Sexual harassment has been on the minds of many Americans recently, and last week it bubbled to the surface for several Concordia students. On MLK day, faculty and students of the women’s and gender studies department hosted a discussion on the #MeToo movement, a campaign to raise awareness for the sexual harassment that occurs in the workplace for women of all colors and socioeconomic statuses. Dr. Mallary Allen and Dr. Darcie R. Sell, directors of the WGS program, led the 2:45 p.m. concurrent session and provided a historical overview on this issue, starting with Anita Hill and continuing until the present movement. There were many facets to the discussion, but I want to focus in on one element that arose.
In the talk, it was mentioned that there is a similar social movement happening in Europe, one that has a hashtag emphasizing the assaultant rather than the victim, unlike #MeToo in America. During the discussion, we critiqued the fact that as a society, there is a gross tendency to expect victims to share their stories and then to romanticize them, much like women in fiction narratives. There is a skepticism that if victims choose to withhold these details, then they will not be believed to have gone through such an event. This divergence is only exacerbated by the ambiguous nature of the #MeToo hashtag. Understood in a social context, it can be applied both as a show of support or a confirmation that the act happened to the user. With this two-pronged usage, there is the positive of being evasive for people who don’t want to share their stories but the outbalancing negative is further pushing women who do want to share the unnecessary details of their situation.
In the coming to light of these situations, childhood heroes, daily talk show hosts, and celebrity favorites have been outed as guilty of sexual harassment, and it is expected that there will be emotional backlash as well as demands for them to step down from their positions of in the workplace. Examples include Louis C.K, Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, Russell Simmons and even Kevin Spacey, the beloved actor in House of Cards. To this demand, I agree, but only to a point.
As important as it is to have all of these offenders come forward and suffer the consequences for their actions, the emphasis going forward should be on long-term change of these situations, not on short-term punishment. These people should suffer for their awful capitalization on women and their victims, but by continually responding to the event and only reacting by talking about it as a human interest story and replacing the names each time, there is a lost opportunity for true change. If the only two methods are firing the assaultants and wielding hateful speech, these events will get eaten by the 24-hour news cycle and blow over without any change to prevent it from happening again. This was seen with the Golden Globes and the resulting talk about Oprah and the entertainment industry, but no constructive change. On the topic of the #MeToo movement, it is a huge leap of progress to have the issue splattered across the headlines and men being outed, but that is simply the first step and we are treating it as the only step. In order to see long-term effects and numbers of offenders decreasing, there needs to be institutional change on the perception and education of women and bodily respect and more legislation that speaks to these issues.
A prime example of a missed opportunity is with our once beloved and now tainted former Minnesota Senator, Al Franken. Many people’s despair after hearing his allegations of sexual harassment could have manifested into a demand for change at the political level and not leading to Franken stepping away from his power to create progress. Like many other injustice issues, nothing happens if people are just mad about it. People of power who are dependant on voter approval, like former Senator Franken, are at the hands of the people and their agendas. What if Franken would have kept his position of power, but funneled his wrongdoing into demanding change and education for his kind to stop offending? How much more progress would be a result? It is hard to make change when one is not at the table with the power. Offenders like Franken and Lauer hold huge political and media influence. If Franken had stayed in office and potentially pushed for better sex education in schools, there would be institutional change on the harassment issue to prevent such disheartening behavior in the future. In order to fight such entrenched issues,we must start by analyzing what led so many men to take advantage of women and not simply respond with a slap on the wrist and public shaming.
One could argue that a non-offender could take Franken’s place in power and still push for such issues, but who would have more to prove? Who would work harder and demand progress because of this motivation? The offender, in this case Franken, would. And to be clear, by suggesting this I am in no way condoning such behavior. I have been to Washington D.C., shaken Franken’s hand, and looked up to him just as much as the next Minnesotan.
In a world of gridlock politics and politicians with unethical personal agendas, can the awful actions of sexual offenders be utilized as momentum for change instead of just being plastered across the headlines? I think institutional change is a better solution than simply dealing with issues after the fact and not preventing the same thing from occuring time and time again.