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Not just this year: Why only looking at 2017 isn’t enough to condemn sexual harassment

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DECEMBER 11, 2017

This year has inarguably been a watershed moment for Hollywood. It feels like every day brings another revelation regarding another media figure; allegations are coming to light left and right, and they’re not limited to Hollywood — our university, the UC system and national politics are implicated as well.

The key words are, of course, “coming to light,” and the pattern has led many to ask, “Why now?”

To ask the question “why now?” and reflect on the cultural shift that has come to pass in 2017 is necessary — as long as we recognize that gender-based violence, sexual harassment and abuse of power have always influenced media industries, as well as every corner of our culture. We must ask the question with the understanding that sexual harassment isn’t new — what’s changed is visibility, not frequency — and it’s important to note that not everyone is being given the same platform.

In other words, we can’t just look at this year when we answer these questions.

Above all, one thing is clear: The idea that the onslaught of allegations is ‘sudden’ and ‘new’ is false. We know this because allegations against Weinstein date back to the 1970s, against Roy Moore to 1979, against Kevin Spacey to the 1980s, against Trump to the 1980s, against Bryan Singer to the late 1990s, against Charlie Rose to the late 1990s, against Woody Allen to the 1990s, against Louis CK to the early 2000s, against Al Franken to the early 2000s, against Casey Affleck to 2010, and the list goes on.

To answer the question of “why this year?” we must reflect on the power structures that have led to this watershed moment. We must acknowledge that institutions — those we are skeptical of, and even those we admire and trust — have quite literally elected to protect perpetrators and abusers. Because these institutions (Hollywood, NBC, the White House, etc.) are rarely challenged publicly in a way that disrupts business as usual, they find it easier not to deal with the problem (abusers) and perpetuate violence by allowing abusers to increase their power through harassment and assault.

Furthermore, men like Weinstein and Trump use intimidation tactics to protect themselves. They know that they have the power and money to make or break careers. It therefore becomes frightening even for those who are merely aware of their abuses (not directly victimized by them) to come forward. Weinstein hired international spies to gather information on the women he abused. He reinforced his power by quashing collaterals. He made it inconvenient for those around him to speak out against him.

To be clear, that doesn’t mean that people who were aware shouldn’t have spoken out anyway — they absolutely should have, especially people like Tarantino, who had enough influence to be heard. To know and do nothing is to reinforce abusers’ power. This is familiar to us because it’s a narrative that survivors have been attempting to change for decades: the idea that it’s inconvenient for folks to cut friends or colleagues out of their lives when it’s revealed that they’ve committed sexual violence.

In other words, sexual violence is perpetrated not only by abusers, but by the everyday people who don’t hold them accountable. By people who ask questions rather than believing survivors outright, by people who make excuses for abusers or blame victims rather than perpetrators.

It’s important to note that it took more than 70 women coming forward against Weinstein and a revolting tape in which Trump himself testifies to committing assault for this watershed moment to be realized. It’s also important to note that not every abuser in Hollywood has been ousted — Woody Allen’s “Wonder Wheel” was still released as planned, even when Kevin Spacey was replaced in “All the Money in the World.” And while media staples such as Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose have been removed from their respective positions, Trump has yet to be held legally accountable and Roy Moore is still running for office at this moment.

Finally, it’s crucial to acknowledge that many of the women who have publicly come forward against Weinstein are well-known and financially powerful. This doesn’t diminish their experiences, but it should lead us to recognize that people with less visibility or economic security — blue- and pink-collar workers, college students, etc. — experience similar kinds of harassment and violence, and are given even less visibility.

The question of “why this year?” changes when we consider the pervasiveness of sexual violence. We are all embedded in a social atmosphere that trivializes harassment and gender inequality. It’s not just Hollywood or the media, or even the White House.

Thus, the answer to “why now?” is both “because forever” and “because a man who bragged about sexually assaulting women was elected president.”

The answer is “we’ve been yelling about this for years and y’all just now started listening.”

The answer is “because enough people got angry.”

Perhaps this means that Trump’s Access Hollywood tapes catalyzed a conversation — one that came too late to elect the most qualified candidate for presidency in history — a conversation that many women have already been having with each other for years. It’s the conversation that swells from deep sadness to rage, the one that gets people marching in the streets with signs that say “Respect existence or expect resistance,” “Can’t gaslight this” and “Sex offenders can’t live in government housing.”

That is to say that perhaps, if people had been listening to survivors from the get-go, the conversation could have started earlier. Part of the answer to “why this year?” is: “Enough people are finally listening” — and we need to keep listening.

The fact that this year has been a watershed is evidenced by Time Magazine’s choice for Person of the Year as the “Silence Breakers” — survivors who have come forward visibly and anonymously, boldly and quietly. Even still, we know there’s work to be done because the second most influential person this year is a serial harasser and abuser — and he’s still our president. Similarly, Sujit Choudhry was found to have violated campus sexual harassment policy, and even though he’s no longer dean of UC Berkeley’s law school, he was still working on campus this semester. UC Regent Norman Pattiz asked to grope his colleague, yet he still sits on the UC Board of Regents.

The watershed moment isn’t over yet; there’s still work to be done in academia, politics and the media. In fact, the work isn’t done until sexual harassment is no longer normalized, no longer dismissed or expected. It’s not done until every harasser, every abuser is ousted. It’s not done until survivors no longer have to answer questions about what they were wearing. It’s not done until survivors are believed and abusers are held accountable.

This is why the answer to “why this year?” can’t just be about this year. It has to be about everything that came before it — we have to make space for conversations about toxic masculinity (and why it’s harmful for everyone), the glass ceiling, the wage gap, sexual violence, campus rape.

“Why this year?” must also be about next year, and the year after that and every year after that. Sexual violence and sexual harassment have been seen as inevitable for too long. After we ask “why now?” we must decide “no longer.”

We have to make space to listen to survivors without asking them to relive trauma, answer belittling questions or justify their own actions in response to abuse. If we just listen to what survivors have been saying over and over again, we won’t need to wonder why some survivors choose not to approach the police, why some choose to wait to report or never report at all.

Above all, we must stay angry enough to do something, everything — all of us, but allies in particular — until we no longer have to answer “why?” questions and until we no longer need watershed moments.

Contact Sophie-Marie Prime at [email protected].

DECEMBER 11, 2017

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