The problems with systemic sexual assault — assault in general, are more myriad than we want to admit. With the Harvey Weinstein allegations and accusations that take place over decades, showcasing a variety of blatant abuses of power, it should not be difficult to fathom why it took so long for truth to come to light.
What’s staggering anytime something of this magnitude happens, is the number of people who are quick to remark that it’s surprising someone didn’t say something sooner. What we all seem inclined to forget is that the culture we are involved with and invested in is something we all too easily become inoculated against. “It’s just how things are done” is what anyone who feels helpless says in the midst of a situation that’s overwhelming. In these cases, trying to justify and rationalize is about the only survival weapon one can grasp — and make no mistake, in abusive environments, survival is all that is hoped for anyway.
To suggest that victims, or those who knew victims, or those potential victims who escaped, were responsible for speaking up is to ignore how often in our own lives we ignore indications of abuses of power and normalize the event to save ourselves further stress.
A few years ago I was leaving work heading to the parking garage to take the elevator to the fourth floor and to my car. Outside the garage were a large number of homeless people, this wasn’t not really remarkable because it’s common in downtown Bellingham, but what happened next was.
I got on the elevator and as the doors closed, a man brandishing a stick as a make-believe sword charged into the elevator, sword first. My friend and I immediately parted to get out of his way in this tiny box. We then all proceeded to take the elevator to the four floor. After which the man got off and continued practicing his sword fighting in another area of the floor.
During the elevator ride I spent the bulk of my mental powers on rationalizing and normalizing what had just happened. In this stressed out environment my worst fear — besides being attacked — was offending this man who held power in this situation. My goal was to be as pleasant as possible if addressed, and to otherwise pretend I was invisible. I didn’t want anything to happen to me.
This experience of mine was fleeting, minor, and uneventful, but I feared the potential actions of a man who did have power in that situation. In no way was it a situation I felt capable of taking charge of or directing. After I got off the elevator, it did not occur to me to call the police simply because nothing had happened to me. Could this man have actually been physically violent to someone else? Is it possible that after this he went on to actually attack someone else with a sword? It now strikes me as a possibility, but at the time I was only filled with my own relief at leaving that situation unscathed.
It is infinitely easy in hindsight to tell someone what they should have done, knowing full well what the outcome would look like, but at the time? At the time of any stressful situation the body is in survival mode. I’m told with proper training in the military encountering the stress of a war zone is made somewhat easier due to automatic reflexes that have been ingrained. Instead of thinking about the right thing to do, you just act as you’ve been trained.
I cannot stress this enough; women — as a very general principle — have been taught not to make waves, not to cause a fuss, just to keep their heads down and do the work without being obtrusive. The reflexes of someone growing up in a war zone will always look different from a trained soldier or a bystander in another country, and it is the same with systems of abuse.
A woman seeking help from an abusive relationship will voice her discomfort until such a time as it is made clear that this is not welcome.
“You took it the wrong way.”
“That didn’t mean anything.”
If you are told often enough that your discomfort is meaningless, or that you will need to handle horrible situations in order to achieve your desired goals, most people will put up with almost anything, because they now believe it is normal. Women have a tendency to learn that their own intuition is not valuable, it’s not accurate, and they’re too sensitive. All of which can contribute to a system that perpetuates abuse.
What this entire situation should call us to is again critical reflection on and intense vigilance of any person in a position of power. There are many people who hold positions of power because those around them live in fear. They hold positions of power because it has been made clear that it is in the victim’s “best interest” to keep quiet. They hold positions of power because so many people are trying to survive, to normalize completely un-normal cultures.
It should disgust and infuriate us when we see people abuse their power, instead the true problem is that often these titans are applauded and supported by the unknowing population, and even when we do know, we find many reasons to excuse it. We reward success and achievement, not ethics and positive influence.
Our focus is wrong and as long as that remains, victims will live in shadows seeking to survive the horrors of their environment silently.
Before we get too excited about a leader, about their charisma, their “common man” vernacular, their relatability, their lack of PC content, consider for a moment the small fleeting voices we have heard for decades, potentially, signalling the alarm.
We are, as a culture and society, doomed to repeat the environment Harvey Weinstein created unless we are willing to dismantle the untouchableness with which we embue powerful leaders — simply because of the position they hold. In this, we will always all be culpable.