I like to think of my life as constant forward motion, treating it like a journey – a road trip would be my ideal metaphor. Cruising down an endless Route 66, sitting in the driver’s seat of my 1970s station wagon, I peer up in my rearview mirror on occasion. But this year, I’m hesitant to look back. If you’re anything like me, looking back to 2017 is daunting.
It was a crazy year, to say the least, and one that will define the trajectory of our lives for years to come – to say the most.
For those of us involved in organizations seeking to end sexual violence, this last year feels equal parts exciting and exhausting. After all, so far, the news sucks. Peeking in the door mirror on my right I see Women’s Marches and #MeToo movements, and I’m hopeful now. My spirit lifted, I look into the left door mirror now – and I see how horribly pervasive sexual assault and harassment really is. But looking at the past year in such small snippets doesn’t do me any good. I overcome my fear and glance up into the rearview mirror, and this is what I see:
The Year Began…
January beckoned 2017 into existence with an inauguration that would stoke a political divide in the discussion about sexual assault. Regardless of your feelings about politics and the current presidential administration, sexual assault should stand out as a moral blemish on our lives.
In response, women from around the country flooded into Washington D.C. for the Women’s March on January 21st and 22nd. Five hundred thousand strong, people of all genders marched in protest of continued inaction against an unfair societal standard for women and other gender minorities. The march wasn’t contained to D.C. either, and organized marches and protests around the globe grew to over 2.5 million participants. The stage was set for unprecedented social change.
But, while conversations flared and political posturing from individual states continued to heat the melting pot of American diversity to a boiling point, nothing seemed to change. The gaze of media diverted from sexual assault and feminist movements to other policy changes. I felt like I must look outside of my own nation to find examples of progressive gender movement.
A Sleepy Summer
Through a lens concerned with preventing sexual assault, I thought the summer was sleepy. At its conclusion in September, a new slough of changes began to materialize. Title Ⅸ guidance was changed, allowing more leeway in the way that universities could handle accusations of sexual misconduct, harassment, and assault. On top of that, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy was threatened, making it less clear whether survivors under DACA would be taken seriously or protected from deportation if they chose to come forward.
From the position of a prevention advocate, I feared that it would leave more perpetrators free to continue to hurt people. As a human being, I feared thousands would continue to have their voices stripped away.
But Then Something Changed
The New York Times published a story detailing decades of accusations of sexual assault against Hollywood production giant Harvey Weinstein. In the coming media storm, Weinstein’s own company fired him and social and traditional media shamed him for his actions. It became clear to the country that an unchecked culture of misogyny and sexual abuse existed within the entertainment business.
Just two weekends later, a hashtag began to circulate: #MeToo. The hashtag was part of a larger organizational campaign begun by Tarana Burke. Her organization, Me Too, began their fight against sexual assault in 2006. The Sunday of that weekend, actor Alyssa Milano tweeted using #MeToo.
By the end of that night, my own Facebook feed was populated with women’s – and some men’s – statements and stories of their own experiences at the hands of abusers.
An avalanche of sexual misconduct and assault accusations ensued for the next three months (and they’re still coming) implicating not just producers and directors, but actors, comedians, and politicians. There were men on that list that I looked up to, and this forced a great reconciliation for me – as I’m sure it did for many of you. I chose to believe the survivors, regardless of who they say hurt them.
By December, the movement became so large and pervasive that Time declared its person of the year “The Silence Breakers.” The women (and men) who spoke out against their abusers were given an unprecedented platform to recount their experiences. Encouraged by these Silence Breakers, more survivors continue to come forward in the new year.
The Road Ahead
Sitting in the drivers’ seats of our lives, we can only look into that rearview mirror for so long. Eventually we have to look forward again, keeping our eyes on the road ahead of us. But there are important lessons to be gleaned from the events of this last year, and even more from those events which didn’t happen.
I would be remiss not to mention the missing intersectionality in many of the cases the media has been headlining.
Throughout the course of the emergence of the silence breakers, there has been a gross omission of effort to recognize and acknowledge sexual abuse of many other groups. Many of these, like migrant workers, are still experiencing abhorrent behavior at the hands of power structures not unlike those exposed in Hollywood. So, I hope that this is just the beginning of a much larger conversation about not just the highly visible arenas of entertainment and politics.
It’s January 2018 now, but as all mirrors will remind you, “Objects are closer than they appear.” As you hit the turn signal and take Exit 2018, I would ask you to make sure that you crank the radio up. Listen to what 2017 is telling you, and learn just one thing: the discussion on sexual assault is just beginning.