#METOO Movement Brings Crucial Awareness to the Spectrum of Violence
BY SARAH WENGERT
Photography by Anna Finocchiaro
In 2017, many of us boldly said “#MeToo.” We said it on social media, in blogs, at marches, at happy hour, around the dinner table, and even on the cover of TIME magazine. But those two powerful words that ultimately crescendoed to a collective shout started with one brave voice, when Tarana Burke founded the #MeToo movement in 2006 to help sexual violence survivors heal and thrive based around a concept of “empowerment through empathy.”
Burke’s movement started with a focus on young women of color from low-wealth communities but has ultimately “built a community of survivors from all walks of life,” according to MeTooMvmt.org. “By bringing vital conversations about sexual violence into the mainstream, we’re helping to de-stigmatize survivors by highlighting the breadth and impact sexual violence has on thousands of women, and we’re helping those who need it to find entry points to healing.
Ultimately, with survivors at the forefront of this movement, we’re aiding the fight to end sexual violence. We want to uplift radical community healing as a social justice issue and are committed to disrupting all systems that allow sexual violence to flourish.”
Kim Carpenter, a private consultant in Omaha who has created programming for Survivors Rising, says #MeToo has allowed survivors to feel a little more safe to disclose.
“When you have that in the media and so many people are able to publicly disclose, it allows a lot of other women to consider disclosing,” says Carpenter. “When you face sexual harassment, sexual abuse, domestic violence, any of those things, you don’t want to believe it’s happening yourself. Then you might have family, friends, employers who also don’t want you to think it’s happening. Often, when you combine those two influences, you silence yourself.
The Me Too movement is saying, ‘Yes, this really happened to you. Yes, this is abuse. Yes, it’s OK to talk about it. And no, you don’t deserve this, you deserve respect.’ Although those are simple messages and ones we think women should automatically just know, they often don’t. Not internally. Those are very external messages that we need to internalize so that women feel like they can safely come forward.”
Sara Eliason, prevention and education manager at the Women’s Center for Advancement (WCA), agrees the #MeToo movement is helping bring sexual violence out of the shadows and empower survivors, which she says advances the cause of freedom from violence by spreading crucial awareness and space for survivors’ stories. “The Me Too movement has been really amazing at allowing everyone with a variety of experiences to say, ‘Yeah, this is happening.’ — whether it was a full-on rape or sexual harassment they experienced in the workplace or on the street, recognizing that all of this is a problem,” says Eliason.
One key factor of the #MeToo movement is that it welcomes survivors from across the spectrum of sexual violence to take part — from street harassment to rape, and everywhere in between. Carpenter says this is crucial to addressing the issue because “the spectrum of sexual violence is very broad.”
“You have everything from unwanted touching, inappropriate comments, sexual jokes, coercion, and then all the way to the other end of the spectrum, which is rape and even murder,” says Carpenter. “Sexual harassment is often minimized because people don’t understand the spectrum and that sexual coercion, crude jokes, touching, those types of things, are forms of sexual abuse. Oftentimes they are perceived as ‘just joking around’ or something very harmless, so at that end of the spectrum we really struggle with identification and it’s hard because survivors or victims who are targets of those behaviors may have difficulty ever thinking about reporting when they and others are minimizing it.”
Eliason says that while to classify an act as sexual violence Nebraska law requires there be force, fraud, or coercion present that takes away consent, the WCA’s definition includes “any sort of sexual act that is against the consent or has been done without the consent of an individual.”
“We work with anyone who feels they’ve been victimized, whether or not they can prove lack of consent,” says Eliason. “It could be anything from getting catcalled on the street—because sexual violence can be verbal, it’s not solely that physical aspect that we more commonly think about. Verbal sexual violence can be very powerful. It creates a toxic environment for someone and that’s where we see the spectrum of violence start—jokes about rape, for example—because it normalizes sexual violence and that’s why we need to cut that off from the beginning before it normalizes that behavior and escalates.”
From video games where players can rape women to degrading women in music and movies to real-life court cases where rapists get a gentle slap on the wrist, Eliason says children and adults receive many messages that minimize the horror and consequences of sexual violence, thus normalizing it in many cases.
“A lot of my work in prevention is focused on changing mentalities about sexual violence,” she says. “In our culture today we’re receiving a lot of messages that perpetuate really negative perceptions of women and sexuality. When we’re giving young people these images and abilities to perpetuate some of these sexually violent actions through video games or watching media or listening to lyrics, it really does create the sense that it’s normal and not a big deal.
Then when we see cases in the news of sexual violence where the perpetrator receives no punishment or very little punishment—say, three months and released after good behavior—that again perpetuates the idea that we don’t really take this seriously as a culture. There’s no reason to not do this because you’re not going to be punished for it—that makes it easier for people to cross the line into more aggressive and more violent behavior.”
