Allegations of sexual assault and harassment have sparked a much-needed discussion

By Erin Reilly

Ever since dozens of women accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault six weeks ago, there has been a steady flow of new allegations against the men of Hollywood and beyond. Now, at least 25 high-profile men have been accused.

While the highly publicized allegations have been centered on the entertainment industry, sexual assault and harassment are highly pervasive in our entire society.

“It could be, like, endemic to the culture of Hollywood, and in some ways it is, except that it’s endemic to all cultures,” Jennifer Sacco, the director of Quinnipiac’s Women’s and Gender Studies program, said.

Victims of sexual harassment are not limited to actresses. According to a survey from 2015, 1 in 3 women has been sexually harassed at work.

“Virtually, every adult woman I know has been sexually harassed at work,” Sacco said.

That includes Sacco. She said she was sexually harassed while working at a department store when she was in her 20s.

These actions and comments can have many negative effects on the victims.

“They can cause serious anxiety which prevents us from doing our jobs, from feeling safe, from doing what we need to or want to, and generally from flourishing. And they are normalized,” Melissa Kaplan, a Quinnipiac professor who teaches English and women’s and gender studies, said. “A cat-caller is only scary at all because we don’t know when one might follow us home. And a guy who aggressively pushes for sex wouldn’t make us so queasy if we felt 100 percent sure he’d listen if we said no.”

To raise awareness about these issues, an online movement was started where thousands of women have used “#MeToo” to share their own stories about sexual assault and harassment. On Sunday, Nov. 12, the movement took to the streets of Hollywood for the #MeToo Survivors March. Hundreds of people joined in to show their support.  

Credit: Cosmopolitan

Credit: Cosmopolitan

The #MeToo campaign and subsequent widespread discussion about sexual assault and harassment have allowed men to learn more about the issue.

“There are things to like and dislike about this #MeToo campaign, but I appreciate that it seems to be getting at a few basic things that I think are important for men—since they stand to benefit from a rape culture—to understand,” Kaplan said.

The movement has also had an educational effect on women.

Credit: Cosmopolitan 

Credit: Cosmopolitan 

“Women are afraid to react because they don't want to be told they're overreacting,” Zara Khan, a Quinnipiac senior and president of Women Empowered, said. “I think the ‘Me Too’ movement is a great way to educate others on what is considered sexual harassment by being able to read these raw personal stories.”

The allegations themselves against men like Harvey Weinstein have also had a positive impact.

“I do like the fact that so many women came forward so quickly and included really prominent women” Sacco said. “I think that was helpful. I really do.”

However, the movement has not been all positive. In some ways, it has highlighted some deeper issues.

“I think it's great that women are joining forces to support each other. However, it's saddening how many women had to come forward in order for there to be consequences,” Khan said. “It shouldn't be her word against his. We need to take these women seriously as soon as they come forward instead of sweeping this under the rug.”

Victims are often not believed and when they are, the focus is sometimes entirely on them.

“One of the more valid critiques of the #MeToo trend is that it is focused, as these conversations so often are, on the survivors, rather than the perpetrators and enablers; that it asks women to bear their pain instead of asking men for reflection and accountability,” Kaplan said.

Sacco also noted that this may be a flaw in the movement.

“Why do we ask more of the victims? You know, why do they have to bear themselves again in some way in public for people to take this seriously?” Sacco said.

The tendency to focus on the victims rather than the perpetrators is one of the many underlying issues of sexual assault and harassment.

“I think the biggest issue behind sexual assault (and) harassment is that the victim is often blamed,” Khan said. “That she shouldn't have worn that skirt or shouldn't have drank so much. That a woman should change the way she dresses and behaves because then she is ‘asking for it.’”

Kaplan says that gendered violence is a problem that stems from “systemic sexism.” This leads to women being silenced and bystanders not speaking up about the abuse they know is happening.

Credit: Cosmopolitan 

Credit: Cosmopolitan 

“Women are taught to obscure the signs of our abuse, and our communities are taught to pretend they don’t know what’s really going on. Lie about our bruises. Claim we missed work because we had a cold. That we did poorly on an exam because we didn’t study,” Kaplan said. “Whether by pressuring women not to speak up in the first place or dismissing them when they do, the system insists that reports of gendered violence remain private rumor rather than public record.”

In order to combat this system, the #MeToo movement may be a good first step.

“Everyone needs to make this as vocal as possible because, collectively, maybe we could enforce some sort of change here,” Sacco said. 

The key is that this movement is finally acknowledging the problem.

“Making radical change means acknowledging and confronting the injustices around us,” Kaplan said. “If we don’t acknowledge that something is a problem, we cannot transform it.”