In recent weeks, I’ve been inspired by the courage of so many survivors of sexual harassment and sexual violence who are taking to social media to share their experiences through their #MeToo posts. These brave individuals are providing a face to the persistent challenge of sexual violence and saying in one loud voice that we will not be silent anymore.
This is an issue that for too long has lived in the shadow, shrouded by the stigma that is placed upon survivors. “Why didn’t you fight back?” “What were you wearing?” “Had you been drinking?” These questions fuel the culture that tolerates the abuses of countless women and men.
Sexual violence is an issue that crosses all lines: socioeconomic, gender, political and racial. Sexual violence is insidious and continues in a ceaseless cycle: the act itself followed by the tacit acceptance of predatory behavior that allows the next victim to join the ranks of those used, abused and discarded. It’s time we break the cycle.
Across our society, intimate partners, classmates, supervisors and strangers on the streets have felt they have the right to intimidate, harass, assault and insult us. But they do not have the right. It is we who have the right to our bodies, safety and wellbeing.
In the past, we were isolated in the collective silence of our society. One voice, one individual facing the onslaught of insensitivity and misunderstanding that has helped foster sexual violence. “She was asking for it.” “She shouldn’t have been there.” “He was just joking around.” This is a system that didn’t protect survivors but instead protected the perpetrators ― the foxes guarding the hen house.
But the tide is changing. The powerful can no longer hide from the collective voice of survivors everywhere. Executives, actors, producers, politicians and TV personalities are answering for their abuses. Some incidents are recent, and some span decades. This was unheard of just months ago. Companies, industries and even Congress shielded perpetrators. They paid out settlements and then sat back as the behavior continued. Not anymore. While some may continue to resist the progress being made, they will ultimately have no choice but to grow and improve. That is the power of our collective voice.
While the voices of survivors grow into a chorus demanding change and holding people in positions of power accountable, we cannot forget those who are voiceless. Too often, people who commit acts of sexual violence victimize individuals who are the most vulnerable: children, immigrants and members of the LGBTQ community. We must speak even louder when demanding justice for these groups. We will never be able to rid society of these crimes until acts of violence are brought out of the shadows.
The #MeToo campaign has ignited a firestorm that is allowing survivors of sexual violence and harassment to shed light on this all-too-common problem. Though survivors’ stories have varied, one common theme runs throughout: individuals used their power – whether real or perceived – to victimize people around them. This national conversation about sexual violence and harassment has turned the tables. Now, the most powerful and influential parts of society, including Congress (a group that often prefers to look outward), must grapple with their own insufficient responses to these issues.
That’s why I’ve helped introduce the Me Too Congress Act to improve oversight and transparency for sexual harassment claims in Congress. This legislation would ensure members of Congress are subject to sexual harassment training and settlements are made public. If we’re going to take on sexual harassment and assault in workplaces across the country, the halls of Congress can be no exception.
The dialogue that has been started by survivors and their supporters is growing rapidly and will help push us forward to make positive change.
Our country has overcome challenges in the past. I remember ashtrays in restaurants and smoking on airplanes. I remember the death toll of highway accidents before seat belts. I remember the tragic deaths and collective fear of HIV/AIDS.
These issues were not solved overnight. But ordinary people, living ordinary lives, spoke out, demanded something better, held one another accountable, and created extraordinary change. Together, we can and we will do it again.
Congresswoman Annie Kuster represents New Hampshire’s Second Congressional District and experienced sexual assault as a staff member on Capitol Hill nearly 40 years ago.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.