Shattering the Silence: Tackling Sexual Assault

Serena Baldick, SFS ‘18, Shira Graubart, JDS ‘18, Ana Lyons, SFS ‘18, and Alexandra Pitts, Stone Ridge ‘18

In this version of fish bowl talk, the authors discuss sexual assault, the #MeToo and #Timesup movements, and more. (Published: 2018)

Illustration by Lenora Blakely, Stone Ridge '18

Why do you think sexual assault is such a difficult subject to discuss? How does this kind of stigma impact victims seeking justice?

Ana Lyons (AL): I think it’s because sexual assault and harassment are inherently about power. When someone violates you like that, it’s a violation of your power. You feel weak and ashamed that you somehow let that happen to you. And I think that is because, as a society, we tell women it is always their fault.

Serena Baldick (SB): Society trains us to think we are not victims, even if, by definition, we are. I think the difficulty comes from the shame that comes with being “controlled” by someone else.

Alexandra Pitts (AP): I think it is difficult for people to discuss sexual assault partially because it is an issue that has been swept under the rug for so long. Not only is it difficult for victims to talk about what happened to them, but people also feel uncomfortable hearing about it. There seems to be a social stigma around the topic of sexual assault in that if someone does come forward, they are not helped but instead labeled as a wrongdoer or an outcast.

Shira Graubart (SG): When people tell their story, society doesn’t react by building up the victim’s power that was initially violated and destroyed. Instead, society dismisses, suppresses, ignores, or blames the victim. Society doesn’t want to admit its role as an enabler, nor its complicity in the assault of one American every 98 seconds.* Instead society wants to dismiss the problem and suppress it. Now all that is changing. If you feel comfortable, can you describe an experience with sexual harassment or other sexual violence?

SB: Before reading our responses, please remember that every experience is valid. Rape and street harassment are very different things, but both stem from that same exertion of power. If you are questioning anyone, you are part of the problem. I have experienced several unwelcome advances, mostly by men. The first one that comes to mind was when I was around 13 and walking alone. It was dark and cold, and I had to wait for the ancient elevator at the Metro station. When the elevator came, I walked in alone looking at my phone. A man ran in right as it was closing, and instinctively I curled into the opposite corner of the elevator. My mom taught me those kinds of things at a young age, so it was instinctual. He crept over to my end of the elevator and came so close I could feel the air between us. He looked into my eyes and said, “I wonder what your skin feels like...” He reached out his hand and I pushed past him as the door slid open. I speed-walked to the metro turnstiles where I knew there would be an attendant and listened to him giggling as I walked away.

AL: I was running after school during PE class in 11th grade, when I had to stop for a red light on Massachusetts Ave. A car stopped in front of me at the intersection, and I realized after a while that the man inside had his pants down and was masturbating in front of me. I immediately went into a kind of shock. I didn’t respond, only kept running when the light turned. I almost couldn’t process it. And afterwards, I felt so dirty. I felt gross and violated and ashamed. Why the hell was I ashamed? I did nothing wrong. I hadn’t been physically violated, but I still felt like I couldn’t speak. In the grand scale of my life, that event is miniscule, but it nonetheless opened my eyes, kind of initiated me into the reality of being a woman. The reality is that I have to keep track of my drink if I go out, make sure I don’t walk alone at night, be careful on public transportation— do all of the little things you have to keep in the back of your mind as you go through the world being female, or any other group disproportionately targeted for violence.

How are rape culture and sexualization of women manifested in your everyday life?

SB: People often think rape culture only includes explicit mentioning of sexual violence, but it includes “locker room talk,” lyrics about “grabbing ass,” mothers who blame their daughters for sexual Instagram photos, substituting the word sex for rape, and excusing rape as “God’s will.” Rape culture is everywhere. To people who participate in “locker room talk,” including our President, you are engaging in rape culture. Notice the word participate. This includes bystanders who just laugh awkwardly but know it’s wrong.

