James Toback. John Besh. Kevin Spacey. Charlie Rose.
These are just some of the men who’ve been accused of sexual assault or harassment since the stories of film producer Harvey Weinstein’s misdeeds first came to light. As more survivors come forward and share their powerful stories, the list will continue to grow.
Like other recent cases, from Bill Cosby to Bill O’Reilly, these new allegations demonstrate that while abusers are responsible for their actions, this problem is much bigger than any one person. They show that this issue isn’t limited to a single profession, age group or community.
Sexual violence in all forms, including in the workplace, is a serious and pervasive issue. When it occurs in the workplace, employees can feel threatened, harassed, and unsafe, and be forced to make a choice between their livelihood and their safety. When high-profile abusers are involved, it’s even more difficult for victims, who may fear that media scrutiny will upend their lives, that they will not be believed, or that their success depends on staying silent.
It’s encouraging that these survivors feel that they have a powerful voice – that they are not alone. However, people are wondering why it took so long for this issue to be taken seriously.
The unfortunate truth is that we live in a culture where fear and victim-blaming keeps survivors silent. A culture where we wait for just one more report before taking inappropriate behavior seriously. A culture that makes it difficult for victims to come forward, knowing they will be met with shame or doubt – even though false reporting of sexual assault is very uncommon.
It will take all of us to create a culture that no longer tolerates sexual violence.
First, as a society we must gain a better understanding about what acts constitute sexual harassment and assault, so we can effectively speak out against it. About half of Americans still don’t recognize “unwanted verbal remarks that are provocative or unsolicited” on the continuum of sexual assault or violence. Movements like the #MeToo campaign, where women are sharing their stories of sexual harassment and assault on social media, can only help to increase awareness and understanding.
Second, we must remember how common sexual violence is. Nearly 1 in 5 women in the United States have experienced rape or attempted rape, and every community has to tackle this issue.
Third, we must correct common misconceptions about people who commit sexual crimes. The majority of sexual violence is committed by people survivors know and trust. People who commit acts of sexual violence sometimes abuse their celebrity or authority and the trust that comes with it. People who sexually abuse can have successful careers and strong social ties. We must hold those who commit sexual violence accountable, regardless of their position in the community — or their power, fame, or wealth.
And finally, it means taking action and supporting our colleagues, friends, family, and neighbors. When we see abusive ideas and behaviors in the workplace, we have a responsibility to speak up and challenge them so that victims know they’re not alone. We can also do our part by supporting local and national anti-sexual violence organizations who are on the front lines supporting survivors and helping communities change norms that contribute to sexual violence.
This is a critical moment for sexual violence prevention. Times are clearly changing. More brave survivors are feeling emboldened to come forward and tell their stories. And employers are less willing to forgive inexcusable behavior. This is progress, but our work is not over.
With the nation focused on this important issue, we have an unprecedented opportunity to improve understanding and change how people respond to sexual violence. If all of us embrace our role in building a culture where acts of violence, harassment and assault are deal breakers, we can someday help end sexual violence once and for all.
Rumburg is the Chief Executive Officer of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
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