Instead of Asking Women Why They Didn’t Report, We Should Be Asking This
#WhyIDidntReport isn’t just a trending hashtag. #BelieveSurvivors isn’t just a way to differentiate between the men and women who support Kavanaugh’s confirmation and the ones who’d rather see it permanently derailed. It’s not about politics, really. At least, it really shouldn’t be.
We, as a society, need to stop asking why women didn’t report.
There are far too many reasons why, and people who are asking the question don’t really care about the answer anyway. Because they aren’t really asking why the women didn’t come forward as much as they are asking why they should care about it, why it should matter to them, and why can’t we just sweep all the uncomfortable things under the rug.
Perhaps some of them really don’t understand because they’ve never experienced a form of sexual harassment or assault, or at least haven’t considered the uncomfortable instances in their own lives to be representative of same. They have no clue what trauma like that can do to you, and they certainly can’t understand the ramifications of publicly putting that trauma on display for the world to see. Just think of your most private sexual experience. If you wouldn’t want that to be up for public consumption, why would you want your sexual violation in the spotlight?
But that’s just one point of view, and I could spend a week on all the reasons survivors don’t always come forward. I’m in a good place to speak from this- as a survivor myself and as a former therapist who often dealt with both child and adult victims of sexual trauma. There are reasons upon reasons, but that doesn’t matter because people who would ask that already don’t care what the answer is anyway. Besides, we’re asking the wrong question entirely.
Let’s take a quick detour into our history.
Women in the United States weren’t able to vote until 1920, when the 19th amendment allowed women this privilege that had always been accorded to white men. It took another 52 years to address the issue of equal rights. The Equal Rights Amendment was passed in 1972 by Congress. It was then sent to the states to be ratified, the logical next step. Although the 7 year deadline for ratification has been extended and although it has been presented to Congress year after year, it has yet to be ratified by at least 38 states, a requirement to add it to the Constitution.
Just to clarify: the Equal Rights Amendment was passed by Congressional representatives of all of our states in 1972. It was sent to the states to be ratified- a non-optional task. It hasn’t been done. The following states still have not ratified the amendment: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, and Virginia. Our state representatives, in these states at the very least, are telling us loud and clear that female constituents don’t matter. As far as their concerned, we don’t have equal rights because they don’t think adding this to the Constitution is a worthwhile use of the time paid by tax-payer dollars, much of which comes from those same female constituents.
But if the question isn’t Why aren’t women reporting? And it’s not Why hasn’t the ERA been ratified and added to the Constitution?, then what is the question?
Why, after all these years, do boys and men still feel entitled to the bodies of girls and women?
Why? Because the issue is most certainly entitlement. Every single time a boy or man puts his hands on a woman without consent, he is expressing the sense of entitlement that comes with the male privilege he was born with. I was 5 years old the first time I became aware of this entitlement when a little boy on the playground in kindergarten pushed me into a fence. When I reported the aggression, I was told that he must have a crush on me. At 5, I had already been told that violence toward women is the same thing as affection and attention.
Even at 5, I knew that was bullshit. That was the first and last time I had anything to do with that boy because he may have been taught that what he did was okay, and I may have been told that there wasn’t anything wrong with it, but I had already learned that we should all keep our hands to ourselves. That felt right. What he did felt wrong.
It’s not just sexual assault.
It’s reaching out and touching a female body to get someone’s attention or to step by them. It’s all the ways that have nothing to do with touch but are equal violations- like sending unsolicited sexual messages and nude photos to women on a regular enough basis that women everywhere report the prevalence of these messages on dating boards, social media sites, and in most male-female dating scenarios. The entitlement is everywhere, and yet the media continues to feed us stories where a no can turn into a yes or where persistence is rewarded when all the messages need to be shouting from the rooftops that no means no.
Misogyny is so deeply embedded in our culture that to question it seems outlandish. The first time I felt this injustice I was walking with a few girlfriends down River Street in Savannah, Georgia. I was married, dressed comfortably, and spending a much-needed getaway with my sister and a friend. We were on our way downtown when a group of men passed. We stepped out of the way, like women everywhere do for no apparent reason, and one man in the group decided to attempt to perform a colonoscopy. Or at least, that’s what it felt like.