Bobby Brumfield, co-founder and strategic chair of Men Against Domestic Violence Action Coalition (MADVAC), works to train and retrain boys and men to refrain from all forms of sexual violence. The former police officer, who left the force in 2010 and currently works as an independent security strategist specializing in workplace violence prevention, co-founded MADVAC with fellow former officer Charlie Venditte in 2015.
“We’re a volunteer group of men who are engaging boys and men in the prevention of domestic and sexual violence against women,” Brumfield says. “We think the key is not changing what masculinity is, but helping young men understand the differences between healthy and unhealthy masculinity.
If we can get young men to take the route of healthy masculinity, then a lot of sexual harassment and violence won’t happen because of that change in mindset and culture. The best way we can get involved and support a movement like Me Too is to promote healthy masculinity.”
Carpenter and Eliason both applaud MADVAC’s efforts and agree that more education and awareness is needed to address and decrease the problem of sexual violence in our community. “[Me Too] has also helped open men’s eyes to this violence,” says Eliason.
“Obviously, there are men who are victims as well, and the vast majority of men are not perpetrators, but I think those men who are not perpetrators also have not previously realized the magnitude of the violence that the women in their lives are experiencing. The Me Too movement has really personalized the violence so that people realize that this is happening to the people in your life that you care about.”
Brumfield says non-offending men should be key allies in educating other men. “Jackson Katz said it best: ‘Sexual violence is a men’s issue.’ With the vast majority of the perpetrators of sexual violence being men, that absolutely makes it a men’s issue. Men have to be at the forefront—I’m not saying take over a movement—but they definitely have to be at the forefront of prevention,” he says.
When it comes to educating people, Eliason says there are many aspects—such as simply defining sexual violence and consent—that make good starting points on the path to achieve understanding. For example, she says women are raised to know what sexual violence is from a young age, whereas men often don’t have the same real-life exposure to the topic.
“I do a really great activity in some of my presentations where I ask all the women in the room, ‘What do you do to keep yourself from getting raped?’ and the list is long. It takes about five minutes to fill a whiteboard with all the different things that women do to keep themselves safe, and it is things that women have been taught to do from a young age, before they even really understood that they were doing this to protect themselves from sexual violence,” Eliason says. “When you ask men the same question, you generally get crickets.
They’ve never even considered that they need to protect themselves from sexual violence, and so I think it carries over that they’ve also never considered that the women in their lives have had to think about this, because it’s just not even on their radar.”
Eliason says that because of some men’s level of awareness, they may not realize their actions to be sexually violent. But she’s quick to note that the majority of sexual violence perpetrators are serial offenders, and the vast majority of men are not perpetrators.
“It’s a very delicate balance of figuring out how we move forward, because I don’t want men to feel like they’re being blamed for all this, because it is not the majority of men,” she says. “But again, they just don’t have that same awareness that women do, so I think often they may be engaging in behavior without realizing how detrimental it can be, such as sexual jokes, innuendos and things like that.”
Carpenter agrees that what individuals learn or do not learn and their level of awareness dramatically affects their actions in regard to the spectrum of sexual violence. “If you’re raised with entitlement and privilege to abuse or degrade others without any accountability, or with the belief system that it’s OK to touch someone without permission or to oppress somebody—that kind of bully mentality—then you will continue for the rest of your life to seek examples that confirm that,” Carpenter says. “It’s a belief system that starts very young for men, so a part of them doesn’t even think they’re doing anything wrong. Alternately, in cases where they do know their behavior is wrong—especially now with an active, ongoing, mainstream discussion—sometimes they don’t want to accept that or be accountable for their actions. Nobody wants to label themselves an abuser.”
Brumfield agrees, noting that MADVAC works to combat those early-ingrained belief systems in both young men and young women. “We’ve spoken to groups with young women who didn’t even realize that some of the things they’re going through are abusive,” Brumfield says. “We’re up against that cycle of violence where they may even see it at home and it becomes the norm, so they really don’t believe that what’s happening to them is wrong or that what they’re doing is wrong. That’s why we really have to concentrate on education and reach them young with that education.”
The same lack of awareness and the struggle against deeply ingrained societal and personal belief systems is a huge barrier when it comes to workplace sexual harassment. Carpenter says that’s why the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recommends bystander training. “The reason they think that’s so important is because when you’re doing training in the workplace and talking about behaviors people shouldn’t be doing, they’ve found that the women in the room don’t want to identify as victims and the men in the room don’t want to identify as offenders.
But you can get people to identify as bystanders, and that’s an intervention point, where bystanders will see behavior and intervene,” Carpenter says. In a 2016 report, the EEOC estimated that 75 percent of all workplace harassment incidents go unreported. Based on expert testimony and various academic articles, the EEOC report concluded that anywhere from 25 to 85 percent of women reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace.
