I was a few months shy of my 13th birthday when I slipped a piece of paper onto my social studies teacher’s desk explaining that the boy sitting behind me in the corner of the room had stuck his hands inside my chair and repeatedly rubbed my bottom during class. Almost immediately after writing the letter, I regretted it, fearing that I would be called to the principal’s office and forced to bring along witnesses who could “prove” that what I wrote in the letter was true. I was also terrified of possibly getting my classmate, one of the few boys who had been nice to me as the new girl, suspended or kicked out of school.
Instead my letter was met with silence, then exasperation. My teacher never followed up with me about it. When I did ask her if she’d read the letter a day or two later, she acknowledged she had but suggested there wasn’t much she could do about it. She did mention the option to file a report of some sort, but her demeanor conveyed to me that was the last thing she wanted me to do. So I decided to drop the issue entirely and returned to class, feeling even more embarrassed than I had felt while being prodded in front of a group of giggling adolescent boys.
In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, dozens of women (and men) in the entertainment world have come forward with stories of sexual harassment and assault by powerful Hollywood men. Women from other industries, including journalism and tech, have also stepped forward and shared similar experiences. It seems now there is a cultural shift taking place, both in terms of how women feel about going public, and how the public reacts to their stories. It is the kind of culture I would have wanted 17 years ago when my teacher shrugged off the letter I sent to her about being groped in her class.
While women are more empowered to speak out now about sexual assault than perhaps ever before, I question how much of the current political climate has shifted in the direction of #BelieveWomen. Rather than a call to action to end the culture of shame and silence that surrounds sexual assault, it seems that women’s stories are being treated (especially by the right) as mere partisan attacks that can be deployed against one’s political rivals.
The allegations against Harvey Weinstein caused a firestorm, not just because of who his alleged victims were (famous women) but what political party he and most Hollywood elites are affiliated with: The Democrats. Fox News played up the ‘Hollywood Hypocrite’ angle in their coverage especially, and CNN’s Chris Cillizza went out of his way to reframe the Weinstein scandal as yet another Hillary Clinton scandal after she waited days to condemn him (Weinstein had helped fundraise for her presidential campaign).
The political motivations behind Fox News’ sensationalized coverage of the Weinstein scandal were confirmed when another scandal broke out involving Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore. Suddenly pundits like Sean Hannity retreated to “waiting for the facts.” Hannity even appeared to defend Moore’s alleged sexual contact with teenage girls while in his 30s by referring to the relationships as “consensual.”
Thursday’s news of sexual assault allegations against Minnesota Senator Al Franken seemed to come as a relief to some Republican leaders, including President Trump. After dodging requests for comment on the allegations against Moore for weeks, Trump took to Twitter to slam Franken the same day that news anchor Leeann Tweeden published her account of being assaulted by Franken in 2006, along with a photo of the incident.
Some in the media criticized Democrats as well for not pushing Franken to resign, insisting that the party had missed “an opportunity to maintain the moral high ground without having to pay a political price for it”. But this reinforces the Fox News / Trump view of women’s sexual assault stories as partisan landmines that liberals as much as conservatives should be willing to detonate in order to enhance their own brand or diminish someone else’s.
This is not to say that we should pretend to not see the political ramifications of Franken resigning or Moore losing his Senate bid to a Democrat. Nor should we pretend Democrats and Republicans are morally equivalent in terms of their policy record or personal accountability when it comes to sexual assault.
But I’m not so sure the current political climate, with all its polarization, is trending toward the sort of systemic change that women who have been victimized are hoping to effect. Seventeen years ago, I decided not to share my story with anyone else because I had taken my teacher’s indifference to mean that my story didn’t matter. Today I fear women are being relayed a different, but equally toxic, message: their stories only matter insofar as they advance a narrative one side of the political divide wants to promote about the other side.
Still, I am hopeful that being empowered to speak out about sexual assault can eventually lead to avenues of healing and justice that don’t always demand women relive the most painful moments in their lives time and again. For as important as it is that women now have a bigger platform in order to share their stories, in far too many cases one woman’s story — or in the case of the President of the United States, more than a dozen women’s stories— is still not one story too many for anything to change.