AP: I have gone to private school for my entire life, so I have worn a uniform each day. I don’t mind the uniform itself, but when people get dress-coded for improper uniform, such as wearing too short skirts or showing their bra, I find it unnecessary. It makes me uncomfortable to think that our teachers look at what we are wearing and feel that somehow our education is being impeded because our skirt is more than three inches above the knee — because our teachers cannot bear to look at us being “immodest.” However, the problem doesn’t lie with us, it’s with the teachers. Inadvertently, they are sexualizing our clothing and blaming us for other people’s stares.

SG: I completely agree with Alex that attempts made to eliminate female sexualization have just led to further sexualization. One of the purposes of a dress code is to stop students from potentially being so distracted by a girl’s body that students won’t be able to focus on their education. How is the sexualization of women ever going to be eliminated if, from the beginning of their lives, children are being told to view a woman’s body as sexual? Why should I have to change out of my skirt because a boy might get the wrong message? Why can’t we teach that boy to not look at my skirt in that way? The only way to build an equal society is by having everyone, all genders, work together.

Why do you believe women and transgender people are the most targeted for sexual violence?

SB: I think women and queer people are targeted the most because those are the gendered groups considered “inferior” in society. Why are men offended by being called “feminine” or “gay?” Society paints men as superior to everyone else and being associated with the “others” (non white straight masculine men) has become insulting.

AL: I agree with Serena. I also think it has to do with the constant sexualization of women and trans people. In nearly every aspect of the media, women are sexualized. In advertising, in movies, in TV, in dress code violations. Anything having to do with a non-heterosexual, cisgender identity is deemed inappropriate and inherently sexual.

SG: I completely agree with what Serena and Ana previously said. I think the reason women are most targeted for sexual violence is because their inherent equality has been questioned and argued over centuries, while men’s superiority was never questioned nor doubted. The large discrepancy between women who have been sexually assaulted versus men who have been sexually assaulted cannot be ignored or overlooked. Sexual violence can be another form of a man’s attempt to dominate, control, and exert his superiority physically.

What do you think the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, fueled by recent assault and harassment cases, mean for the greater public discussion surrounding sexual assault?

SG: The flame that recent cases have ignited is so important, as long as it manifests into real, tangible change. The power and momentum needs to be harnessed into changing legislation and reforming industries. Women’s issues as a whole (such as reproductive rights) are currently center stage, and we don’t know how long that will last. We need to make sure that the societal changes become permanent changes in the government, the workforce, and all other places.

AP: The issues regarding sexual assault and especially sexual harassment have been ignored for too long, especially by men — who can also be sexual assault and harassment victims. This new movement and various social media campaigns make it unignorable; people are confronted by the harsh reality of sexual assault and how often it occurs. I really like the #TimesUp movement because even though it was started by celebrities, they emphasize that this is an issue that all people, especially women in male dominated fields and in the service sector workforce, face. It also isn’t just a hashtag. The TimesUp foundation provides legal help to those who cannot afford to pay for their own sexual assault/harassment cases.

AL: In addition to what Shira said, I think that campaigns like #MeToo and #TimesUp are valuable because we need visible instances of abusers and predators being called out, and we need reminders of the omnipresence of sexual harassment and assault in our culture. It definitely has an impact on assault survivors to see other women standing up and speaking out, but there is a danger in who gets the focus. I think we all have to remain conscious of the role intersectionality plays in issues like these. Everyone’s experiences are valid and equally important, but often white women are automatically given the spotlight. Their stories are given preference. So we need to be active making sure women of color, LGBTQ+ people, and other marginalized groups, who face higher proportions of sexual assault, get their stories heard and are supported.

What can bystanders do to become active allies? What is the best sort of response when a friend or loved one experiences this kind of trauma?

SB: I think the best response is something like this: Thank you for sharing. I believe you and

I am so proud of what you have overcome. I am here if you ever need anything. This response is

assuming they are acting safely. If that is not the case, contact an adult.

