As I was writing my comps at a coffee shop in sunny San Diego, I overheard a group of middle-aged women discussing sexual assault and harassment allegations. I was mortified by their conversation. They labeled the women coming forward against bosses, senators, the president, directors, and actors as “for the most part, opportunists.”
Their conversations shocked me, as nearly each woman in the group began to recount episodes of sexual assault that occurred to them at the workplace, in school, or out and about during their daily lives. They were powerful, deeply disturbing stories of disgusting high school teachers and coaches and inappropriate interviewers. Perhaps the one that stuck with me the most, however, was one women’s recounting the time when her school called her mother about her teacher continually sexually harassing her. She said her mother sat her down and told her, “I knew this would happen to you because it happened to me.”
That is the mentality that we rear our children with. That’s the mentality women have to approach the world with: this may very well happen to me too. When parents send their daughters off to college, when parents drop off incoming freshmen at Carleton, they know that there’s a quarter chance she might be sexually assaulted during her four years. It’s the disgusting and sad reality that we are expected to live with, especially when there is no support, or only superficial support, for survivors.
And yet, in the story, there was no outrage or hatred for this teacher or any retaliation, she simply followed her mother’s instructions to say nothing to anybody at school, including her friends, and especially not to tell her father. Her mother was encouraging her to protect a pedophile. And so she did, and has continued that same train of thinking into her adult life. I can only imagine what advice she would give her daughter. It’s a plague that men assault women. It’s also a plague that women feel the need to protect their assaulters.
Women often protect men in positions of authority because it is a way to protect their job or their family or their reputation. They protect husbands out of fear of physical and mental abuse. It’s of utmost important that we teach boys that they cannot rape. We also need to encourage women to retaliate and report, even if the system is often stacked against them.Without reporting, there is no way to permanently change a corrupt and disgusting system.
I fortunately have never had a situation equivalent to the stories I heard, but I think nearly every woman can report stories of men who were pushy, creepy, and didn’t respond to the word “no.” I do not truly know the conflicting feelings that must go on with reporting, though I’ve submitted several community concern forms (which were entirely useless). But if we don’t report we grow up to be like the women I overheard—satisfied to live in a man’s world and accept their belittling and overpowering social status and sway in the United States. By accepting forms of sexual harassment in the workplace, or in any place, women are consciously or subconsciously supporting the current claim of the political administration that assault is acceptable.
There have been glimmers of hope: Alabama refusing to elect a known pedophile; thousands of women marching all around the U.S. to protest the election of a man who demeans and sexually harasses women; dozens of women coming forward with allegations against big-name Hollywood stars and politicians. Women can be vocal champions of their own bodies and their own rights, despite what sentiments the government echoes. I am so proud to be able to witness this movement, and one day tell my own daughters about.
But at the same time, I constantly hear conversations like the one detailed above and am dismayed. Women can come together to combat societal ills, but women are often each other’s harshest critics and biggest roadblocks. No woman who reports wants to relive her tragedy over and over again. Nobody is an “opportunist.” And yet too often women frame one another as competition or liars, as somehow trying to sneak ahead or gain some advantage by rousing “false” accusations. I believe anybody who comes forward. There is no way to move forward from the awful political decisions of the past year, and the deeply engrained fear of powerful women, than to automatically believe one another. As a woman, you owe it to fellow women to do the same. You may very well have your own questions and thoughts about something that happened. Frankly, your questions don’t matter. What you can do is listen to the truth of your fellow woman. It would be unfathomable for us as young women to grow into adult women who debate the merits of claims of sexual assault and protect rapists. We live in a nasty world already stacked against us. It’s never been more imperative to be a feminist, and to support and believe women unquestionably.