I went from laughing with friends to feeling deeply angry and ashamed. Meanwhile, this man in his large group of friends was laughing, and his friends were laughing, too. I didn’t know his name, which is #WhyIDidntReport but I spent about an hour with a cop I found on the street trying to find him. If I could have reported, I would have. I was entertainment for their night; it ruined mine. I went to bed crying, all the while my friends were telling me that it happens all the time and isn’t a big deal.
It happens all the time. It isn’t a big deal.
What kind of society have we become that so deeply accepts rape culture that we dismiss it as if it doesn’t matter? But I don’t just look at that one man as being a sexual predator; I see all of his laughing friends as being just as bad. Not one of them stood up for me or told the friend he was wrong. My physical violation was pure comedy for them. He saw something he wanted to touch, and he did, and the fact that I’m a human being with feelings never even entered their consciousness.
If you’re asking yourself what I was wearing or if I was drinking, or if he was drinking, you’re a part of the problem. The only thing that matters is that he felt entitled to take what he wanted, and I was told to shut up and accept it because it’s just the way things are. But maybe we should be asking why things are this way and what we’re going to do about it because this system isn’t working out well for most of us.
Stories like this aren’t at all uncommon, which is the entire point.
Is it easier for me to believe Dr. Ford than Supreme Court Justice-hopeful Kavanaugh? You bet it is. Because they each have reputations, and his stretches pretty far back. I’ve known a lot of Kavanaughs in my time. A lot of Cosbys. A lot of Weinsteins. Only the ones I’ve known haven’t been rich and powerful. They’ve just been men who thought that what they wanted matter more than anything else. Because if you don’t consider women your equals, you sure as hell don’t give their feelings any consideration.
Take this a step further. A recent discussion with a close friend revealed how she’s been receiving messages from men on social media. She began posting her experiences to open up a larger discussion. Other women chimed in. If a man thinks we’re beautiful, they don’t ask if we want to spend time chatting with them. They don’t check to see if we’re interested. They feel entitled to demand our time and entitled to complain if we’re not bowled over by their compliments and unwanted attention. It happens almost every day. The hello beautiful message followed by chit chat we didn’t ask for or sexual messages we never wanted to see and certainly can’t un-see. It’s definitely an entitled way to ask, and it doesn’t usually stop when we say no — because men like this don’t believe no means no.
We need to start asking new questions.
Instead of asking women why we didn’t report, let’s ask men why they try to ply women with drinks in hopes of assuring, or at least increasing, their chances of a sexual encounter.
Instead of asking women why we didn’t report, let’s ask men why they still joke about harassment and assault with their friends and laugh it off as locker room talk, or why they would vote for a presidential candidate who would.
Instead of asking women why we didn’t report, let’s ask men why they still think it’s acceptable to send dick pics without the recipient’s permission. Or worse, masturbation videos- yeah, I’m looking at you, Random Snapchat Guy.
Instead of asking women why we didn’t report, let’s ask men why they can’t take no for an answer and typically react by releasing a stream of invectives in the direction of the uninterested party. Or keep trying until they get the answer they want.
Instead of asking women why we didn’t report, let’s ask men why they think protection is optional, why they expect women to primarily manage birth control, and why so many of them seem to think that pregnancy, child birth, and full-time parenting are things that don’t really have to involve them.
Instead of asking women why we didn’t report, let’s ask men why this is still the culture 46 years after the Equal Rights Amendment was passed.
Instead of asking women why we didn’t report, let’s ask men why they can’t keep their hands to themselves, why they feel entitled to take what isn’t being offered, and why they would excuse any person on the face of the earth for this sort of conduct.
Instead of asking women why we didn’t report, let’s ask men why they are okay with the statistics surrounding sexual abuse and women and why it only matters to them in the context of having a close relationship with a woman (i.e., girlfriend, wife, mother, sister, daughter).
Instead of asking women why we didn’t report, let’s ask men why the timing matters.
Let’s ask men why they aren’t as concerned for justice as we are.
Let’s ask men what they’re doing to bring down the systems of oppression propping up rape culture.