SG: 1) As an overall rule that applies to every situation, use empathy. Step into your loved one’s body and mind, and try to truly understand what they are experiencing. 2) If someone comes to you and shares their story, give that person their time to feel like a victim. Allow them to feel all of the emotions they are feeling. However, make sure that he or she doesn’t always view themselves as the victim. Similarly to terrorist attacks, the terrorist wins when those attacked continue to view themselves as victims and feel terror. Make sure to remind that person of their inner strength. Over time build up their inner power. 3) Ask your loved one how you can effectively be there for them. What might be the best response for one person might not be the right thing to say to someone else.

AL: I think Serena and Shira have pretty much covered it: empathy, a willingness to listen, to support, and to try and understand are essential. Being active in deconstructing rape culture is also extremely important. Cultures are built in the little conversations between friends, over dinner with your family, in chats on the metro. And so cultures can be deconstructed the same way — by addressing injustices and working to educate people even when the comment seems

small or insignificant.

AP: Honestly, everyone’s advice is great and covers a lot. The only thing I would add is that if you know a loved one who has experienced sexual assault, know that each person copes with it differently. Not only should you listen to your friend, be empathetic, and tell them that it was not their fault, but also help them with possible triggers. Although the #MeToo movement is very powerful, it can also bring back a lot of suppressed and horrible memories for survivors, and grappling with this is very difficult. The best thing that you can do is comfort and be there for them if something does trigger a reaction.

What do you think is the next step in battling sexual assault and the stigma surrounding it?

SB: I often hear people say “I care about sexual assault but I am not a feminist or an activist or a Black Lives Matter participant because...” Sexual violence is a great example of the great tangled knot that is American oppression. You cannot just be a feminist and not also advocate for people of color. If so, you are missing the point. That point is equality — equality for all people. By ranking one group as more important than another you, are only acting as part of the problem.

SG: In order to successfully eliminate sexual assault and the stigma surrounding it, I believe the next step is to enforce extreme punishments. Deterrence is the most practical solution because it will create a society where no type of assault or harassment, at every level, is acceptable. In High Point North Carolina, when domestic abuse rates were at a horrific high, strict laws and harsh punishments were created and enforced, the rate of domestic violence quickly dropped.* In addition to legal action, which is often ineffective, assaulters can be punished through different types of isolation — socially, in the workforce (being immediately fired and not given another job), and by the media, like how so many cases have been brought to light by journalists this year.

AL: The next step, I think, begins with our generation and our generation’s kids. Movements like #MeToo and the #TimesUp campaign are absolutely necessary. So is new legislation that creates harsher punishments, like Shira said. But I think that the most important thing that someone can do in their own lives, echoing Serena, is to begin to look around at their impact and make a change. To begin within themselves, look at what their own biases are, work to address and unlearn them, and do the same with your children. If the next generation is born to parents who have a commitment to instilling values of equality and justice in their children, I think we will live in a much better world in 40-50 years. We need to take what we are learning now and make it so our children never have to unlearn anything, so they grow up knowing what consent is and that they should view the people around them as people

and not labels.

AP: I agree with Ana. I believe that education and dialogue are very powerful. Moving forward, we need to teach future generations how to respect others, especially women, and raise awareness not just about sexual assault and harassment, but also rape culture. We need to shift from being a society where songs like “Blurred Lines” become a pop hit, where catcalling women is still okay, and where girls are still judged on how “slutty” their outfits are and if they were “asking for it.” We need to teach kids about what consent is, and that sex is okay, as long as it is consensual and safe. Schools should be offering proper sex ed and teaching kids about safe sex; telling kids to abstain from sex doesn’t address the problem. We need to teach that victim blaming is wrong and that women are not just objects for sexual desire. We also need people to truly understand why all of these things are wrong. Try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, acknowledge your privilege if you have any, change your actions, and teach others about why they should also change theirs.