anything against her will, but asking female colleagues if he could show them his genitalia was unconscionable. He was in a position of power as a successful comedian they respected and admired, and even asking that question was a gross exploitation of his status.

Louis C.K. acknowledged abusing his power over female colleagues.

Just as teaching kids to make absolutely certain they have consent before engaging in any sexual activity is essential, it is now incumbent upon us to educate men in power, and boys who may rise to a position of influence, not only to ask permission, but to thoroughly explore power dynamics in all of their relationships, particularly those of a sexual nature.

Proposed legislation in Congress intended to make it easier for victims of harassment to come forward is promising. Advocacy for vulnerable populations is essential, but meaningful social change will not take root until enough people declare that predatory behavior has only one result: categorical condemnation.

Change begins with raising the next generation to do better. We must encourage women to conquer intimidation and advocate for themselves. If you care about a young girl, teach her she can come to you when something makes her feel uncomfortable, and that she can, and should, speak out against anyone who tries to oppress her. Advise her to trust her intuition. Women tend to doubt and blame themselves for objectification and mistreatment, leading them to stay silent. It is now our indisputable obligation to help girls learn to assert themselves.

But the responsibility to combat abuses of power cannot fall on the shoulders of women alone. Boys must be made to understand they cannot sit idly by when they become aware of friends demeaning women through actions or words. Not being part of the solution makes them part of the problem. They need to openly object to show the Trumps and Weinsteins of the world that degrading people will leave them isolated and shunned. Every man who would cringe at the idea of his mother, wife or daughter being slighted, or worse, because a man thinks he can get away with it, needs to come forward as an ally for women.

The old boys’ club notion of women as sex objects is antiquated, offensive, and, quite frankly, an embarrassment. Let’s topple the patriarchy together – not as a victory for women over men, but as a triumph for equality and humanity.

I know my friends and family will be discussing the significance of these recent events at holiday gatherings, reminding one another of our duty to send the unambiguous message that people in power do not get a pass to dehumanize others. Kids are never too young (and adults never too old) to learn to respect other people and speak out if someone is disrespecting them.

If we can utilize this paradigm-shifting moment to establish a society in which men and women comprehend how unequivocally reprehensible it is to wield authority for their own sexual gratification, we could consciously create a time when those who use their power to exploit others are stripped of it, and people treat one another with consideration and dignity.

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