If you know me, you know what I do for a living. If you don’t know me: I do outreach and education for the regional rape crisis program.
This time of year is our Superbowl, Oscars, and New Year’s Eve put together. The often-thankless field of victim advocacy has an annual moment to take the spotlight, along with the real reason we all do this job: not for applause, but the survivors and families that we support, and for the paradigm shift we can impress upon the community.
That paradigm shift is important: to prevent sexual assault—actually stop it from happening, not make sure someone else is victimized—society needs to acknowledge the unhealthy norms that provide a foundation that can green-light assaults. Comments like “you can grab ‘em by the pussy” being sidelined as “harmless, locker-room talk” sends a message that, because of the situation or the speaker’s level of fame/authority/POWER, attitudes like that are okay. As I’ve already discussed, behaviors and attitudes are indicative of beliefs and values, and an attitude like that speaks volumes about that person’s values.
What also speaks volumes are the multitude of other people that excuse, justify or otherwise explain why it’s okay—or the larger audience of people who say nothing at all. Over time, a culture is created wherein these attitudes are accepted—which quickly sets the scene for certain behaviors to escalate. As we’ve already learned, it’s quite likely that the man sitting in the White House has done way more than talk about pussy grabbing.
So I had a pretty visceral reaction on March 31 when the President proclaimed April as “Sexual Assault Awareness Month.” This year’s national theme is “Engaging New Voices,” which focuses on the multiple ways someone can stand up for survivors and challenge rape culture, calling attention to the negative behavior that is so often passed off as ‘just the way things are.’ It’s true that the coaches of sports teams, members of clergy, and officials in government all have a voice to contribute, yet so far the President’s voice has focused on the denigration of sexual assault survivors and women in general. He’s been too busy critiquing whether or not someone is attractive enough to be assaulted to remember to say “I’m sorry, that should not have happened to you.”
It made me sick to hear the espousal of commitment his administration had—along with the cooperation of the Department of Justice and the Department of Health & Human Services. Jeff Sessions and Tom Price head these departments respectively—and both of them voted against the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013. ‘VAWA’ funds the federal Office of Violence against Women through the Justice Department, and is responsible for dispensing millions of dollars in grant money to fund state and regional programs—including domestic violence shelters and rape crisis programs. As I wondered what Sexual Assault Awareness Month 2018 might look like, seeing as VAWA comes up for reauthorization, I felt literal nausea.
Six days later, our President rushed to the defense, for seemingly no reason, of Bill O’Reilly. After a disclosure of a handful of multi-million dollar sexual harassment settlements, the majority of the FOX pundit’s sponsors had backed out. Yet without a public request or check, the President provided NYT with an affirmation that O’Reilly was “a good person,” and made point to mention “I don’t think he did anything wrong.”
Perpetuating that sexual harassment is normal, or the belief that “when you’re a star, they let you do it,” is what provides the context for sexually assaultive behavior to escalate. When we defend the alleged perpetrator yet are quick to condemn the survivor, we create a milieu for other survivors to feel blame and doubt. I don’t think that’s what anyone meant by “engaging new voices.”
Most of me feels indignant and disgusted. But another, much smaller part can see the silver lining, however macabre: Sexual Assault Awareness Month never had so much air time. If there’s an upside, it’s that maybe the resources for survivors are that much more accessible. But I’ll be real: taking that as an upside is a stretch.
For 24/7 confidential information and assistance nationwide, visit RAINN.
To learn more about the national campaign for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.