The Week that the Dam Broke

There have been false dawns before. A particular event (Penn State, Ray Rice, Jimmy Saville) followed by a seismic public reaction has allowed me to believe that we were entering a new era in which women who came forward to report sexual assaults and rape would be believed, and the men they report would face consequences.

And I have always been disappointed. Somehow we slide back to the status quo. This means, at best, public apathy towards those who point to the epidemic of rape and misogyny in our culture and at worst – well, we all know about that (and see below).

But staying optimistic here for a few minutes – what happened this week in Canada and on the global digital highways rocked my world. It has started to feel as if it really is possible to do something to challenge the rape culture and to frame this narrative from the perspective of women, at long last.

Because three critical, game-changing, acknowledgements are gradually making their way into the public consciousness this week.

  1. Sexual violence is an experience that is shared by many, many women.

We are famous women and unknown women – rich women and poor women – bold articulate women and reserved, shy women – women students and women professors.

We KNOW about this. Many of us know from first-hand experience – and as good as all of us from a first-hand account from a girlfriend. And yet we still feel stigmatized about sharing our experiences, fear the judgment of even our women friends, worry about not being believed.

Of course once one of us comes forward, how much easier it is for the rest? We saw that this week.

This strategy is there for the taking. We need to take it. We need to step forward and say yes, me too.

  1. The pressure to keep quiet is overwhelming.

For famous, wealthy and bold women, just as much as for any others.

The form that this pressure takes is always the same. Our institutions and our bosses and our skeptical colleagues have this one down pat. The pressure to stay silent – both about reporting assaults and about doing anything about them – relies on (a) anxiety about personal reputation (greatly exacerbated by the Internet and the potential for public shaming and victimization), (b) shame about behavior that we expect to be judged by others (I went home with him that night, I drank too much, etc). We cannot get over the crazy, deeply socialized assumption that hanging out with a guy we like allows him then to do anything he wants to us, (c) concern about the impact on future career or other “public” aspirations, and – maybe most insidious of all because least coherent and difficult to resist – (d) vague insinuations about the “problem” of “rocking the boat” when “others” are “taking care of things” (they are not).

Julie Lalonde’s description of her audience with the Carleton President on the question of establishing a sexual assault centre on campus is chillingly familiar.

Speaking up on the issue of sexual violence – whether about a personal experience or a proposal for change – still requires great courage and we do not offer anything like enough support for women to be able to do this. But this week, despite all the factors described above, women still did it.

  1. Tolerance of sexual violence is engrained in our social and public systems

At the CBC and at so many other institutions where a known sexual predator is on the loose, there is indifference and apathy – a sort of boys-will-be-boys institutional shrug – completely inadequate to the real impact of sexual violence on women.

It’s not that any individual to whom a sexual assault is reported would say that they “tolerate” this behavior – but the failure to do anything about it without enormous and persistent advocacy (in my case 12 months and hundreds and hundreds of hours of my life) exposes the degree to which those in power believe that they really don’t have to do anything other than mumble “how awful”.

I have wondered so many times in the last 12 months, how do the administrators at my institution sleep at night, knowing what I have told them? Don’t these individuals who learn about the behavior of an individual in their organization understand that if we do nothing, there is nothing to show that we abhor sexual violence? How do they rationalize their lack of action? Do they really just not care enough? No amount of “how awful” is going to help.

So back to the idea of optimism. My research colleagues have always teased me about being am a glass-half-full gal. Guilty as charged.

I am determined to believe that the tide is turning here.

If we can make these three realities part of the consciousness of everyone we talk to, work with, deal with, we can change the culture around sexual violence. And Jian Ghomeshi – in his arrogance, his brutality, and his complete discrediting – has made this a possibility this week.

– Julie Macfarlane


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