Not You? Then This is Especially For You

If something about the “me too” meme on social networking feels familiar right now, it’s because this isn’t the first time women have joined in a campaign of solidarity to speak out about the experience of sexual assault or harassment. Men, too, are chiming in, because even though women and girls are the primary targets of sexual predation, men and boys can be victims too.

The point of the story is the pervasiveness: the vast number of women who have been victimized sexually, women of all ages and body types, women from all demographics, not just those who “put themselves in a dangerous position,” not just women who dressed provocatively, not just women who didn’t hit back. It happens to athletes. It happens to nuns.

If you’re a woman, and it didn’t happen to you, count yourself not superior, but lucky. Don’t complain about being left out of the conversation, because it’s a conversation no one wants to join. For all the women saying “me too” there are many others who are afraid to place their vulnerability out there, to reveal to others what happened to them.

And in our culture of victim-shaming, I can’t blame them. It feels futile. No matter how often they say “yes, all women,” they end up fighting with men who think it’s an attack on them. Worse, they end up fighting with women who think they are showing off, or exaggerating, or who think everyone should just keep quiet because this is all in such poor taste, ruining their cheerful day of puppy pictures and mom-loves-her-wine jokes.

“I choose not to be a victim,” some say, as though their good fortune were somehow earned, something other women didn’t work for hard enough.

What were you wearing?

You must have acted like you wanted it in some way?

Why didn’t you fight him off?

Why didn’t you report it?

On that reporting thing. What would make an assault victim expect to be believed, after that barrage? I’ve talked to so many victims of sexual violence who did report, and were shut down. In many cases this was because of the need to preserve the reputation of an establishment. Or because the perpetrator was someone powerful / respectable / with a future / a friend.

There’s that complicity in sexual assault we’re hearing so much about. It’s not just in Hollywood. It’s in the workplace. It’s in schools. It’s in Catholic schools, Catholic universities. It’s in the Catholic Church.

And this is where I want to reverse our usual mantra, when non-victims complain about the campaign of speaking out. Usually, when men feel criticized or women feel left out of the discussion, we say “look, this is not about you.”

But maybe it is.

Because the problem with the “me too” campaign, and with “yes all women” and the rest has nothing to do with what the victims are saying, and everything to do with the fact that what they’re saying is just reverberating into nothingness, going unheard, making no difference.

Not that we think it will make a difference for the Trumps and Weinsteins of the world to hear the voices of the victims. But what about those around them? And not just their guy-talk buddies and slimy confidantes. I’m talking about those who might never come into contact with predators at all, respectable decent people in the workplace, who just wanted to get on Facebook and look at puppy pictures, or share a prayer request, and not be bothered about all those noisy women and their melodrama.

By turning away and not talking about it, you are making sure that their voices don’t get heard. You’re allowing a culture of insulation to continue, in which those in power remain simply indifferent to the widespread reality of sexual assault. What if an employer hears a complaint from a female employee, against someone respected or powerful? In his culture of insulation, he might think “that’s pretty far-fetched” or “good men don’t do such things, and I know this priest / professor / coach / friend is a good man.” Or, “well, she’s sexy, so maybe she asked for it” because some men see “boobs” and think “slut.”

He can tell himself it’s just an exaggeration and silence the victim, unaware that he is part of a growing statistical count of “people who are complicit.”

Maybe he is too busy to be on social networking, so he doesn’t notice the many statements from women of all walks of life, and when he gets home he watches a football game or reads up on the stock market or British analytic philosophy, to unwind.

Maybe his friend or his partner was on social networking, and saw all the posts, and thought “how unpleasant” – instead of talking about it. That’s another way to be complicit: by having the information, and choosing to ignore it, choosing not to interrupt the comfort of the powerful.

Everyone who has a chance to break through the culture of insulation needs to see this as a profound moral responsibility, or else it’s all going to keep on happening, the assaults, the silencing, the speaking out, the voices going unheard. Those who occupy spaces of privilege in terms of race, social class, gender, and sex have a special responsibility in this regard. Victims need allies in spaces of power, people who can afford to cause a little discomfort.

If you’re a person in a space of privilege, reading this right now, here’s what I have to say: maybe it is about you, after all.

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