Sexual harassment is still a widespread, systemic problem in the United States. One need look no further than the Brock Turner sexual assault case to see proof of its existence. In this court case Brock Turner, a student on athletic scholarship at Stanford University, raped his victim (though I prefer to call her a survivor) behind a dumpster, was interrupted by witnesses, and received only a sentence of six months in county jail, of which he served a reduced sentence of three months. The case drew widespread media attention and public outrage at the gendered rhetoric surrounding Turner’s defense attorney’s legal strategy which focused primarily on the victim’s social habits and behavior, a classic tactic in sexual assault cases. Further, those supporting Turner used the tried and true line of imploring the court and the media not to ruin his life for one lapse in judgment. (Stack 2016)
The Brock Turner trial has become a textbook case of the very real, systemic gender problem still at work in the United States of America. I use it as an example at the outset of this response as an answer to the question the necessity of a cultural shift in the ways our country thinks about sexual harassment and sexual assault. It seems to be coming clear on a national scale, finally, that sexual harassment and abuse happen every day in a thousand insidious, systemic ways thanks to the institutionalized sexism that exists in the United States. It appears that Americans at large are realizing that maybe it’s not such a crazy idea that the space between Donald Trump’s ‘locker room talk’ and Brock Turner’s raping of a young woman behind a dumpster is not so very wide.
Not every woman has a ‘Brock Turner’ story, but this collective women’s outcry has shown that many, many women have a ‘Donald Trump’ story: an inappropriate comment in the workplace, verbal sexual harassment shouted from strangers on the street, a male friend whose sexual advances you spurned who breaks off your friendship and destroys your reputation because he felt something was owed to him for the time he spent getting close to you. These stories are far too common and point to the very important reality that there is no one version of trauma, no one definition of what constitutes sexual harassment, that fits the experience of everyone who has experienced it. What this demonstrates very clearly is that the need for a cultural shift in the way the United States thinks about sexual harassment is of paramount importance and for reasons examined below I think that cultural shift is indeed taking place.
Mapping a Cultural Shift and Defining Terms
The American cultural shift in thinking about sexual harassment is occurring not from within formalized American institutions, but instead from within a grassroots women’s movement marked by its intersectional nature. By way of definition it should be noted that there are an amalgamation of people responsible for this cultural shift, many of whom are men doing great work moving us toward gender parity, I focus on this women’s movement because I attribute the effectiveness of the rapid cultural shift that has taken place within the last year to the bravery of the women telling their stories of harassment, the intersectional nature of the movement, and the willingness of other women to believe and vocally support their allegations.
I believe the cultural shift occurring in the United States is a combination of three important factors: the intersectional nature of the conversation surrounding sexual harassment, the use of social media in spreading allegations and stories of sexual harassment, particularly in the case of the #MeToo movement, and an increased gendered political consciousness among both men and women.
Throughout this response, I attribute the concept of intersectionality as a key success factor within the cultural shift of attitudes surrounding sexual harassment. For my purposes, I defer to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s (1991) work entitled Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color. In this articles, she defines intersectionality as “the ways in which race and gender intersect in shaping structural and political aspects of violence against women of color” (p. 1241). This definition was expanded by several black feminist scholars including Audre Lorde and Patricia Hill Collins who provided a framework for Crenshaw’s intersectional theory and expanded the concept outward to include all women within its parameters. I am using intersectionality to acknowledge the fact that the experiences related to gender and sexual harassment do not happen in a vacuum; rather, gender is one of a host of identity factors including race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, etc. that influence social power and experience. As I will explain further along in this response, is this intersectionality that has helped to make this cultural shift so pervasive.
Along with the success of intersectionality, I believe that an increase in America’s gendered political consciousness is another key factor in the cultural shift surrounding attitudes toward sexual harassment in the United States. When referencing Gendered political consciousness, or GPC, I defer to Catherine Harnois (2016) who defines the concept as “having an awareness of gender inequality, viewing this inequality as illegitimate, and supporting collective efforts to bring about greater gender equality” (p.141). Another important aspect of this concept, particularly in the case of the cultural shift vis a vis sexual harassment, is the willingness to vocalize these sentiments. While feminists have been shouting at the tops of their collective lungs for more than 200 years that gender inequality exists and is a detriment not only to women but to society at large, it would appear that within the context of the sexual harassment cultural shift, that people have either adopted or evolved into a greater gendered political consciousness, a phenomenon I will also provide examples of throughout this response.
