Are we finally at the tipping point to understand and end the scale and scope of the sexual harassment, assault and violence women face?
Social media has given new voice and power: the hidden and private violence and pain is now public and visible. Women’s experiences, and some men’s, are united through thousands of stories shared on social media demonstrating this violence is ubiquitous.
It is a systemic sickness that’s gone untreated for generations, from Hollywood, to Silicon Valley and tech companies, to Fox News and National Public Radio, to schools and sports teams, to Congress and our own very state Legislature.
It’s been 40 years since sexual harassment was defined and deemed unacceptable and corporations were held to account. We’ve had three watershed moments that courageous women made possible.
The first sexual harassment ruling involved a brave young woman, Mechelle Vinson. In 1978, she filed charges against the bank where, as a 19-year-old teller trainee, she was assaulted and raped by her manager over the next three years of her young life. Her case first held companies liable for sexual harassment on June 19, 1986, when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that sexual harassment violated federal laws against discrimination.
Two years later, Minnesota’s Lois Jensen saw her case — and the first class-action lawsuit — succeed in awarding damages. And, in 1991, Anita Hill shared her stories to a shocked world. (I proudly wore my “I believe Anita” button. Did you?)
Today, rather than lawsuits and the stories of a few brave women, we have a new key driver to amplify the volume and power of women’s lived experiences. Social media is controlled by no one. Women’s voices are loud, uncensored.
We’re not starting from scratch. Good work has been built by survivors and nonprofits across the United States, to heal and to change culture. Today, I am filled with hope that we’re ready to listen and act. That in this moment, with millions of conversations happening, no one is silenced and there is a palpable, unstoppable thirst for awareness, voice, agency and change.
We know that behavior and culture can change. We’ve seen it with seat belts, smoking cessation and sex trafficking, and we’ll end sexual harassment and assault, too.
Human beings can live many contradictions. But one contradiction that must change is that men can be both upstanding citizens and community and faith leaders — and abusers. This contradiction has been built and sustained through a system that ensures women have less value, power and voice than men, and that does not hold men accountable for their actions. As a culture, we are now saying Enough!
Yet, it will take all of us: those with stories to share and those willing to listen and learn. A basic tenet of change is that you must recognize a problem before you can deal with it. As a society, we must recognize that objectifying, disrespecting and seeing women as having less value is as antiquated as cave men with clubs, ready to drag you to their den. Our culture holds toxic messages around women — and the time is now to clean it up.
Most men are good men. I’m surrounded by them. But most men are also silent. Quiet when the guys are grabbing a beer and one of them is ogling the waitress. Quiet when someone is razzed for wearing pink socks, or for being “whipped” when choosing to leave after one drink to be with his family.
It’s time that men understand that their silence is complicit in allowing sexual violence. This isn’t a “women’s issue,” it’s a men’s issue — it’s a cultural issue — it’s everybody’s issue.
We invite all men — all people — to join us as equal partners in changing culture. Let’s not look back in another 20 years to think of this tremendous moment in history as just another steppingstone that led nowhere.
Let’s all commit to knowing that this generation stepped up and ended sexual harassment and violence.
Lee Roper-Batker is president and CEO of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota.