In the last week, hundreds of thousands of women shared stories of sexual assault in response to a single tweet from blogger Kelly Oxford. For nearly 72 hours, the outpouring of unvarnished, emotional, and very real stories was relentless – at one point, over 50 responses per minute. Women revealed molestation by family members, groping by strangers, and unwanted sexual contact by friends.
Solidarity with other survivors is central to healing. As a survivor myself, I experienced this solidarity first-hand in a small therapy group on my college campus. By listening and honoring each other’s experience, we released a little bit of our shame. This kind of connection matters, whether with fellow survivors or simply with the people who love you.
The online avalanche of support for #NotOkay in these last few days revealed a lot about hidden realities in our world, and the stories that are missed when survivors of sexual violence are made to feel ashamed of their experience. It also revealed a not-so-secret fact – the overwhelming silence of men in the anti-sexual violence movement.
This isn’t unexpected, and often, it’s interpreted in a negative light – sometimes deservedly so. We wonder if men lack empathy about survivors’ experiences and are complicit in a culture that celebrates sexual violence. Maybe they participate in “locker-room talk” that graphically describes sexual assault. Worse still – what if they are perpetrators?
But what if, instead, these men were themselves victims of sexual assault? Kelly Oxford directed the #NotOkay movement to women, given the accusations against Donald Trump. Yet it’s a common misperception that women are the only victims of sexual violence, and indeed that’s the focus of much of the current narrative. One in four U.S. women are victims of sexual abuse or assault – and so are one in six men.
In the impassioned conversations about sexual assault, the solidarity amongst survivors is in the experience of violation, shame, and the stigma that comes from violence that is sexual in nature. This is not limited to gender. Male survivors deserve to be seen and heard and they should feel empowered to speak their truth and experience. Their trauma is real, and often goes unnoticed.
But what about men who are not survivors or perpetrators? Why do many of them remain silent? In reality, most men feel helpless and sad when it comes to sexual violence. Most men care deeply about survivors. They may know them and love them in intimate ways. Silence doesn’t always mean complicity. Silence is often simply discomfort.
Sometimes, when men do speak up in public discussions, they make statements that are awkward and uncomfortable, offending survivors and the people who support them. These comments could come from a place of deliberate ignorance or disrespect, like assertions that banter about rape is normal and acceptable – now unfortunately and incorrectly referred to as “locker room talk.” But many times, seemingly offensive statements reflect a lack of skill when it comes to navigating conversations about a topic they don’t often discuss. That doesn’t make those comments okay, but, when they are then attacked for saying the wrong thing; it feeds the endless cycle of men avoiding conversations about sexual violence. When it comes to directly interacting with survivors, whether face-to-face or online, many men just choose silence. And while fear of discomfort is understandable, it also means these men aren’t providing support for survivors when they need it the most.
As women, we have been taught to vocalize our feelings, share our stories, and connect with the people who love us. Too many men are still learning how to approach difficult conversations and topics with empathy, compassion and respect. We must encourage our male allies and survivors to participate because it is #NotOkay for them either. We must broadcast more examples of men who do speak up, who do add their voices to the conversation, who do participate as allies in the movement.
First Lady Michelle Obama emotionally spoke about the challenge many men are grappling with as the 2016 election continues: “They are loving fathers who are sickened by the thought of their daughters being exposed to this kind of vicious language about women. They are husbands and brothers and sons who don’t tolerate women being treated and demeaned and disrespected.”
So yes, some men (and women) say and do horribly sexist and offensive things. Yes, we are all victims of a culture that allows sexual violence to take place at unacceptable rates. But if we can’t find a way to connect to each other, look survivors in the eyes, and create new conversations, what exactly are we fighting for?
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