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SAVAGE: #metoo: How the wave of sexual assault allegations affects us all

• Nov 30, 2017 at 2:00 PM

Harvey Weinstein. Kevin Spacey. Al Franken. Louis C.K. Roy Moore. Charlie Rose. John Conyers. Mark Halperin. These are a small fraction of powerful men caught in the rising tide of sexual misconduct allegations.

Sexual misconduct isn’t just bad behavior — it’s a crime. Accusations of abuse aren’t trendy; they’re courageous. The brave women and men who are standing up to confront their pain and speak the truth give courage to those who have privately borne the scar of sexual assault. Each one who speaks up emboldens others to come forward.

In our desperation for leadership, are we more lenient with politicians? They represent our values, our priorities, and by extension our very selves. When they fail, we fail. So we blame the victims. Anita Hill was ostracized and Clarence Thomas sits on the US. Supreme Court.

To argue that some forms of sexual violence outweigh others is a cheap deflection designed to muddy the waters. Any nonconsensual sexual act — every one — is a crime. Sexual consent is often a positive assumption, a perspective based on a desired outcome. One might believe if a victim isn’t saying no, it means yes. That is false reasoning.

Silence is a no. Trying to leave is a no. Staying clothed is a no. Pretty much everything except a direct and enthusiastic “yes” is an unequivocal no. To be safe, never be the first one to start taking your clothes off.

Other tipoffs that you’re headed down the wrong path are: if you have any influence whatsoever over her or his employment, advancement opportunities, reputation or financial position. Finally, if there is any possibility whatsoever that they can’t exit the room, car, hallway or whatever space you occupy, unimpeded and with ease, you’re committing a crime. 

And if the object of your desire is under the legal age, incapacitated in any way, or somehow under any other undue influence, all the above is moot. Game over.

In the off chance that you’re still confused, ask yourself, “Is this scenario something I want to explain to human resources or see on the evening news? Will this play well for me?” If the answer is anywhere in the ballpark of no, stop immediately.

But is it fair to awaken decades-old allegations? In a word, yes. Sexual violence is not a broken window that has long since been replaced. The truth has no expiration date. Neither does the pain of people victimized by sexual predators. A 56-year-old woman breaking down on the news while recounting an alleged molestation 40 years prior should provide some insight into the permanent trauma involved.

Sexual violence is a crime, period. If you give me permission to commit a burglary, it’s still a crime. If a 14-year-old’s mother gives you permission to “date” her, it’s still a crime. This is why we have laws, folks.

This is a confusing time for men, and it’s difficult for men to understand the female experience. I’ll illustrate it for you as best I can.

You’re a typical male moving though a typical day. Like every day, you know that every other male is larger and stronger than you are. Every one but you has a knife. The only certainty is that a small few of them are in fact waiting to attack, and when it happens you must either bury the secret or defend your innocence, thereby endlessly reliving it. Tomorrow, it starts again. Wash, rinse, repeat.

So, let it start with me. By age 12, I was sleeping with a butcher knife under my pillow to ensure my father didn’t come into my room during the night. Unfazed, he simply moved the horror to daylight in another part of the house. Once, for a moment, I thought I was safe to ask for help. I mustered my courage and told a trusted adult what little I could manage. His response, where we were standing, and what we were wearing are frozen in my memory. “Well, everyone likes your dad. I’m sure he has his faults.” His face went expressionless and he just walked away.

Is it any wonder that it often takes victims years, even decades, to speak? We’re riddled with guilt, overcome with shame, and we’re damaged goods.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 20 percent of women and 7 percent of men have suffered sexual violence, and 94 percent of those have some level of post-traumatic stress disorder. Try sneaking up on me and you’ll experience it firsthand.

Like mushrooms in darkness, sexual abuse thrives in a culture of silence. Women and men, as they find their voice, need to stand up, speak up and start naming names. This sea change of attitude toward sexual violence is going to be messy, and there will be plenty of collateral damage.

I’m upset that people I admire and respect are being outed as monsters. But we don’t get to say whether the harm they caused is sufficient to damage their careers or hold them accountable for crimes; the law will decide that.

I’m sorry that this must be explained. I’m sorry that millions of fine, moral men who would never dream of abusing their power feel targeted in this mess. And I’m sorry to tell you it’s going to get worse before it gets better, because the time for silence is over.

#metoo.

— By Shari Savage, Tribune community columnist

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