… and the muck, and the mire…
“Never, ‘for the sake of peace and quiet,’ deny your own experience or convictions.”
I shared these words of former UN Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjold a couple of times before, from a couple of different angles, and it seemed a fitting time to dust them off.
Let me start out by saying that this is NOT a post about Professor Ford and/or Justice Kavanaugh, but when all is said and done, it will go along way toward explaining why I believed her. And I will also go on record as saying that my issues with Kavanaugh, and why I thought he was unsuitable for the Supreme Court, predated any of the allegations of sexual improprieties. Concerns about his record that I did not have with Neil Gorsuch. His behavior at the Ford hearing, and his Sorry/Not Sorry op-ed piece, only demonstrated a lack of judicial temperament, but we are where we are, so we move forward. The catalyst for, not the subject of, this post.
Before I start, I need, once again, to disclose a few things about myself since they certainly make me biased on this particular subject. First, I’m a functioning, rational, human being with a strong moral compass. To compound that, I’m female. A post-feminist, well past middle age, boomer female. With two daughters. And, in spite of my widely varied, and unrelated, career choices and hobbies, I majored in psychology. And a few decades ago I volunteered as a crisis intervention counselor for rape victims. Which not only makes me biased, but somewhat qualified to offer up an opinion. In case my qualifications as a woman, or a human, aren’t enough.
Admittedly, it took me awhile to decide to write this – I’m an adult female who came of age during a unique time, and, like most of my peers, there are things about my past that I’ve not shared with my children. But my children are adults now, and things in the news recently have been so absurdly contentious – and the messaging so awful – that I want to make my perspective clearer.
I first want to talk directly to those people, male and female, who seem to find that the delay in reporting of an assault somehow implies that the assault didn’t happen, or that it somehow wasn’t as traumatizing. Or that if it wasn’t a violent rape, it, somehow, doesn’t count as anything worth noting. Or that even if it did happen, the memories from x-many years ago can’t be trusted. Those assumptions are wrong. There is a good deal of research that supports that position. Children – male and female – who were sexually abused by clergy, family members, or other authority figures generally don’t report until decades later, and then only after a great deal of therapy. Teenagers in ‘dating’ situations often never report. So please stop denigrating someone else’s trauma just because you don’t have a similar experience in your past, or you find it inconvenient to believe them when they finally do open up.
Why doesn’t a 15-year-old tell anyone, other than possibly a close friend, of a sexual assault? Often it’s because she was not where she was supposed to be and/or with who she was supposed to be with and/or she was doing things (like drinking) that she wasn’t supposed to be doing. The fear of the reaction from parents or other authority figures is a powerful thing. As is the seeming inevitability of adding punishment for what she did wrong to put herself in the position that led to her assault . And quite frankly, the public response to Professor Ford’s allegation is a live demonstration of why victims are reluctant to come forward. Even in cases which are reported and prosecuted, it is the victim who is often vilified (well just look at what you were wearing, how much you had to drink, how you were flirting), and the perpetrator often seems to be given a relative slap on the wrist because it often boils down to he said/she said (& sometimes even when there are witnesses – can’t let one incident ruin his swimming career, for example).
In a different time, and place: where teens, young adults, alcohol, and drugs mixed too freely, I experienced, and intervened in, similar enough events that I can state unequivocally that things go wrong, and don’t often get reported Besides drunken pawing in difficult places to extricate oneself from – like while in a car being driven home – perfectly sober experiences happen, as well. In an era before the term ‘date rape’ was a thing, there was often an expectation that dinner and a movie would naturally be followed by sex. Force? No. Pressure? Guilt? Absolutely. And even as a very sober adult, I’ve experienced strangers making grabs at private parts on crowded city sidewalks, men that I knew making very deliberate, very inappropriate, contact in range of their spouses, knowing well that I would never say anything to the spouse. Should I have? I still don’t know the answer. Life is often complicated. But it certainly made me far warier of the men in question when it was not possible at the time to sever ties.
It’s difficult for women, so difficult that the statistics surrounding unreported sexual assaults indicate that reports are often only made when they can’t be avoided. We know that everything thing we did prior to the assault is scrutinized. Women are advised to arm themselves – at a minimum with pepper spray – and to carry their keys protruding from their fingers, to carry whistles or alarms, to watch what they wear, watch what they drink, don’t be too flirty, don’t walk alone, park near lights, to find ways to prevent an assault. Men apparently don’t need, or get, the same advise. Perhaps they should – sexual assaults of men are vastly underreported outside of institutional settings. Too underreported to quantify – but keep in mind that many of the boys abused by clergy members and coaches were abused well into their teens. And when they reported at all, it was years later.
