The list of sexually deviant men grows longer by the day. I’ve forgone even listing the accused men in positions of power, as it would likely be outdated by next week. I was and am amongst those to be both shocked and horrified, not just at the fact that such things were happening, but at how often they happen. As #MeToo circulated, a prevalence emerged, not just in the world at large, but within my immediate circle of friends, that has left me dumbfounded.
Of course, for those who are aware of such things, these revelations are far less stupefying. The nonprofit RAINN estimates that every 98 seconds an American is sexually assaulted. Females make up 90 percent of rape victims and 82 percent of all victims experiencing sexual assault. While there is evidence to suggest that sexual violence against men is underreported and possibly on the rise, the historical and continuing use of sexual violence against women dwarfs that of men. This is not to say that men who experience such violence are any less victims, but rather that the problem claims far more women.
Reflexively, I found myself grappling with the root of this problem and my own part in it. Where do we target our efforts? From where does this evil arise? Are these men all mentally deficient in some key aspect that they have no control over? Are they simply terrible human beings, whose wielding of power allows them to commit terrible acts? Or have they been given a pass on a comment or inappropriate gesture here and there one too many times?
The idea that these men are villains either of their own making or spawns of a toxic culture is the one easiest to stomach. We can readily dismiss them and their careers and hope they sink to the bottom as quickly as possible as a kind of karmic revenge for their acts. The contrasting possibility is emotionally deflating in its stark difference. If these men are mentally ill, then it is much harder to pin moral culpability on them. Viewing this as a mental illness necessarily requires a level of absolution, as it is the disease and not the man who dictates his actions. For the rest of us, this would completely remove any rational level of anger directed at the person, as it would be akin to hating someone who has cancer.
But, even if we were to readily label all of these men, from Spacey to Moore as mentally incapacitated, it still opens the door of possibility that any offender could claim mental illness retrospectively. This is an equally horrifying proposition — that perpetrators of sexual abuse and assault could explain away their behavior merely by hiding under an umbrella term, essentially the oft-debated “insanity defense” as it appears in the criminal context.
Regardless, neither view, or even a “spectrum” outlook on these perpetrators readily resolves the difficult question of how to treat them, how to best remedy the harm they’ve caused, or enact preventative measures. All instances share a common problem — these individuals are incapable of recognizing their own deviance at best or are uninterested in addressing it at worst. The terrible injustice of this entire epidemic is that “fixing” the problem has been left to the victims. More significantly, in view of this dichotomy, I have a negligible part to play. If these men are just awful people, then all I have to do is not be an awful person. If they are mentally ill, well, I am no psychiatrist. Even if culture spawned them, I had no material say in that. In essence, as a male, I am absolved of any other action than continuing to be a “nice guy.”
Of course, this is not so.
As I grappled with these ideas, it suddenly became clear that our focus is misplaced. Regardless of your opinion on the issue of moral culpability, no view repairs the damage done to the victims. Indeed, the swirling discussion about perpetrators has shifted focus away from the victims towards their abusers. It is a retrospective focus. There is a foundational truth throughout many of these incidents — they have been obscured and silenced, often for decades, before finally surfacing.
Silence has been enforced over the victims through threats to their persons, their careers, or the stigmas of culture. This veil of silence extends well beyond the victims of sexual misconduct. It extends to all of us. Many of us, myself included, have remained silent in face of unacceptable expressions of sexuality by men like Weinstein or Franken. We have dismissed it by saying it’s “locker-room talk,” as if the setting alone removed all hint of wrongdoing or prognostication. And when we do break this silence, it is often to question these victims’ motives or timing, and in doing so, reinforce the strength of the darkness that suppresses them. Even if there is some small number of claims that fall short of truth, the only possible way to readily arrive at such a thing as truth is to first see it clearly.
This is not to say that silence is necessarily the gravest of the ills we will have to confront. There are a myriad of others, like the ones outlined above or even grayer things, like what we do with these men’s legacies and careers moving forward.
I am not blaming or asking the victims to give more than they already have. Their choice to speak is theirs alone. But we are not helpless. All people, even at the most tender ages, can be empowered to speak out against unwanted contact, to lay claim to their own bodies, and to fiercely defend them. We must ensure that both we and those around us are free to unequivocally reject anyone else’s demand for our bodies, however slight. We must take every care to never make a claim or take any right to another’s person. Most of all, we must confront the silence in our own hearts and minds. If you still believe that you have no responsibility in the wake of these revelations, you must nevertheless decide how you will participate in casting light into the shroud of darkness. Passivity is tantamount to remaining silent. And it is in that silence that so many have been and will continue to be hurt.