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By Autumn Brown, Senior Writer
Imagine a world where your workplace is also the site of your sexual harassment. Imagine your supervisor doubling as your civic commander and your sexual predator. Imagine that when the discovery of your plan to file a report becomes known, you are killed and buried in a shallow grave. And what is given to your family is the run around as your supervisor sheepishly shrugs off and conceals the vile act of assault he imposed upon you.
For Private First Class Vanessa Guillen, such an imagining was her unfortunate reality. Her perpetrators were protected, leaving the Army in the middle of a scandal. The Army failed Guillen, as many organizations do when women speak out against sexual- violence and assault.
Our society imagines sexual assault assailants as strangers in a back alley. Such imagining perpetuates an idea of how women should react in these instances — immediately reporting the attack and seeking justice for the grave acts imposed upon our bodies. But the reality is, the majority of sexual assaults occur between people who know each other.
Sexual assault offenders can be our friends, families, neighbors, and even well-known local public figures who are self-proclaimed activists.
The appalling part, though, is the victim-blaming. When women choose to speak out about sexual violence committed against them, the public often shifts the burden of the blame onto the woman. With the most common question being, “why speak out now?“
Roughly 3 of 4 women who experience sexual harassment do not report these happenings to authority. Suffering in silence, they avoid the harasser, deny or downplay the gravity of the situation, or attempt to ignore, forget, or endure the behavior. Therefore, it is prevalent for women to compartmentalize their trauma, delaying their decision to come forward, if they ever do.
For women who do decide to reach forward, the battle soon begins:
First comes the shame.
The victim is shamed at every corner, starting with the assault itself. This feeling lies at the core of the emotional wounding imposed upon victims of assault. Feeling helpless and at the mercy of his/her abuser, the victim often begins to blame themselves for the sexual violation of their perpetrator. Further, when victims speak out, they open themselves to public shaming as they are often perceived as liars or fulfilling their agendas.
Then comes the fear of consequences.
Often, sexual abusers are those in positions of power, influence and are highly respected. These types use their power as an opening to prey upon their victims, rendering their authority as justification to pounce. As a subordinate, there is the fear of losing one’s job or being passed up for a promotion. Additionally, there is a fear of being labeled or branded as promiscuous or blackballed from their industry altogether.
Locally, we are bearing witness to a prominent figure in the community dodging accusations of assault as he continues to hide behind his mask of power, influence and a false sense of respectability. Rather than calling an abuser an abuser, the alleged victim has fallen prey to being labeled an opportunist, blamed for her victimization, and punished for coming forward at all.
Lastly, accompanying the act of sexual assault are feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. Psychologists Marlin Seligman and Steven D. Meir posit that helplessness is a phenomenon when people feel like they have no control over what happens, and tend to give up and accept their fate.
Why do so few women speak up?
Dominant society created a culture where it has become useless to come forward due to the treatment of others who have.
This dominant force of nature is why it is important to believe women and victims of sexual assault. Not doing so leads to victims feeling trapped, hopeless, and like they have nowhere to turn. Blaming and shaming the victim becomes debilitating to a point where women are robbed of their power and agency, forced to believe that they cannot reclaim their bodies or change their circumstances.
More than that, we have to continue to condemn abusers regardless of their position on the social hierarchy. We have to call out men who wouldn’t believe their daughters because “women lie.”
Instead of reducing their behavior to “they were drugged,” we must force them to face the ugly parts of themselves.
Take accountability without the caveat. And frankly, do better. Do a better job of protecting women, rather than allowing your social media feed to drown in malice and victim shaming.
Women, nor men, should fear death or denial when they choose to speak out about sexual assault, whenever they decide to do so. As a society, it is our job to protect those who wish to exhibit one of the highest bravery forms. Together, we must all do better.
Autumn Brown is a doctoral candidate in social foundations of education at Oklahoma State University. Social foundations analyzes and explains educational issues, policies, and practices through the lenses of history, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, and cultural studies. Its goal is to improve the educational experiences for members belonging to marginalized groups. Her dissertation will be educational biographies of Clara Luper, Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, and Nancy Randolph Davis. She also researches racial body politics, sexuality, and intimate justice for black women. She has published a book chapter titled “Breaking the silence: Black women’s experience with abortion,” and has presented her work on the intense policing of the black female body nationally. Autumn plans on continuing her pursuits in bringing awareness to the injustices imposed on members within her community, and advocating for equitable education for black and brown students. She plans on finishing her Ph.D. in December 2020 and hopes to move into a tenure-tracked faculty position at a top tier research university or into the Non-Profit Sector.