My husband is remarkably sensitive to women’s issues, but a recent conversation we had made it clear how unaware men – especially young men can be. While discussing the subject of assault, my husband said that they used to pull down girls tube tops/halters, and no one had a problem with it when we were young. And since many of those same girls would go skinny dipping at the lake, it really wasn’t a problem. But see, many of those girls did have a problem with it – but embarrassment wins. They laugh it off, or shrug it off & move on. But it’s uncomfortable, and embarrassing, and well, you didn’t want to be a prude. So uncool. And while there is a certain amount of dissonance on the girls’ part, it isn’t as big as it seems. Removing all or some clothing to swim is voluntary. Having your halter untied is not. But, because we said nothing and let the status quo be, yet another generation of women grew up tolerating far more than we should have. Far more than we want our daughters to. Far more than anyone’s daughters (or sons) should.
The flip side to this of course, has been the ‘what about our men – what message are we sending when they can be accused at any time about youthful indiscretions?’ I have several friends that are mothers only to sons, and they were quickly swayed by that fallacy. And it is a fallacy. Criminal justice estimates put false accusations of sexual assault at 3 to 7% of reported sex crimes. Just looking at what women who report assaults are subjected to provides a good indicator of why those numbers are so low. And the single most offensive thing I saw on social media was the use of Emmet Till’s lynching as an indication of the dangers of false accusations. No – that was an indication of why racism must never be tolerated. In a non racist time a black boy would not have been accused of behaving inappropriately for speaking to a white woman. He would not have been lynched. His killers would not have been acquitted. To equate that horrifying example of racism to Professor Ford coming forward with a credible past event from her past is offensive and not even remotely comparable.
Most of all, I worry about the message the adults are sending to kids right now. That boys will be boys and in the face of inappropriate sexual behavior not reporting it at the time it occurs means it was meaningless, but to report it at all may sully the reputation of the alleged perpetrator. This attitude is concerning because it not merely perpetuates the belief that sexual assaults are about sex – when they are always about power – but it explicitly makes the bad behavior of teen-age and young adult males an acceptable part of life that our daughters should just deal with. What on earth are we becoming? We should be teaching our children, sons and daughters alike, to be respectful, responsible adult humans. We should be teaching them that, under any circumstances, unwanted sexual contact is wrong. If we’ve done our jobs, both assaults, and the risk of false accusations, will be greatly reduced.
It is incumbent upon us to recognize that we are the agents of change. We can dial back the anger, and the knee-jerk reactions, and the blatant manipulations from those on the extremes long enough to realize that we, as individuals, have to be better. We have to raise our children to be better. We no longer act merely in opposition to those we disagree with – we act as if we are enemies. Our country, our society, is being torn apart because we are allowing it to be. Manufactured outrage. And making things better requires us to act. To speak out. To write. To not merely sit back and allow our selves to be manipulated.
“Hatred and fear blind us. We no longer see each other. We only see the faces of monsters, and that gives us the courage to destroy each other.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
Earlier today I’d seen an October 5th post from Robert Redford that said everything so much better than I could:
“Tonight, for the first time I can remember, I feel out of place in the country I was born into and the citizenship I’ve loved my whole life. For weeks I’ve watched with sadness as our civil servants have failed us, turning toward bigotry, mean-spiritedness and mockery as the now-normal tools of the trade.
How can we expect the next generation to step up and serve, to be interested in public life, and to aspire to get involved when all we show them is how to spar, attack and destroy each other?
It’s hard to blame young people for calling us out, and pointing to our conflicts between the values we declare, and those we stand behind only when it’s convenient to partisanship. Many people are rightly calling it a damn mess.
But I want to encourage you to dig deep for hope and civility right now — to try to make connections with people you disagree with, to be better than our politicians.
We don’t have to share the same motivations to want the same outcomes. Let’s focus on each other, and strengthening our communities, and reflecting on what’s happening. Let’s live in justice and respect and let others fight it out now to the bitter ends.
This is our country too. Every woman, man and child in it, our American future.
We’ve got work to do.”
Storm clouds at sunset on October 3, 2018.