In the weeks since Harvey Weinstein was outed as a serial perpetrator of sexual harassment and sexual violence, we have learned a great deal about Weinstein, his victims, and the network that facilitated his behavior, looked the other way, and silenced victims who tried to come forward.
But for anyone who had been paying attention, none of this is shocking. Nearly every woman and femme has a story about men like Weinstein. Many boys and men do as well. We all know Weinsteins. They are our neighbors, our colleagues, or classmates, our friends — maybe even ourselves, at one time or another. It’s easy for us, as men, to condemn one person as the bad guy. It’s much more difficult ― and necessary ― to look at the ways that we perpetuate rape culture in our everyday lives.
We all know Weinsteins. They are our neighbors, our colleagues, or classmates, our friends — maybe even ourselves, at one time or another.
We need to ask ourselves why we don’t believe survivors, why we don’t take sexual harassment seriously, and why we shy away from intervening when we see others engaging in sexist behavior. We must examine our own allegiances to people and institutions that are more invested in protecting their reputations than protecting their students, employees and parishioners.
First, why is that we don’t believe survivors? Now, when I say we, I’m referring to those who:
deny that sexual harassment is happening;
see it happening, but don’t believe the impact that it has on survivors; or
see it happening, understand the harm, but don’t intervene.
Quite simply, it’s because we don’t listen to women. From the bedroom to the boardroom, we face sobering consequences for our refusal to listen. We face mass shooters with histories of intimate partner violence. We face abusive bosses who have free reign to do whatever they want, to whomever they want.
Rape culture permeates our everyday lives and breeds sexual harassment and this twisted notion that people like Weinstein, or you, or I, can and should have power over other people’s bodies. A 2014 study by Stop Street Harassment found that 65 percent of women and 25 percent of men share that they’ve experienced some form of sexual harassment in public space, and 1 in 5 women have experienced sexual assault in their lifetime. For Black women, 60 percent are sexually abused before they turn 18.
And certain survivors are listened to less than others. While all women are marginalized by sexism, women of color are also marginalized due to racism. This extends not only to rates of sexual violence; it also impacts who is supported and believed when they experience assault and harassment. Leslie Jones experienced truly virulent racist and sexist harassment on Twitter, including death threats and doxxing. This story did not break through the way that the Weinstein story did, and this speaks to how we listen and respond to Black women’s trauma. Of course we need to listen to Weinstein’s victims — they deserved to be heard years ago. But we also need to acknowledge that women who hold multiple marginalized identities are less likely to be listened to than white cis women, and the role that racism plays in this reality. (Case in point: Rose McGowan, who has been doing brave work to highlight Weinstein and his enablers, posted a Tweet on Sunday that co-opted the struggle of black people and erased the double marginalization of black women.)
Even the language that we use serves the purpose of centering a certain type of experience. By focusing on sexual harassment, we erase the everyday harassment experiences of transgender women, and especially transgender women of color, whose harassment experiences are most frequently not sexual but gendered. The intersection of race and gender creates unique challenges for trans women of color, many whom them don’t experience workplace sexual harassment in the same way as cis women. Instead, they’re often shut out of many professional workplaces by discrimination, and harassed or sexually assaulted by police when they engage in work outside the mainstream, like sex work.
These problems are big and hard to wrap your head around. But, to start, how can we make workplaces safer for those who experience gendered harassment and violence at work? We have to create a culture that listens to women. It’s no secret that women often don’t feel like they have an equal voice in the workplace. Strategies like amplification in meetings become the norm. Developing safety strategies in order to avoid certain co-workers becomes part of a daily routine. We have to build work cultures where women have the power to speak, to be listened to, to have their concerns met with attentiveness and not defensiveness.
And we have to consider all marginalized populations, not just cis white women, when adopting these strategies. That’s why CASS is working to pass the Street Harassment Prevention Act (SHPA), which will broaden the definition of street harassment to include the experiences of many marginalized communities.
Once we listen to survivors, we have to start believing them, and we also have to believe that we’re part of the story. Truly believing survivors and taking their experiences seriously means recognizing that the Harvey Weinsteins of the world are somebody’s family member, somebody’s friend, somebody’s co-worker — maybe even yours. By saying “that wouldn’t happen here,” we close our eyes to the harm that is right in front us, the harm being done by the very people that we work with, or call our friends.
Once we’ve listened and believed, we can begin intervening. There are many ways that businesses can cultivate safe environments free from sexual harassment.
For starters, businesses need to create environments where employees feel comfortable reporting sexual harassment. This means that individuals in positions of power must believe survivors, rather than questioning or downplaying their experiences or responding with defensiveness. And businesses need to hold perpetrators accountable by teaching men to be good bystanders when other men create unsafe or uncomfortable environments.
DC bars are already implementing a lot of these measures. Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS) and the Safe Bar Collective is highly successful example. By training staff and management to intervene in individual instances, CASS is transforming an industry where 90 percent of workers have experienced sexual harassment. And the Safe Bar Collective doesn’t stop at training people to intervene in the moment. It works to support businesses in developing and implementing policies against harassment. Preventing harassment requires in-the-moment skills and a dedication to disrupt a culture that has normalized harassment for far too long. As staff become aware of power dynamics, consent, and the wide spectrum of harassment, they’re equipped to create a workplace culture that can listen and intervene before, during, and after instances of harassment.
We’re all too familiar with the Harvey Weinstein story. It’s not new. For individuals, companies and industries to truly disrupt the widespread silent acceptance of harassment in our country will take long-term commitment and dedication. It will take training, new policies, and a commitment to change. But it’s possible.
Stephen and Daniel are co-directors of the ReThink Masculinity program, a partnership between Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS), ReThink, and DC Rape Crisis Center.