An age-old power struggle, a form of oppression that transcends every race and class, a timeless form of terrorism. There are infinitely many ways to describe sexual violence, as it haunts men and women from every generation and culture. From Hollywood to Washington, D.C., to college campuses and our own backyards, society is quick to taboo the idea of sexual violence but has yet to find a way to empower victims.
Recent months have proven monumental strides in the fight against sexual violence. For the first time in history, women are not as afraid to come forward, and for the first time, the public is ready to listen, to help and believe those who have been made victims by the horrendous acts of sexual violence.
According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, one out of every six American women has been a victim of attempted or completed rape in their lifetime and of these, only 230 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to the police.
Sexual violence, whether it be harassment or assault, is staggeringly widespread. It is frequently evaluated by its degree of severity, which often confuses many.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines harassment as “offensive remarks about a person’s sex, unwelcome sexual advances [and] requests for sexual behaviors.”
While harassment often preludes to assault, it is not often taken as seriously as the latter. Assault is defined as explicit sexual contact that occurs “without the consent of the recipient.”
There is no doubt that sexual violence is one of the biggest, and surprisingly controversial, obstacles faced by women today. To combat this societal epidemic, feminist movements, such as the Women’s March, a grassroots organization that started on Facebook, and the #MeToo movement, founded by youth worker Tarana Burke in 2006, have garnered much attention towards sexual violence in today’s society and have taken drastic steps to end it.
The Women’s March and the #MeToo campaign are just two examples of modern feminist movements. In addition to combating sexual violence, the Women’s March and the #MeToo movement hope to battle other female-related issues, such as job discrimination, which is manifested in the wage gap and reproductive liberties, which are manifested in the abortion, and Planned Parenthood controversies.
“Feminism is a really important movement. It has had a lot of important waves, but the one right now is super important,” junior Anna Bayuk said. “It is influential in the sense that it is not only working to get women equal rights, but it is working so that women aren’t always afraid.”
In 2017, movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s career abruptly ended after a series of sexual assault allegations. What was most notable about this incident, however, was not a single allegation, but a series of them after the initial ones had been publicized on the media. A similar trend was seen involving President Donald Trump, with over 22 women accusing him of sexual misconduct, according to Business Insider.
“Sexual assault has always been a controversy. I think with a lot of people coming out with their experiences and it being in the news so much it’s become even more controversial,” junior Haley Stav said. “I think a lot of people just don’t want to believe that these big men in Hollywood and politics are capable of that.”
In the past few months alone, countless careers have been ended due to sexual assault allegations. “Today Show” host Matt Lauer, former chief justice of Alabama Roy Moore, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, “House of Cards” star Kevin Spacey and Minnesota Senator Al Franken, are just a few of many names on the seemingly growing list.
“I grew up watching many of these people,” senior Wilson Huang said. “It’s both saddening and disgusting to see that they were capable of this all along.”
There is no doubt that media coverage has made a major contribution in bringing attention towards individuals guilty of harassment and assault.
“It’s because of the bravery of all women and activists before us we’ve been able to get to this point,” Bayuk said. “Because of them, we’re at a tipping point where change is happening a lot faster.”
However, history has proven that with any monumental movement, backlash always ensues. For many, it was epitomized by the Brett Kavanaugh case this past September where the Supreme Court nominee was accused of sexual harassment by Stanford research psychologist Christine Blasey Ford and two other women.
“I am here today not because I want to be. I am terrified. I am here because I believe it is my civic duty to tell you what happened to me while Brett Kavanaugh and I were in high school,” Ford said in her testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
While Ford was ultimately unable to prove that Kavanaugh was indeed guilty of her allegations, her testimony revived a centuries old debate about the credibility of women in cases of assault.
“This whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit… When it was needed, this allegation was unleashed and publicly deployed over Dr. Ford’s wishes,” Kavanaugh said in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “And then as no doubt was expected- if not planned – came a long series of false last – minute smears designed to scare me and drive me out of the process before any hearing occured.”
In this instance, believing a case of sexual assault became a matter of red versus blue, with many advocates of Kavanaugh’s political agenda quick to deny the credibility of his accusers, labeling it a political conspiracy. While the public may never know the truth behind what happened, the implications of the clash between Kavanaugh and Ford extend far beyond politics.
“I know the Kavanaugh case brought a lot of people back to their own experiences of sexual assault,” Stav said. “I think it was really toxic to say [Ford] was just trying to destroy his political career. I think it prevented a lot of people from stepping forward out of fear that they would be blamed in the same manner.”
For many, Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court symbolized a reason for women to not come forward with their stories. In fact, a study by Psychology Today identifies shame and fear of consequences, such as losing one’s job and physical safety, alongside denial and feelings of helplessness to be the main reasons why most incidents of sexual assault go unreported to the police.
“If you take all the negative things that come out of being sexually assaulted in addition to the act itself, I don’t think anyone would fake that,” Stav said. “It’s a horrifying experience, and we have to believe survivors.”
While the notion of a widespread conspiracy that is pointed towards destroying the reputation of one individual makes for a tempting story, statistics have proven that is largely unlikely, taking into consideration the repercussions a victim must face when stepping forward.
Sexual assault and harassment is an issue that is controversial by nature, but if one thing is clear, it is that it extends far beyond the giants in Hollywood and Washington, D.C. The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network reports that sexual violence happens every 98 seconds, making it an issue that is so prominent, that it consistently plagues the lives of all women, no matter their culture or socio-economic status.
Such has been the case throughout history, making it plausible to say that skepticism towards women has been embedded into many societal conventions. In the Code of Hammurabi, one of the oldest examples of written law, the rape of a virgin was regarded as property damage done towards the victim’s father. It was not until years after the abolishment of slavery that women of color were finally protected by rape laws, despite enduring years of sexual violence at the hands of their masters. At every phase of human progress – not just in America – the rights of women as humans, not just sexual objects, has been a lesser priority in a world run by men.
Perhaps its prevalence in the day-to-day lives of women has served as the true momentum behind recent strides to bring justice towards victims of sexual assault.
“Seeing this stuff on the news is just a reminder that no matter who runs our country, we can always overpower [them]. We have the right to be who we are. We can do whatever we want and not have to live in fear,” junior Noa Golan said.
While typical cases of assault and harassment are not met with Senate judiciary hearings and weeks of bold headlines and endless media coverage, the public is now more aware than ever and women are gradually overcoming their fear of being judged for the violence that has been inflicted upon them.
“Sexual assault is very scary. I know of a lot of people who have experienced it, but at the same time I refuse to let that limit me and what I’m capable of doing,” Stav said. “Everyone should feel free to express themselves and push themselves to their limits without fearing sexual assault.”
The upcoming months mark a beacon of hope in the feminist movement and in the changing dynamic of women’s rights. At a national level, every case will not only signify the priorities of our nation, but also serve as a reminder to women about what they are fighting for.
This story was originally published in the January 2019 Eagle Eye print edition.