I have been trying to make sense of news stories of individuals coming forward to reveal that wealthy and powerful men harassed and assaulted them. Within a matter of weeks, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Louis C.K. have seen their careers take a gut-punch because victims of their sexual misconduct have come forward. Prominent Republicans have publicly stated they believe the women accusing Roy Moore of assault and are urging him to drop out of the race. I don’t know if these consequences will stick, but I’m stunned to see consequences at all. Why didn’t these stories get explained away, reduced to punchlines, and eventually forgotten like so many before? The same phrase has been rolling around in my mind since the series of crimes became public: sea-change. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a sea-change as, “a change wrought by the sea; now frequently transf. with or without allusion to Shakespeare’s use, an alteration or metamorphosis, a radical change.” The OED is referring to The Tempest, the one about the catastrophic storm. This particular storm came in the form of the past presidential election. It’s taken almost a year, but ugly truths we’ve been trying ignore about power, sex, and the abuse of both are being laid bare.
Just over a year ago, I watched in a mixture of rage and terror as Donald Trump claimed more states in the general election. We all heard the audio clips of him bragging about multiple sexual assaults. We all heard him laugh as he told a television host about how easily he could grope and molest women, without consent. Consent didn’t matter. Neither did the fact that he was a sexual predator, as the election tilted in his favor. That night, I confided in two dear friends about my own assault that occurred more than six years earlier. There was almost nothing in common, except, of course, the sense of entitlement to another person’s body without regard for their physical or mental well-being. On election night, I feared for myself and I feared for a country that was willing to elect a proud sexual predator to the presidency. I was terrified that we just told every would-be predator in the country that they could inflict whatever damage they wanted without fear of consequences.
A year later, I am still scared and furious, but I’m also seeing that the election pointed a glaring spotlight on how we, as a culture, treat sexual violence. If Trump’s election has accomplished anything that could be construed as useful, it’s the constant reminder that sexual assault and sexual harassment are still pervasive across the country. Our culture has consistently excused and protected sexual predators rather than facing the discomfort of holding them accountable for their actions. We have looked the other way, glossed it over with jokes, and decided it was none of our business. We maligned victims so we would not have to accept that men whose products we enjoyed, or men who employed us, or men who just seemed like nice guys could also be predators. We tried to convince ourselves that workplace harassment and sexual violence were things of the past; that we, as a society, had moved past the days of grabby executives relentlessly pursuing young secretaries. We tried so desperately to believe we were better than that. Even if there was a problem, it was a rare occurrence, and we would certainly never let it get out of hand. Then, we elected the caricature of the grabby executive to the highest office in the country.
We cannot simultaneously be a society that insists we solved these problems ages ago and a country that elected a proud sexual predator president. As a culture, we have been all too willing to ignore sexual violence if facing it proved too inconvenient a task. It’s more difficult to insist the country doesn’t have a sexual violence problem when a proud and admitted perpetrator gets elected president. Now we’re all living the consequences of ignoring our culture’s willingness to ignore these violations. In this context, when victims revealed the ways powerful or influential men had harmed them in the past, we finally listened and started taking steps to hold those men accountable.
Maybe, finally, we can do the uncomfortable work of owning the fact that entertainers, politicians, entrepreneurs we revered are the same people who have perpetrated assaults against those they wield power over. Perhaps, we can even continue this work into our own lives — accepting that some of our coworkers, friends, and family members are also among the guilty. Worse yet, people we cared about and believed we would always stand up for are among the survivors and victims, and we may have failed them in ways we could, or would, not comprehend. Fixing the problem will be difficult and painful. We’ll have to topple some of our own heroes, and own the ways we have helped this problem develop. Perhaps in the aftermath of this storm, we can rebuild a culture that shelters and protects the victims instead of the guilty.