In the wake of the Weinstein scandal that shook Hollywood in October, we stereotypically think of a Hollywood producer and a starlet on the couch when we think of sexual harassment. In reality, one-third of American women say they’ve been sexually harassed in the workplace. Low-wage workers like those who work in food service and retail are especially vulnerable, as well as those in STEM industries, experiencing more predatory behavior than those in high-profile professions.
Sexual harassment has been woven into the fabric of our society since civilizations have existed – it is a systemic problem that feeds in the dark and behind closed doors, muted by shame and fear. It fills workplaces and grocery stores, impacting women of all backgrounds, ages and ethnicities. Yet often when women speak up about being sexually harassed or assaulted, they are not believed, or questions are pointed at the victim – what was she wearing? Did she have too much to drink? Why didn’t she remove herself from the situation?
But not anymore. Now, we’re listening!
To shed light on the prevalence of sexual harassment after Harvey Weinstein’s multiple allegations, actress Alyssa Milano posted a tweet saying, “If all women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” And millions responded, often with accompanying personal stories of sexual harassment or assault.
Then in January, the TIME’S UP movement was announced in The New York Times, declaring that “we stand with all those who have endured sexual harassment: those who have come forward and those who have decided to remain quiet. It’s time for change, and we must act now.” The TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund provides subsidized legal support to woman and men who have experienced sexual harassment, assault, or abuse in the workplace.
These movements have given silenced victims both a voice and encouragement, allowing solidarity with millions of others who have experienced the same. Where there was isolation by design previously, there is now a community of support through social media, giving women the courage to come out of the dark and into the light. The court of public opinion has been heard loudly and clearly, and women and men across the country are standing up in unity and saying that this is not acceptable behavior, we have zero tolerance for it and it is time to stop.
So what comes now?
In order to make a real change and eradicate violence against women, we will need a total societal paradigm shift. The cure will be hard work; it will be changing opinions and changing society’s ideas of what power can do and cannot do, and holding people accountable.
It’s about time we start asking not, “What was she wearing?” but “Why did he do it?” Our eye needs to stay on the ball so we can hold accountable those who perpetrate this violence, rather than placing the blame on the victim. We must make it so uncomfortable to be an abuser that the perpetrator changes his behavior – period. The first step is to stop blaming the victim for the actions of someone else.
With more women reporting and speaking out, there are increasing amounts of consequences to perpetrators, like job loss and legal ramifications. But this shouldn’t be about the penalty – it should stop because it’s the right thing to do.
Jan Langbein is president and CEO of Genesis Women’s Shelter.