Earlier this semester, students in my English composition classes at the University of Akron read Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”Written in 1729, Swift’s satirical solution to rampant poverty in Ireland was for English overlords to buy and eat 1-year-old Irish babies.
Swift compares the Irish to livestock, which is to say, less than human. My students and I discussed other groups of people who’ve been considered less than human, and to what end. Africans in order to justify slavery. Jews, Roma, Scinti, homosexuals and the intellectually disabled in order to justify genocide. Latino immigrants to justify tearing children away from their parents.
Then there are women. In a recent column, Nicholas Kristof wrote, “In surveys, when men are asked whether they have ever had sex with a woman or girl without her consent, a surprising number cheerfully say they have, without considering themselves rapists. They simply perceive themselves as fun-loving guys in a hunting game in which a ‘no’ can be vitiated with alcohol and muscular assertiveness; they leave smirking and the women leave traumatized.”
Politics aside, the twists and turns in the current Supreme Court confirmation saga are generating important conversations. My son Hugo called me from school the day after the hearings of Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh to discuss what happened. Friends with daughters are sitting them down to talk about sexual assault, underscoring that should they, God forbid, ever be assaulted, to please tell their parents immediately.
I was 25 when the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings regarding Anita Hill’s allegations of workplace sexual harassment by her boss, Clarence Thomas. In a nationally televised, live broadcast, I saw a courageous young woman harassed yet again. I quickly realized the men I once viewed as elder statesmen were little different than schoolyard bullies.
The Kavanaugh proceedings were reminiscent of those from 1991. Like other women my age and older, I wonder what, if any, progress has been made in the ensuing 27 years.
The same year Dr. Blasey alleges Judge Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her, I was invited to a party at the summer house of a wealthy young man in northern Michigan. His father owned, among many businesses, a ship that served dinner each night on Lake Michigan. Many of the ship’s waiters were college mates of the son, and their home was, for a few months, a de facto frat house.
Shortly after I arrived, a group of men passed me, two of them holding a semi-conscious woman upright as they dragged her to another room. She wore a sweatshirt, but no pants. Using permanent marker, her rapists, for that’s what they were, had graffitied her legs with words like “slut” and “whore” and images of male genitalia. I knew the woman. We were both rising seniors in the same high school.
I wish I could write I stopped the men and found a way to take my classmate home. But in my ignorance, formed by societal norms and reinforced throughout my childhood, I wondered why she let those guys do that to her. I left as soon as I could and never returned.
This past summer at the University of Rochester, where Hugo is a senior, all seven fraternity houses were vandalized. Two female students spray-painted the words “I Was Raped Here” on the front of each house. The women had been raped at two of the houses and they knew, firsthand, women who were sexually assaulted in each of the others.
Earlier this year, I listened to an episode of the podcast “Hidden Brain.” Titled “Why Now,” the piece asks why the #MeToo movement exploded last year, bringing down several powerful men, many of whom had been accused of sexual assault for years, even decades.
The podcast describes how “preference falsification” can explain why women often choose not to report. It’s because they’ve witnessed what happens to women who have. At best, they are ignored, their allegations dismissed. At worst, as alleged of Harvey Weinstein, powerful men can destroy their victims’ careers, devastating lives they’ve already traumatized.
Women weigh the benefit versus the cost of coming forward with allegations of sexual assault. Both Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford recounted anguishing at length with their decisions. All too often, women accurately determine the costs outweigh the benefits, leaving perpetrators free to assault again.
But in the era of #MeToo, the preference falsification has begun to reverse. “The social proof has changed,” says the host of “Hidden Brain.” Society, for this moment, has switched the burden of proof from the victim to the accused. The current Supreme Court confirmation process seems a test of whether this reversal will continue.
As with all difficult issues, the two most powerful tools of parents are modeling and talking. Ideally, all children would grow up in families where both parents respect one another. For children who do not, the examples of other families — those of their friends, relatives, and even acquaintances — can provide a vital counterpoint.
But even when parents do respect one another, it is still important they talk to their children, to cultivate relationships where children are comfortable bringing home difficult questions and discussions.
Tell your underage daughters and sons to avoid parties with alcohol, and to be hyper-cautious when attending them after turning 21.
Tell your sons no means no, even when first told yes.
Tell your daughters it is never OK — no matter what she wears, how much she drinks or any other variable — for a man to touch her body without her explicit consent. Neither is it OK for anyone to discuss sexual matters, either in earnest or jest, without her explicit consent.
“Boys will be boys” and “It’s just locker-room talk” are code phrases that trivialize and dehumanize women in order to justify sexual assault. Feminism is the radical notion that women are fully human. It seems obvious, but the endless stories of sexual assault indicate we have a long way to go before the full humanity of women is accepted as a universal truth.
This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, October 7, 2018.