Reading the news is difficult. Natural disasters, threats of nuclear war, mass shootings, and international political discord stand as constant reminders of humanity’s dark side. Overwhelming, cultural fixation on drama and conflict distracts and overshadows the better parts of humanity. Admittedly fearful after reading the news, I recently Googled, “what percentage of men are rapists.” Inspired by current events, what I really want to know is how many men are capable of sexual assault, sexual harassment, or rape. There are underlying and common themes; disregard for another human being, objectification of women, lack of accountability, and exertion of power. The statistics for abuse, rape, and harassment of women are absolutely staggering. My quick search revealed the risk of rape for women in the Untied States is 1 in 5, yet 54% of rape cases go unreported.
Growing up I considered myself one of the lucky ones after learning how many of my girl friends had been molested and sexually abused by fathers, uncles, brothers, and other men. Although as a child I felt sympathy, I did not truly understand their personal suffering or how widespread the problem. In fact, as these little girls bravely moved forward each day, I did not even recognize the true devastation of their abuse. Most of these young girls suffered into adulthood trying to regain their self-worth and confidence. As women, they still suffer. Most of these young girls tried to speak out at the time, but all were dismissed even by their parents. They were dismissed due to shame and embarrassment or a parent’s inability to deal with the repercussions of acknowledging. They were never heard, never validated, and again objectified. None of their attackers suffered condemnation. There were no consequences.
Roused more recently to reflect upon my own experiences, hindsight reveals even I did not escape unscathed. In 4th grade, an employee at my catholic elementary school slipped his hand down my pants. It happened so quickly I was stunned. Glancing up to my unsuspecting mother next to me, I felt a wave of embarrassment and confusion. Shamed into silence. I knew it was wrong, but was too young to fully understand. I was confused why this man did what he did, and shocked it happened in the presence of my mother. A child, I failed to recognize it for what it was. I did not know to take action.
A similarly confusing event happened later while in high school. While having a consensual physical encounter with a young man, the older brother of my best friend, I explicitly stated I did not want to have intercourse. To be clear, I said it more than once. It happened anyway. I had a crush. I had been drinking alcohol. Rather than feeling victimized, I felt shame for not effectively preventing it from happening. I had explicitly said “no” more than once, yet I failed to place blame appropriately. I even failed to recognize it for what it was.
I grew more aware in my late twenties, when after medical school I was sexually harassed as an anesthesia trainee. At the will of supervisors for promotions and reference letters, trainees strive to appease their mentors. This time, I knew the actions of my supervisor were both sexual and harassing. Grabbing my hips to move me aside, a quasi accidental brush of my breast, and a more obvious attempt to sit next to me on a couch with thighs and hips touching and a door deliberately closed seconds earlier. I escaped any progression or more explicit incident with this man, but I recognized what was happening. I recognized it, evaded it, but failed to take action. I stood silent to ensure I would graduate, move forward in my career, and escape the institution that allowed this behavior, an institution filled with high demands and mostly men.
Child molestation, statutory rape, and workplace sexual harassment; I am one of the lucky ones. A presidential candidate is boastful about groping women against their will yet is excused by a large portion of the population and elected anyway. We have daily revelations of high-powered businessmen, politicians, and celebrities committing sexually abusive atrocities. A seemingly redundant campaign of women claiming #MeToo becomes a requirement to highlight this never-ending epidemic. The news is suffocating and does not even account for the unreported incidents happening daily in communities, and workplaces across the country. This is not a full account of my experiences, and mainstream media captures a small fraction of the problem.
A friend of mine said, “This is not new.” No, it is not new, but that makes it even more appalling. It has been labeled unacceptable yet normalized and tolerated for far too long. These men are not the only guilty ones. This is a problem of us all. All of us who allow a culture where abuse is not recognized by its victims, a culture allowing a parent’s shame prevent them from protecting their children, a culture allowing self-blame and silence after assault, one that allows women to feel tolerant of sexual harassment in order to advance their careers, and one that allows anyone to be objectified and exploited.
The recent flurry of news articles regarding sexual perpetrators satisfies the media’s predilection for drama and conflict. Rather than seeing courage in unity among victims, one source referred to the numerous recent reports of sexual assault as a “feeding frenzy” upon the men being accused. Perpetrators are not the victims despite suffering embarrassment, tarnished reputations, loss of jobs, or disruptions of their personal relationships. We must hear the real victims and change this culture, lest the next big headline be so distracting, as to allow further normalization of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment.
These stories are an opportunity to change. It is time to validate victims who stand up for themselves giving that courage to others. It is time to teach young girls and protect them from objectification and harassment. Young boys need good role models. It is time to value and promote women and girls for more than their physical appeal and without the seemingly prerequisite groping. These problems are not confined to the workplace. The entire culture needs to shift. Silence must be broken and shame applied to the guilty. There are millions depending on each of us to demand change now.
Institutions and businesses, must do more than establish sexual harassment policies. Enforce them. Women, tell your story and hear the others. Speak up. Men, stand up for your daughters, mothers, sisters, wives, and friends. Say something. It is time to hold accountable the mass of society lacking self-control and respect for others. This problem is not new, but it is not normal, and is never tolerable.