Let’s ask men why they don’t have as much compassion for us, the survivors, as they do for some unknown man facing justice, perhaps for the first time in years of predatory behavior.
Let’s ask them why the woman’s lifelong trauma matters less than the impact it will have on the abuser.
Let’s ask them when they’re going to start to see that we are human, too.
We’re asking all of the wrong questions.
As survivors, we have to show our deepest, most private scars to even garner a little consideration. We have to explain, often in detail, why we made the choices we made to people who (a) don’t care and (b) can’t possibly understand what it’s like to be violated in that way, sometimes by people we once trusted. We have to put ourselves and every decision we’ve ever made on display just to see a fraction of what sort of almost looks like justice.
And many survivors come together in groups, accusing the same person. We saw it with Bill Cosby, who is behind bars after decades of admitted abuse- justice served for only one of his victims and years too late for the others. We’ve seen it with President Donald Trump, who has a long list of accusers who detail similar experiences. We saw it with Harvey Weinstein, and we see it with Kavanaugh.
To some people, it looks like a conspiracy rather than a pattern of behavior.
They’d rather attribute it to partisan politics than accept their own role in propping up a system of oppression that continues to harm men and women alike. Because if they have to admit that Kavanaugh is likely guilty or if the many other accused men actually did what the survivors have said, then they might have to take an uncomfortable stand against a member of their political party or stop supporting a sports team or quit drinking a certain beverage or buying a certain pizza. If they admitted that their was an actual problem, they’d have to stand by those values, and they might have to start looking at their own patterns of behaviors, where perhaps they aren’t so innocent either.
Change is never easy.
It’s even harder when that change involves looking in the mirror and understanding that a tasteless joke shared between friends might be another person’s nightmare, a reality and not just a hypothetical. Admitting that a lot of men are being accused because a lot of men are guilty must be uncomfortable because it highlights that there’s something wrong with male perception in this country. And I don’t mean that we’re perceiving them inaccurately, but that they have believed in certain ways for so long that they haven’t looked closely at the damage those beliefs have caused.
Most men don’t intentionally maintain the patriarchy. From one simple Instagram post, I can tell you that most of them don’t seem to understand it. They think equality is this thing we all have because women work and vote, too. They point to personal difficulties as being the reason they don’t have male privilege, all the while picking and choosing when to believe our experiences. They don’t want to see what might require them to change.
And of course- not all men. If I don’t say it, I’ll have dozens of men lined up to post that very comment. But no one said all men. And many women have fallen victim to institutionalized sexism, claiming that feminism is what has brought society to its knees, rather than seeing that a patriarchy that elevates one gender at the expense of others isn’t exactly a model for long-term success. It does damage to men, too, creating unrealistic standards for men that are equally harmful.
Equal is the key word.
Perhaps these questions don’t seem like a matter of equality, but I’m personally tired of seeing survivors thrown under the bus every time a man is accused of misconduct. For once, I’d like to see equal scrutiny directed at the accused. If they’re innocent, let the justice system make that call.
But until then, I will be standing with survivors, and I won’t be asking about the timing of their report, what they were wearing, or if they enjoyed a few drinks before being held down with their mouths covered while some entitled man enjoyed himself. Someone is going to cry out innocent until proven guilty without acknowledging the irony of putting survivors under the microscope, assuming their guilt and adding to their trauma.
We’re asking the wrong questions, and asking the right ones is a small step in the right direction. Of course, an even bigger step is asking why, if Congress decided that we were equal, the states can’t seem to move forward to make it official in our Constitution. That’s a good question to address while everyone is posting their #MeToo stories and chiming in about their own experiences. It’s a good question for all those women claiming we already have equality, and the men making that statement, too. It’s just a piece of paper, but it’s a meaningful one.
I don’t know if Kavanaugh will be confirmed. I’m not here playing politics. I am here saying that I want my Supreme Court Justices to be above reproach. I want them to be of such high caliber that they are able to judge others without the bias that a deeply flawed reputation might engender. I do know that Congressional hearings should be a little more concerned with uncovering the truth than with playing party politics at the expense of a survivor of trauma.
What I do know is that everyone is asking the wrong damn questions. It’s time to start asking the ones that matter.