Silence Breakers

In recent months a watershed movement has been taking place. Women from all backgrounds have been coming forward and sharing their stories in a bid to de-stigmatize sexual harassment. The first scandal that garnered attention occurred in October of last year, with the release of the Billy Bush Access Hollywood tape, featuring the now President, Donald Trump. After the tapes were released, 19 women came forward and accused Trump of sexual harassment. While these allegations did not stop Trump from ascending to the presidency, the movement has picked up speed, and recently many leaders in politics, media, and news have faced repercussions. From Hollywood insider Harvey Weinstein, to Fox News icon Bill O’Reilly and NBC anchor Matt Lauer, to comedian Louis C.K. This movement comes on the heels of Kerry Washington’s 2016 film Confirmation, which follows the story of Anita Hill, a staffer who accused supreme court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in 1991. While Hill’s case was not victorious, and Thomas was still sworn in, the brave step that she took 25 years ago has paved a path for other women to do the same.

Harvey Weinstein is facing multiple allegations of sexual harassment and assault. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

It is especially brave of the women who have come forward in recent months to share their stories, knowing the obstacles that they may face in doing so. Victims of sexual harassment— unlike those of car accidents, muggings, or robberies— can face condemnation from society. They are often blamed, with questions such as, “what were you wearing”, or “how much did you have to drink” becoming synonyms for, “it was really your fault” and “you should have known better”. Due to fear that they may not be believed, or of being judged, shamed, and of suffering career repercussions, many women stay silent. That silence has now broken, with a watershed movement leading women of all ages, races, and denominations to come forward and share their stories.

The prevalence of sexual harassment in society may seem easy to sweep under the rug as hearsay or he said she said. However, the numbers do not lie: 65% of women have been harassed on the street and 20% have been followed. Workplace sexual harassment is even more rampant: 1 in 3 women aged 18-34 have been sexually harassed at work, with only 29% of these women reporting it and the rest staying silent. Even more condemning is the 16% of women who said they had not been sexually harassed at work, but had been the recipient of explicit, sexual, and inappropriate comments. This demonstrates an ingrained culture of workplace misconduct and sexual harassment that women are programed to accept as “normal”. Over 80% of women have experienced verbal harassment at work and 25% have received lewd and inappropriate emails, texts, and phone calls. Moreover, 75% of women say they have been sexually harassed by a male coworker, 49% by a male client or customer. Women aged 19 to 29 are the most likely to experience sexual harassment in the workplace, with 64% of women in this age range having faced unwelcome advances at work.

One such woman who recently broke the silence is Tarana Burke the creator of the #metoo movement. Burke is a social activist who works with domestic abuse survivors, she has long used the phrase to create a sense of solidarity among the women she works with. She first brought the phase to social media in 2006 via myspace, to empower women through empathy, especially women of color from underprivileged communities. The hashtag was a response to the internal turmoil Burke felt after talking to a 13 year old sexual assault survivor. The hashtag was popularized in October when actress Alyssa Milano tweeted it out after the allegations against Harvey Weinstein came to light. Milano encouraged other women who had faced sexual harassment to do the same. A virtual flood of #metoo filled the facebook, twitter, and instagram pages of people worldwide. #Metoo emphasized the prevalence of sexual harassment in society and the fact that nobody is safe from it. Sexual harassment does not discriminate against race, socioeconomic status, education, or geographical region. Within 24 hours of Milano’s initial tweet over 4.7 million people in 12 million posts had used the hashtag. #Metoo vividly demonstrates that everybody has a stake in ending sexual harassment.

Another women who recently broke the silence is Leanne Tweeden, a radio broadcaster from Los Angeles. Tweeden recounted how during a 2006 USO show, Senator Al Franken made unwanted and inappropriate advances. Tweeden claims that Senator Franken wanted to rehearse a skit with her where they would kiss, despite being uncomfortable with the scene, Tweeden eventually agreed and practiced the performance. Tweeden claims that Franken acted inappropriately and that she felt violated by his behaviour. However, Tweeden said that the inappropriate kiss was nothing compared to the sense of violation she felt after she saw photographs from the USO trip. Tweeden tweeted the incriminating photo which shows Senator Franken groping her breasts while she was asleep. Senator Franken responded that it was a gag, probably done in poor taste. However, as Tweeden and the other seven women since her who have spoken out about inappropriate behaviour from Senator Franken, can attest, jokes such as this one are not really funny. Rather, they demonstrate a problem that many women face on a day to day basis. Male coworkers and colleagues not only fail to recognize where appropriate boundaries lie but rather that boundaries exist at all. What was a prank to Senator Franken, something he most likely forgot about when he disembarked the plane, had long term implications for Tweeden, like a loss of confidence and security. Senator Franken has announced that he will step down from the Senate. However, he admits no wrongdoing; instead, Senator Franken apologizes for any actions that made others feel uncomfortable, but claims he does not remember any of the events in the same way that his accusers do. Senator Franken is just the latest in a long line of powerful men who have faced severe repercussions due to sexual harassment allegations. Hopefully it will serve as a lesson for others, that workplace misconduct and sexual harassment are never ok.

Senator Al Franken has stepped down from his position in the wake of the accusations against him. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

While it would be easy to chalk this tidal wave of sexual harassment allegations up to isolated events without a unifying factor or common denominator, that is not the case. Although this is not a social movement reminiscent of the fight for civil rights in the 1960s or feminism in the 1970s, it is creating a transformation in society. Titans of industry are being toppled, people who have long been too afraid to speak out are coming forward, and open discussions are taking place about appropriate workplace behaviour. Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg called this a “watershed moment” and urged that it is an “opportunity that must not be lost.” This moment has captured people’s attention and vividly demonstrated why everyone desires to work in a safe and equal environment.

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