Why such a large range? It turned out that women in studies who were asked if they’d ever faced sexual harassment at work without any definition provided tended to underreport and fall more in the 25 percent range. However, in studies that asked the question accompanied by examples of workplace sexual harassment, the rate of women who reported experiencing it rose significantly. After finding this consistent trend across several studies, the EEOC noted that “researchers have concluded that many individuals do not label certain forms of unwelcome sexually based behaviors—even if they view them as problematic or offensive—as sexual harassment.”
Carpenter is working on a workplace toolkit focused on creating safe workplace environments for victims and survivors of violence. She says the idea came from a collaboration initially forged between the Women’s Fund of Omaha and the Human Resource Association of the Midlands (HRAM).
Many key stakeholders are helping contribute to and review the guide and its implementation, including regional human resources professionals, HRAM, Women’s Fund, and survivors from Survivors Rising. Carpenter says that employers are likely to recognize signs of sexual violence in a team member’s life, such as domestic violence, sexual harassment, stalking or sex trafficking.
For example, when an employee habitually comes to work with bruises or is being contacted or visited frequently in an unwelcome way by a stalker. “Employers, supervisors, managers or even coworkers can become allies or a source of support for people trying to escape sexual violence,” Carpenter says. “Whether the offender is external or internal, they can start documenting things, be a source of support, talk to the employee about it, connect her with resources. If nothing else, they can acknowledge that it’s happening, because again, victims always feel like they’re crazy and no one will believe them.”
“It’s really important for leaders in organizations to address the violence,” Eliason says. “To say, ‘In my office, this kind of violence or harassment is not tolerated. I have an open-door policy if anyone ever wants to talk about this.’ Managers may assume that their team knows they don’t tolerate it, but it really makes a difference to speak up about it, to actually say the words that this behavior is unacceptable, and for victims to have that open door and for there to be a culture of being able to ask questions.”
Carpenter agrees that proactively setting very clearly defined boundaries for behavior and tolerance is crucial. “Some of the research on sexual harassment in the workplace is showing that you want to catch those behaviors when they’re not as violent yet as they could become. You want to set that tolerance very early, because research shows that when there are no boundaries in place, it does escalate at higher rates because there is no accountability for those smaller behaviors,” she says.
“That’s why the EEOC is starting to recommend civility training as well, because it teaches respect and what you should do versus what you shouldn’t do. They see that as a deterrent to stop behaviors from escalating.” As for what individuals can do to work towards freedom from violence for women, there are solutions in changing our mentalities and willingness to speak up, and in how we hold our lawmakers accountable.
“More and more we are trying to turn the discussion away from the victims,” Eliason says. “One easy thing to do is to not ask those stereotypical questions of the victim like, ‘What were they wearing?’ or ‘How much were they drinking?’ or ‘What might have they done to deserve this?’ We should stop asking those questions the next time we see a big case in the media, and instead immediately turn to the perpetrator and say, ‘What led them to think this behavior is OK?’ We need to stop having these conversations about the victims and what they may have done to deserve this, because no victim ever deserves to be assaulted or violated.”
Carpenter agrees that we must reframe the questions we ask about cases of sexual violence at any point along the spectrum—whether sexual harassment, domestic violence or rape. “Historically, the question regarding domestic violence is, ‘Why does she stay?’ That question always comes up first in any sort of domestic violence training I’ve done over the last 30 years. Not, ‘Why does he batter, harass, rape, or sexually abuse?’
These are the questions we need to be asking, and that’s a shift in paradigm that really needs to happen in order for us to make any sort of substantial change,” Carpenter says. “For gender-based violence, society acts like the woman is supposed to prevent her own victimization, and we don’t treat any other crime like that.”
This shift in paradigm is exactly what MADVAC hopes to achieve at the preventative level. “It’s important that we put the stigma of abuse on the offender, not on the victim, which is what’s happening now,” Brumfield says. “I think that has to be led by men as well, and the way we do that is talking to young boys really early and letting them know that if you do this you’re in the wrong, you’re the bad guy, and that stigma is on the offender and not the victim. The end goal is switching that stigma around.”
It’s important to speak out wherever and whenever you can while also maintaining personal safety, according to Eliason—whether that’s speaking up about an inappropriate joke, notifying authorities or management of a crime or uncomfortable incident, reaching out to a victim as an ally or holding your representatives accountable.
“There needs to be a bigger focus at the legislative level,” Eliason says. “We must create systems that take these crimes seriously so that when perpetrators are caught they are given a punishment that fits the crime. We have to make sure that we’re enforcing the law as well, to ensure that people know that this isn’t OK and they take it more seriously.”
The WCA has a 24-hour hotline available at 402.345.7273. To partner or volunteer with MADVAC, email email@example.com.