The Women’s March
When considering the amalgamation of intersectionality, gendered political consciousness, and social media I can think of no better example of all three the Women’s March. Twelve months ago, shocked, angered, and embittered by Donald Trump’s presidential election and a previous two-year-long campaign that was littered with particularly odious gender-related offenses, between millions of people attended the Women’s March in various cities in the United States. The purpose of the march, according to the organizers, was to “answer a call to show up and be counted as those who believe in a world that is equitable, tolerant, just and safe for all, one in which the human rights and dignity of each person is protected and our planet is safe from destruction” (Women’s March About 2017). The March utilized social media to spread information about march goals, locations, speakers, and regulations and the organization still use social media as a way of continuing localized small-groups that people can take part in.
At the flagship event in Washington DC speakers from a multitude of backgrounds including but not limited to Distinguished Emerita Professor Angela Davis, Activist and Feminist Writer Gloria Steinem, President of Planned Parenthood Cecile Richards, actor America Ferrera, President and Founder of Rise Amanda Nguyen shared their experiences with inequality, discrimination, and harassment. (Women’s March Speakers 2017) What was so important about the intersectionality of the speakers at the event was that no matter what background, race, gender, socioeconomic status one identified with, there was someone there to relate to. This is particularly important when talking about a cultural shift related to opinions surrounding sexual harassment. For far too long feminism and women’s rights activism has been a white woman’s world. The Women’s March gave us all a chance to collectively offer a platform for women from diverse backgrounds to be seen and heard; it was a chance that I think we took enthusiastically and that chance has left the door open for more intersectional conversations to take place, thereby contributing to the cultural shift around America’s opinions about sexual harassment.
Along with an increased willingness toward intersectionality I believe that the large-scale nature and pervasive nature of the Women’s March coupled with the current presidency has drawn people toward activism who had never before thought to protest systemic inequities. In terms of the gendered cultural shift taking place in the United States, these factors have made an especially significant impact upon women with goals of running for political office. This is, I believe, a sign that we are experiencing an increase in gendered political consciousness on a national scale. More and more people are seizing upon Donald Trump’s misogynistic rhetoric and coming to understand that gender inequality is a systemic problem worthy of our collective attention. In a New York Times article detailing the shifting political landscape in a post-Trump election world Michael Tacket (2017) describes the effects on women running for office:
Stephanie Schriock, the president of Emily’s List, the largest national organization devoted to electing female candidates, said that in the 10 months before the election in 2016, about 1,000 women contacted her organization about running for office or getting involved in other ways. Since the election, she said, the number has exploded to more than 22,000.
The Women’s March serves as just one example of the cultural shift taking place in the country with regard to sexual harassment and structural inequalities of all kinds. It exemplifies the combination of a strong social media presence, an intersectional focus, and an increased gendered political consciousness as a means toward creating lasting cultural change.
If there can be considered one watershed moment in the cultural shift in attitudes regarding sexual harassment that we are currently experiencing, I believe it is the #MeToo movement. In 2006 civil rights activist Tarana Burke began the Me Too Movement to provide women and girls, particularly those of ethnic minorities from low-income areas, “a means of healing through empathy and community” (https://metoomvmt.org/ 2018). Now, eleven years later, the movement has rocketed into the national cultural zeitgeist and has started a chain reaction of women publicly naming offenders and actually seeing results from having had done so.
On October 15, 2017, at 1:12 PM Alyssa Milano tweeted out the slogan #MeToo, requesting “if you’ve been sexually harassed assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” It was a simple request by an actor to raise awareness about sexual harassment, nothing that hadn’t been seen many times before. However, the next day a tidal wave of over 30,000 responses detailing women’s experiences with sexual harassment and assault flooded the internet and, overnight, a revolution was sparked.
