The recent news is staggering yet not surprising: Women everywhere in our nation have been victimized by sexual harassment and assault. Actors, Olympians, state legislators, business leaders, graduate students, you, me, too.
Many men express gratitude for this new understanding of the scope of the problem and the way it benefits even those men who aren’t perpetrators. I’m glad they’re finally noticing that the patriarchy is a thing. Maybe they’ll be motivated to speak out now, to interrupt harassment and violence in real time, to work with us to change systems that are failing all of us and crushing a good number of women altogether.
One question I hear coming off men’s lips right now, as they assess the latest report of an athlete’s rape or a starlet’s coerced visit to the casting couch, is “Why did she wait this long to tell anyone?” Even men with good intentions are prone to ask this. And those who have an empire to protect or an agenda to shove through Congress use the question to cast highly effective doubt on otherwise credible allegations. “Who knows what happened 40 years ago?” they say. “If it was so traumatizing, why didn’t she report it then?”
I want to scream when men ask this.
NEWS FLASH: She didn’t report the assault or harassment then BECAUSE it was so traumatizing.
Because being in your workplace and suddenly realizing you’re not seen as a competent and valuable coworker but rather a piece of meat is destabilizing. Because being a young teen wined and dined by someone twice your age is confusing. Because being drugged and raped by someone you just met is devastating and bewildering. Because getting groped while you dance at a club makes you shaky and uncertain for the rest of the night. Because whole industries rely on women just sucking it up, taking the abuse and keeping silent so they can have half a shot at three-quarters of the success that a man can have minus the rape. Because sometimes we have to shut off whole memories so we can plod through another day of low-wage work and child-rearing and laundry.
Because we live in a culture which tells women—all day, every day—that we are less than men, that our worth lies between our legs, that we won’t be believed if we tell the truth, that perpetrators walk free every fucking day.
I don’t know if a man who has never been the victim of sexual abuse or rape can ever understand the shock of this particularly soul-rattling blow. Being groped or raped or coerced into a sexual play-for-pay at work violates your bodily sovereignty in a way that delivers a resoundingly clear and brutal message: Your sense of self and your very existence continue at the whim of men. Or don’t continue. Their choice.
Speaking our truth in this context is often an enormous struggle. I’ve written of my own 28-year process of reclaiming the story of the time I was drugged, held captive, and raped in college. The devastation of that event has shaped every day of my life since and finding health and wholeness has been its own sort of part-time job. No one should judge me—or any other victim—for taking the necessary time to bring the ugliness of what happened out into the light.
We’ve gotten here as quickly as we could, and we’ve arrived even knowing that the light retraumatizes before it heals. So shut up already about how long it took.