A little more than two years ago, when the nation heard Donald Trump brag to Billy Bush about sexually assaulting women, it reignited a debate that brought forth a public wave of survivor stories. We were about to enter a cultural moment of how we talk about and deal with sexual aggression.
Since then, there’s been a constant public negotiation about what sexual assault looks like, how commonplace it is, who is believed and what the consequences should be. In the past, political coverage of sex scandals largely focused on consensual affairs. That’s how the nation viewed Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky in the ‘90s, though it might be seen differently today.
Now we have started talking about power -- which is really at the root of sexual violence. Unwittingly, then-candidate Trump forced the country to reckon with sexual abuse, harassment and assault in a different way. The old ways -- shame, hide, dismiss -- had perpetuated generations of trauma. The language he used when talking to another man spoke to his ability to overpower. Those who dismissed his words suggested men spoke this way all the time. Consider that the allegations surrounding Brett Kavanaugh, his Supreme Court nominee, reflect the same core debate around Trump’s own words and alleged actions. Who do we believe? What are the consequences?
In the process of getting from Trump’s infamous tape to Kavanaugh’s hearings, the floodgates of our collective trauma burst. For some, it’s been two years of revisiting buried pain. We’ve been hearing reports of various kinds of sexualized aggression nearly nonstop; stories that sound all too familiar. The news cycle has been punctuated with the high crimes of high-profile abusers -- Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Larry Nassar -- and a seemingly endless list of powerful harassers, who used their positions to take advantage of women and ruin lives and careers.
The progress -- removing those who behaved badly or criminally from positions of power -- has come at a cost beyond the harassment, vilification and threats faced by some women who have come forward. There’s been an emotional cost borne by every person who has ever been victimized. People who could never confront their attackers began bearing witness on social media. Others started re-examining their own past, confronting repressed memories and struggling with hard questions: Should you reveal your experiences? Should you talk to your family about them? If so, how? How should one respond to upsetting stories or reactions from friends or family?
I’ve found that the most useful response is compassion. To my friends and readers who have shared their traumas, all I can say is that I believe you. I’m angry this happened. It was never your fault. You are not alone.
The MeToo movement has felt like a tsunami, or as if a long-dormant volcano erupted in our national discourse. But this movement toward justice is better imagined as an ocean, with tides that will continue to roll in. They will crest, then recede. Every new revelation is another reminder of the roles in all stories of sexual violence: the victim, the abuser, the Greek chorus of judgment. In each case, we are forced to react to a person’s pain and make a judgment. That in itself is draining.
Perhaps it was the dismissive response to the “Access Hollywood” tape that started to unsettle the previously silent: those who had been “grabbed,” groped and worse. When women started to come forward to corroborate Trump’s “locker room” talk with allegations of abuse and assaults he committed against them, others also started talking.
Statistics we’ve long heard -- 1 out of 4 girls and 1 out of 6 boys experiences sexual abuse before age 18 -- turned into real voices of real people we could not turn away from. If there was a cancer that affected as many children as sexual abuse, we would declare an epidemic and focus everything on a cure. With sexualized violence, our society had internalized the false idea that there was no cure. That this was an incurable societal affliction.
The only way to move on from pain is to transform it. We have started to believe new narratives about sexual violence. We can reduce how often it happens by educating people on how it happens. We can expose the attitudes and circumstances that allow it to persist.
We can enforce consequences. Survivors can be empowered to help others.
From years of torment, there will be healing.