It seems that with every new day, the news explodes with yet another accusation of sexual abuse against a well-known public figure. One can hardly turn on the TV without hearing the story of a woman who endured abuse at the hands of a man in power.
While the cases of famous people who have been sexually harassed or abused bring needed attention to these life-changing issues, they also shed light on the plight of women who work less glamorous jobs as well. One hotel maid cries as she remembers the time a guest asked her in to do room cleaning while he sat masturbating. Many servers report that sexual harassment such as crude jokes about their looks and intrusive pats on the bum are everyday occurrences if they want to earn tips.
While the #MeToo movement and the women who have come forward have broken the silence around sexual assault and harassment, we as a society have a long way to go to address these issues in a meaningful way.
The Origins of the Movement
While nearly everyone has heard of the #MeToo movement, few know that the movement actually had its start over 10 years ago. Tarana Burke, an activist from Harlem, recalls the day she was inspired to create the movement. Burke ran a nonprofit called Just Be Inc. when one of her child clients reported that her mother’s boyfriend was sexually abusing her. Burke coined the phrase and began a lifetime of work to bring attention to sexual abuse of young girls among the community she served.
Today, actress Alyssa Milano brought the hashtag to a wider audience, creating a nationwide movement to expose how widespread sexual abuse and harassment really are. Milano, who credits Burke for founding the moment, has inspired millions of victims of abuse to come forward and discuss their abuse by sharing the hashtag.
Sexual Abuse as a Silent Epidemic
Burke and Milano’s work is particularly important given the way many victims of sexual harassment and sexual abuse are shamed into silence.
There are many reasons why women don’t leave an abusive situation. In the case of sexual abuse, many times the abuser may control the household finances, leaving the woman without the financial resources to leave. The abuser may have threatened to harm children, pets or other family members or friends if the victim leaves. Many times, simply the fear that their abuser may find them if they leave and harm them further or even kill them is enough to prevent a victim from leaving.
The reasons women don’t leave a sexual harassment situation, particularly in the workplace, are much the same. Many women are afraid to leave a hostile workplace as, in uncertain economic times, finding another job that pays as well may seem impossible. For those who are in high-profile professions such as newscasters or actors, victims may hold their silence for fear of forever tarnishing their reputation. Lower-income workers who have no safety net to fall back on may stay in hostile work situations to preserve the only form of income they have.
In all cases, shame remains a huge factor preventing women from coming forward. The question of “What if I am not believed?” hangs heavy on an abused woman’s heart when she contemplates reporting. If the allegations are not substantiated by evidence, the reporting woman could face ridicule from co-workers, family and friends over her choice to come forward.
Moving Forward: Real Acts to End Sexual Harassment and Abuse
As difficult as it may be to come forward, it is critical for women to do so — not only to empower others to do the same, but also to receive the resources they need to recover from extremely traumatizing events.Now that the issues of sexual abuse and sexual harassment are out, it is important that we all work collectively to implement solutions to alleviate the suffering of victims and eliminate these crimes.
There are already clear changes being made. Better reporting standards are under review in workplaces nationwide in an endeavor to hold abusers accountable and create more transparency and open communication for women who are victims of workplace harassment. Experts in the field have devised other solutions to address the issue as well.
First and foremost, we need to hold abusers accountable for their actions. We need to make sure they face disciplinary measures and possible criminal penalties for their crimes. More laws are needed, and existing laws need to be followed more strictly than they currently are.
Secondly, and most importantly, we need to believe victims. We need to stop questioning the victim’s possible motivations and what clothing they were wearing. Instead, we need to create a safe place for women to share their stories. For women in the workplace, this could mean an independent panel to evaluate complaints that is independent of the employer, as the employer’s goal can sometimes be to smooth things over, and not necessarily to fully address the woman’s complaint.
We’ve come a long way in bringing awareness about, but it’s now time that we take decisive action to hold abusers accountable and inspire other victims to come forward in safety to share their stories.