As responses have poured in to answer the call of #MeToo, it cannot be understated that the power and pervasiveness of social media have been a major driving force behind this movement. We are still living, culturally speaking, at the epicenter of the movement. As I type this response there are men either coming forward or being outed as the perpetrators of sexual harassment and sexual abuse. From film producer Harvey Weinstein to News Media personalities Matt Lauer and Bill O’Reilly, from Representative Blake Farenthold to Senator Al Franken, no matter what side of the political discourse extremely powerful men are being exposed as predators and removed from their positions. It is an astonishing cultural shift when compared the social landscape of America’s cultural opinions of sexual harassment in 2006 when harassment was still something discussed only in whispers if it was discussed in public at all. In her article profiling the #MeToo movement, Sophie Gilbert looks back at the cultural opinions surrounding sexual harassment and assault “as something unspoken, something private, something to be ashamed of acknowledging” (‘The movement of #metoo,’ 2017). In the span of twelve years, that landscape seems to be changing, at least in the public sphere. The wildly successful use of social media in the #MeToo campaign has enabled women from all walks of life to talk about their experience with harassment in ways they’ve not had access too before. Tarana Burke echoes this sentiment in an article written by Emma Brockes for the guardian by the Guardian stating “When I first started Me Too, young people had no language to talk about this,” she says. “And that’s something I’ve seen change; young people have a way to talk about it now. Hearing the words ‘rape culture’ doesn’t seem foreign to them” (‘Me Too Founder Tarana Burke: You have to use your privilege to serve other people’, 2018).
Burke’s words, to me, explain the underlying importance of the #MeToo movement. It has provided a for the united states a context and a language with which to talk about sexual harassment and sexual assault, and most importantly, that language includes a space for intersectionality. The women coming forward in the #MeToo movement are from all walks of life. Their professions range from international pop star to hotel maids. They are from multiple different ethnic backgrounds and some hold vastly different political opinions. But what they all have in common is that their stories are being heard and acted upon. Recently Time Magazine named ‘The Silence Breakers’ their person of the year. The intersectional article detailed the experiences with dozens of women, among them #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, and the results of their coming forward with their allegations of sexual harassment and assault. The picture is not always pretty. Despite the cultural shift that I firmly believe is taking place each of these women also had stories of the retaliation and backlash they have received from stepping forward. But in the context of this response the most important factor here is that while the picture is not always pretty, it is finally in color. And the intersectional nature of the #MeToo movement gives it a cultural staying power that I don’t believe has been seen since the Civil Rights Movement.
Despite the success of the #MeToo Movement and the Women’s March, which is incidentally holding a second year’s march nationwide on Saturday, January 20th, 2018, there is still a long way to go toward cementing a cultural shift of attitudes surrounding sexual harassment. It cannot be understated that for every #MeToo story, there is a perpetrator of sexual harassment or assault, many of whom have never been brought to justice for their offenses. Those individuals are why we so badly need a shift in attitudes surrounding sexual harassment.
While I believe a cultural shift is taking place I also acknowledge that it is incredibly fragile. I, for one, have been shocked and elated at the follow-through of political organizations and entertainment parent companies with regard to their removal of offenders. But, alas, the sword that cuts these ties is double-sided. I find it impossible to believe that studio heads, party leaders, and other stakeholders are unaware of the harassment that takes place; this is no surprise to them. It has just become financially prudent for the issue to be addressed in the ‘right’ way. This is where the systemic nature of sexual harassment comes into play; it has been institutionalized. It is going to take the continued efforts of those involved in moving this cultural shift forward to not only stop at public figures and political figureheads but to continue on to the policymakers themselves. Remember the case of Brock Turner: he may have been convicted of rape, but a judge only sentenced him to six months in a county jail.
Like everything else I have studied whilst in the Women’s & Gender Studies Master’s program at the University of North Texas, what is required for a true change to take place is not the symbolic removal of our most public of offenders. Instead, what is required is the complete institutionalized movement toward gender parity. What is required are more women and men with a developed gendered political consciousness in policy-making positions. What is required is an intersectional evaluation of how to legislate for the benefit of our most vulnerable populations. In summation, we’re at the start of what I believe with be a fundamental shift in attitudes toward sexual harassment and sexual assault. This process is going to be fraught with conflict and it will require sacrifices on all sides, but someday, someday maybe, #MeToo will be an historical mile marker of when the road toward gender egalitarianism forked in the right direction.