“Sexual Assault: An American Pastime” (Baltimore Sun OpEd)
October 18, 2016
by Karsonya Wise Whitehead 10/19/16
It all began with one simple tweet. Writer Kelly Oxford, after listening to interviews about the “locker room” and sexual assault took to Twitter and shared — for the first time — the story of how she was sexually assaulted on a city bus when she was 12 years old. She then asked women to tweet their first assault. Within hours, hundreds and then thousands of women took to Twitter to share their stories using the hashtag #NotOkay. Within three days, over 30 million people had read or contributed to this thread, moving the conversation beyond social media and making a disturbing fact abundantly clear: Sexual assault is as American as baseball and apple pie.
Women and girls shared that they had been assaulted when they were 5 or 9 or 19. It happened whether they were single, in a relationship or married. For some, they had multiple stories to share of being fondled or groped, touched or handled; stalked or grabbed. They shared stories of men forcing kisses on them or pinning them against walls, of uncles who made them sit on their laps or teachers who stared at their chests. Some of the tweets read like short stories with pain, guilt, shame and regret poured out 140 characters at a time. Some contributors used their real names; some created fake accounts to remain anonymous. Some stated that they had already shared their stories with their families, but many said that they had never reported them before. Some were related to their abusers: their fathers and uncles and brothers. Some went to church and school with them: their priests and teachers and deacons. Some sat in classrooms with them or went on dates with them or lived in the same building with them. Many were just nameless and faceless men and boys in the crowd who found an opportunity and took it.
When people started questioning why women did not report their assaults, a subsequent hashtag, #WhyWomenDontReport, was created and in the space of a few hours, thousands of women responded in similar fashion: shame, fear, embarrassment, confusion, humiliation, self-hatred and a lack of trust that the system will work and hold their abusers accountable. It became painfully clear that there really is a “locker room,” and it is within this space that men and boys are led to believe that they can sexually assault a woman or girl without any fear that they will be held accountable.
The conversation was not about Donald Trump. It did not start with him. We have been talking about sexual assault, rape and consent for a long time, along with daily forms of micro-sexual aggressions, from inappropriate touching to sexual innuendoes and jokes. We must now face the hard truth that the culture has not changed and that these rapists, these offenders, are our sons, our husbands, our fathers, our colleagues, our elected officials. It is within this environment that this tweet, once introduced, empowered women and girls to tell their stories. And if we do not change now, then we are complicit and we are helping to maintain an environment that encourages and rewards male violence, hyper-sexuality, and the degradation and silencing of women and girls.
And so we must:
Agree to no longer accept violent masculinity and victim blaming as the norm;
Design curriculum that teaches young girls and boys about what it means to ask for and give ongoing ardent consent;
Organize after-school programs and classes to teach young boys and girls how to treat each other as human beings, respecting both their bodies and their space;
Put more counselors in place to support and encourage women and girls to report sexual assaults;
And start a campaign to force the media to change the sexist and sexual nature of advertising.
This is how we change our culture. We commit to holding ourselves and our family and friends accountable. We lend our voices, bend our privilege and work together to unravel this thread so that we can do better and be better.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead (email@example.com; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland and the author of “Letters to My Black Sons: Raising Boys in a Post-Racial America.” A version of this editorial was aired as a public commentary on WYPR 88.1, Baltimore’s NPR station.