Content Warning: This editorial discusses sexual violence.
At least 45 women have come forward to accuse Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment. The accounts have triggered a firestorm of outrage, most prominently on social media. Many individuals have publicized their own stories of sexual harassment, even starting a movement, “#MeToo,” to show just how pervasive this issue really is.
While these brave people who shared their stories give hope to an enriched dialogue, the scandal itself leaves a frustrating residue of unanswered questions.Why do dozens of women need to speak out for one man’s actions to be condemned? Why do we ask victims to post their traumas in tweets to prove the gravity of sexual violence? How many accounts of assault must we hear before we feel change?
Unfortunately, these questions hit home for so many college students. We’ve all heard the statistic: one out of every four female-identifying college students reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact. And universities have responded through multifaceted educational reform: online training sessions, surveys and of course, the “Tea Consent” video — you can’t dumb it down much further than that.
At Tufts, we have the Office of Equal Opportunity workshops and Green Dot Bystander Intervention programs. After all of this, you’d think we’d know better. We should act differently. But for some reason, we aren’t all taking sexual harassment seriously. It would be hard to tell, looking at a Tufts party, that we’ve learned anything about sexual misconduct.
And maybe it’s because sexual assault at Tufts typically (and thankfully) does not look overtly like the Weinstein brand of sexual assault. To the same point, not every person who sexually harasses another student here is a Weinstein-esque archetype. They’re our teammates and classmates and friends. Sometimes, they may truly not realize when they are overstepping, or even fully grasp what overstepping looks like. This is not meant to mitigate their misdoings, but to understand why it’s that much harder to speak out against them and why we must.
Sexual assault at Tufts is insidious and ubiquitous. In the same way that Weinstein’s wrongdoing was Hollywood’s “worst kept secret,” the blurring of consent is the tacit transgression of Tufts.
It would be difficult to find a student who hasn’t witnessed or experienced this discomfort themselves — a drunken advance turned aggression, an unwanted touch played off as humor, a sexual act they feel entitled to, never asking if it’s okay with you.
Part of the problem may be the language we use. Accusing someone of “assault” may feel hyperbolic, especially if you know them. Labeling someone as a “victim” could seem condescending, especially if they don’t use it themselves. Maybe we should minimize usage of PowerPoint-ready jargon and lay out explicit incidents of assault instead, so we can step in when we see them.
Sexual misconduct is not some vague, gray area of abuse. It is grabbing someone’s ass in a frat basement. It is getting a girl drunk so she’ll hook up with you. It is the sex he didn’t want to have. It’s disheartening that this has to be laid out so plainly for some people, but clearly current definitions aren’t working. Almost a quarter of Tufts undergraduates have experienced “non-consensual intercourse or other non-consensual sexual contact.”
In the same vein, we also shouldn’t frame sexual assault as exclusively a women’s issue. Yes, around 90 percent of adult rape victims are female, but that shouldn’t mean women bear the brunt of responsibility to yield change — really, it should mean the opposite. Instead of asking women to speak out, we should be asking men to stand up. Men simply don’t have conversations about this enough.
In the instances that men do speak up about sexual assault, many talk about the issue in reference to the women in their lives. While this does personalize the issue, it also shifts focus off of perpetrators. Men should not only care because their daughters are being assaulted; men should care because their sons are assailants (and assaulted, too). When we take the perpetrator out of the equation, we make tangible change much more abstract. Talking about assault as though it’s some unpreventable natural disaster takes pressure off of perpetrators.
Even if this article doesn’t resonate with you, and you feel incapable of sexual harassment of any kind (first of all, you’re probably wrong), you still need to recognize your role in this culture. Witnessing these acts without speaking out lets this culture of sexual violence fester in the same way it took a complicit village to allow Weinstein’s assaults to continue for decades. We must talk to each other, we must look out for one another and we must intervene.
Yes, this may mean putting yourself in social jeopardy. It is not an easy thing to confront a peer face-to-face about anything, let alone an issue of this magnitude. But every time we don’t speak up, we are prioritizing our shyness, our awkwardness, our desire to be liked, etc. over someone else’s safety. We are putting societal pressures over the well-being of our classmates. If that upsets you, act differently next time. If we don’t change, there will definitely be a next time.