The barrage of sexual misconduct accusations are cascading down so rapidly they feel like assaults themselves, as each day brings fresh charges against powerful figures suddenly laid low. Minnesotans have been particularly buffeted, watching first two state legislators, then its junior U.S. senator and most recently a homegrown radio star and author, now disgraced.
What’s taking shape is one of those intensely uncomfortable societal moments when a mirror is held up and the reflection is not pleasant. The ugly, hurtful nature of the accusations in some cases bumps up against treasured images of revered figures that are hard to discard, whether it’s a legislator who represented you, a morning anchor you watched for years, a senator you voted for or even a president.
America has had such moments before. What marks this as different — and hopeful — is the reaction. Instead of being dismissed, women are being heard and, with a speed some have found disconcerting, consequences are being delivered. Social media is playing a large role here, with the #MeToo movement giving voice and a platform to those reluctant to share their stories until now.
How different from 1991, when a respected law professor found herself brutally questioned under oath, belittled as being “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty” for having the temerity to accuse then-U. S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual misconduct in the workplace years earlier. Anita Hill was savaged in public. Thomas still sits on the bench. In 1999, Juanita Broaddrick came forward with the allegation that President Bill Clinton had raped her years earlier, when he was a state attorney general. Broaddrick was vilified. There are other instances, too numerous to list, that reach right up to the 2016 candidacy of President Donald Trump, who was accused by more than a dozen women and famously caught on tape bragging that rules of decency didn’t apply to celebrities.
That finally may change, if this country is willing to seize the opportunity and do the hard work needed to make this a positive, lasting cultural shift. For that to happen, Americans must acknowledge that sexual harassment is not a problem confined to celebrities, politicians or media elites. It exists at every level — on college campuses, in workplaces, in the military and elsewhere. Too often the tendency has been to dismiss lesser offenses — groping, unwanted touching, aggressive propositioning — as “antics” or “bad behavior” by those seeking to trivialize transgressions that are anything but trivial to victims. Resist those who say it’s time to “move on,” who raise the specter of a witch hunt or other tactics used to push women and their stories back in the corner.
Look, change is hard, but it’s not impossible. There was a time in this country when a man could openly slap his wife without fear of interference, when butt-pinching at the holiday office party was par for the course, when charges of sexual assault more typically brought reprisals against the victim.
The calls for sexual awareness training and even legal penalties are good, but more is needed. Women and the many good men in this country must work together to make this their common fight, to change the attitudes that allow some to think they can, with impunity, force themselves upon another. If this instead deteriorates into another “women good, men bad” discussion, it fails and another opportunity is lost.
Everyone, regardless of gender, has the right to be free from sexual harassment and assault, whether it occurs at work, at school or just walking down the street. That does not mean the end of “flirting” or other nonsense peddled by those defending the status quo. It simply means that such behavior must be consensual. Treat people in your professional lives professionally. In your personal relations, get permission before touching. It’s not that difficult, and the benefits will be manifold.