Emotional Health

Fighting to be Heard: Women Report Sex Crimes

The issue of sexual assault against women is being brought into the forefront of our consciousness lately, and one result is large numbers of women have been recalling and recounting their own experiences. For example, one woman remembered that she had been assaulted five different times before she was 19, but hadn’t put them all together in her mind until recently, as each case was slightly different. But the fundamentals are the same, and women are speaking out, viewing these incidents with fresh eyes, empowered by others’ revelations of these painful incidents. This discussion is long overdue.

Kelly Oxford’s Twitter feed #notokay, put up after the Access Hollywood audiotape went viral, got 50 tweets a minute from women asked to report their own first experience of assault. And The New York Times reported: “A social media movement was born as multitudes of women came forward to share their stories. The result has been a kind of collective, nationwide purge of painful, often long-buried memories.”

Women have been been emboldened by the courage of others. One woman came forward to reveal an alleged sexual assault by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in 1999. The Alaska lawyer said in a statement “that while she had felt powerless at the time of the groping, ‘17 years later, it is clear that sexual harassment, misconduct and assault continue to be pervasive, having an impact on all women.’ She added, ‘I choose to speak out now in the hope that this will change.’”

The question comes up over and over: why did she wait so long? Perhaps it was seeing what happened to one of her predecessors, Anita Hill, that made her feel powerless. In Thomas’ confirmation hearing for the Court in 1991,  “Hill, a law professor who had worked for Justice Thomas before he became a judge, said he had tried to date her, used sexual innuendo and described pornographic movies in vivid detail.”

Hill, who testified reluctantly, was clearly deeply ashamed of having to describe the actions she was alleging, and her dramatic account seemed credible. She was put through a grueling hearing, questioned by an all-male panel of senators, and in the end the Senate confirmed Thomas’ nomination.  (For an excellent dramatization, watch HBO’s Confirmation). She was derided and accused of having ulterior motives. Sen. John Danforth even suggested Hill might have “erotomania,” harboring delusional fantasies about her former boss. She returned to her “private” life, humiliated and exposed.

Still, the Hill accusations shed new light on the issue of harassment in the workplace, and Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California congresswoman in 1991, credits Hill’s courage with inspiring her to run for the Senate. But many women were left feeling discouraged and disheartened by the three-day spectacle. The takeaway was that we shouldn’t challenge the male hegemony, or, as the saying goes, “if you aim for the king, you better not miss.”

The issue of power is central to Trump’s own words, his recorded remarks about how he behaves. Speaking to Billy Bush on the tape he said when “you’re famous” women allow uninvited advances. Another tape reveals Trump saying to Howard Stern on his show,

“I sort of get away with things like that,” referring to walking into the dressing rooms of young female beauty contestants. In this recording he is admitting that while he knows it is beyond the standards of decency, he goes beyond them because of his power.

But a man does not have to be rich, or famous to overpower and intimidate a woman. Many victims of harassment, assault, and rape point to this being central to their victimization. Often women fear retaliation from the man they accuse, which can come in the form of further victimization. There are many commons fears that plague victims, for good reason.

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  • Jan Neavill Hersh October 26, 2017 at 5:20 pm

    Well said. It is time for us to stand up and stop abuse.

  • Cecilia M. Ford November 3, 2016 at 1:39 pm

    The more of us who speak out, even anonymously, the more this issue can be understood and fought. Liz Meriwether has an interesting piece in New York Magazine this week (http://nymag.com/thecut/2016/10/laughing-until-we-cry-conversations-about-getting-groped.html) about a dinner she had with her parents. As she and her mother recalled their history of assaults, her husband and father became more and more uncomfortable. She writes, after he dad left the table, “I realized what it means to include men in these conversations.” Most men are unaware of how widespread this problem is and don’t understand our shared history of experiences.

  • Andrea November 3, 2016 at 11:15 am

    Thank you for sharing your story. It’s so important for our voices to be heard!

  • Dr Pat November 3, 2016 at 7:57 am

    Dr Ford,
    You have courageously described traumatic events in your younger life as a result of the national conversation about sexual assault. We thank you and support you and the too many to count girls and women who have been victimized.