Sexual harassment and assault

November 2nd, 2017

Widespread allegations

In October, The New York Times reported that for decades, movie producer Harvey Weinstein had been paying off women who accused him of sexual harassment. Soon after, The New Yorker published an article interviewing 13 women who say they were assaulted or harassed by Weinstein.

Some of the women were actresses being considered for roles in Weinstein’s films; others were staff at his production company. Ronan Farrow, who wrote The New Yorker article, said the women’s accounts showed “uncanny patterns” of abuse. In 2015, Lauren O’Connor, an employee of the Weinstein Company, wrote a letter to company executives describing a “toxic environment for women at this company.” O’Connor says aspiring actresses were required to have private appointments with Weinstein in his hotel room before meeting with O’Connor for casting discussions.

Many of those who’ve accused Weinstein of abuse also report meeting him in a hotel for what they expected to be work-related meetings. Instead, Weinstein pressured them to do things like massage him or watch him shower. A female executive from the company told Farrow that some female employees were required to be “honeypots.” They were initially present at hotel meetings with Weinstein and then dismissed so that he would be alone with the woman who had been lured there.

The women’s accounts also show a pattern of Weinstein threatening their careers if they came forward. Italian actress Asia Argento accused Weinstein of rape and said she was afraid to come forward because she feared Weinstein would “crush” her, as she knew he had done with others. Farrow reports that multiple sources say Weinstein bragged about planting negative stories about people who spoke against him. Those who made settlements with Weinstein were forced to sign strict nondisclosure agreements that required their silence. 

#MeToo social media campaign

As the accusations against Weinstein multiplied, the hashtag #MeToo began to appear on both Twitter and Facebook. Survivors of sexual assault and harassment described their experiences, as well as the culture of silence and victim blaming that surround sexual abuse. Megan Norbert, founder of a nonprofit that addresses sexual assault and an assault survivor herself, thinks celebrities coming forward has made some women feel freer to speak about their own experiences. “When it’s somebody that you see on TV, in the media, on movies, people that you admire . . . and it happened to them — it makes it suddenly more real,” Norbert says.

Many media outlets have credited actress Alyssa Milano for starting #MeToo. However, while Milano brought attention to the hashtag, the original creator is Tarana Burke. Burke created the “Me Too” campaign in 2007 as part of a grassroots effort to reach assault survivors in underserved communities, especially black women. Burke says seeing women share their stories through the #MeToo hashtag has “made [her] heart swell.” But she also points out the campaign she started wasn’t intended as “a hashtag that is here today and forgotten tomorrow. It was a catchphrase to be used from survivor to survivor to let folks know that they were not alone and that a movement for radical healing was happening and possible.”

While women’s stories of sexual assault and harassment have been the most visible, several men have shared their experiences of abuse as well. Actor Terry Crews tweeted that the accusations against Weinstein triggered memories of his own traumatic encounter with a Hollywood executive. Crews said that while attending a Hollywood function last year, a powerful executive “groped [his] privates.” When Crews jumped back in surprise, he says the executive “just grinned like a jerk.” Crews said he understands why many women in Hollywood are afraid to go public with their stories of assault. Like them, he feared being ostracized, which he described as typical when the “predator has power [and] influence.”

Preventing assault and stopping harassment

What changes are needed among individuals and in our culture to stop widespread sexual harassment and assault? How do we respond compassionately to people who have been victimized?

Author Sady Doyle points out, “In a culture where harassment and assault are this normalized, it’s women who bear the burden of accepting and surviving violence.” She believes having more women in positions of authority in workplaces and other places of power is a necessary step to reduce abuse. She also says male colleagues should speak up, rather than wait for women to do so, since confronting the problem often puts victims’ jobs at risk.

Dhanya Addanki of Sojourners magazine answers the question on the minds of many men: “What can I do?” In addition to many other ideas, she encourages men never to engage in catcalling and not to take it lightly when others do it. For many women, she says, “it reminds us of violence, of times when seemingly harmless interactions with men on the street led to being followed, threatened, inappropriately grabbed, or much more.” She shared her own recent experience of being followed by two men who were yelling obscenities. In a panic, she began to run. Three men standing nearby did nothing to intervene. She explains that for onlookers, “your primary goal should be to let the aggressor(s) know that you see them, and that you’ve got my back — not theirs.”

With children, teens and young adults at a much higher risk of sexual abuse than other age groups, some experts are urging parents, teachers and youth organizations to teach children about consent from a young age. This helps children express their own limits about how they want to be treated and also teaches them that they must respect their friends’ right to say yes or no. However, giving children and teens these tools should never obscure the fact that it’s adults who are responsible for keeping them safe.

Churches becoming safer spaces

In an article about how churches can become a safe place for assault survivors, writer Shannon Dingle says we must begin talking about the issue in the church, including during worship. She says even if we’re worried about what children may hear in worship, “discussing topics like consent, victim blaming, respect for each other’s bodies, and so on” can take place without having to use the word rape.

Dingle also emphasizes the importance of letting survivors feel their feelings. “God isn’t uncomfortable with lament, so we shouldn’t be either,” she advises. She challenges churches and leaders to consider how certain theological wording can be wounding to survivors, who statistically are likely to be in every congregation. “When you talk about sexual purity, consider how your words might land on our ears,” she writes. “When you talk about God’s sovereignty, do so in a way that acknowledges the hard questions that raises for many survivors. Why did God allow this?”

Addanki encourages people of faith to “challenge the ways that your religion might silence and oppress women.” She points to the story about the rape of Tamar by Tamar’s half-brother Amnon in 2 Samuel 13. Addanki says in all her years in church, she’s never heard a sermon that addresses how Tamar was affected by the rape, or one condemning Amnon’s actions.

Finally, if the church is to be a safer space for women and others who’ve endured harassment and assault, we must believe their words. We must say explicitly that abuse is never the fault of the person who experienced it.

These conversations will be difficult and often painful. Yet surely God is able to guide us through them so we can be a part of the healing process, and so we can prevent abuse from happening to others.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

comments powered by Disqus