9 p.m. August 2015, Omaha, Nebraska, the Old Market. I was home for the summer, out with old friends catching up on college adventures. They offered to walk me to my car, I said it was only two blocks away. They got in their car and drove away. I started walking while I dug in my purse for my keys. He came up behind me and pinned me to a wall. The streetlights weren’t on yet. I thought he wanted my wallet. Told him to take it out of my purse, whatever he wanted. I felt him pull his zipper down, panicked. I used my nails to tear at exposed skin. He collapsed. I ran.
I was 19 years old.
Women younger than me have recently come forward and shared their stories. They and all the women who have made allegations against powerful public figures recently have started conversations between people who have experienced sexual assault and the rest of the country. Questions raised because of these conversations deal with who should lead the narrative, and which voices on the topic should be the loudest. If the people involved strive to change the culture and right the wrongs done, supporters need to let survivors take leading roles in this publicly staged discussion.
Don’t mistake this rhetoric for denying anyone their voice. Without the support of white men, who generally have little direct experience with sexual assault, there would likely be nothing done. This is the sad reality of U.S. culture. But the problem lies in men or other unaffected people trying to dictate the narrative of conversations without the proper context to do so. They are defining their roles as leading ones, when they should playing supporting parts.
The most logical parallel to be drawn here leads to allies in the LGBT+ community. Their role is to support friends, family and others that identify as anything other than cisgender heterosexual. They do this by defending the community when they aren’t there, and taking responsibility for educating friends while listening and staying in the back seat while queer people lead the conversation.
If this mindset and role can be accepted by sexual assault survivor allies, more productive conversations could happen and eventually lead to more action. Instead of always starting with the “I believe the women” narrative, the conversation could start with what action could be taken to prevent further harm, emotionally and physically. This is the biggest flaw with unaffected people trying to lead the conversations about sexual assault. Though their hearts are clearly in the right place, there is no possible way for people who have not experienced the trauma of sexual assault to understand what exactly needs to be rectified.
If you find yourself arguing with this idea, or even saying, “Wait a minute, don’t I get a say?” consider this: You don’t. Your voice is important in the fight against sexual assault; you are a part of the group that sees this as a problem. But what can you claim that justifies your demands to be included in writing the framework for laws and workplace policies? Do you have a frame of reference for how it feels to jump through hoops to retrieve your dignity? Unless you’ve experienced sexual assault, odds are you don’t. So, even with the best intentions, things will be overlooked or made unnecessarily traumatizing for survivors if left in the hands of people with no comprehension of the issue.
Acknowledging the need to take a supporting role is especially important for men in positions of power. Only 104 members of the 2017 Congress are women, about 20 percent of the 535-member legislative body. Meanwhile, over 50 percent of the U.S. population is female. With these numbers, support from more than only those affected, or even just women, is necessary to effectively change legislation against sexual assault.
However, men do not need to be the ones drafting the legislation presented to Congress. Four female senators spoke out publicly on Meet the Press to share their own #MeToo stories. These women, and any other female member of Congress, would be perfectly capable of developing these bills.
This week the Senate is wrestling similar questions as, among others, Senator Al Franken faces sexual assault charges. What makes Franken’s case particularly poignant is his sponsorship of a bill designed to help sexual assault survivors. Though not every man in Congress is a perpetrator of sexual assault, Franken’s case highlights the need for survivors to take the lead in writing and sponsoring legislation. Thankfully, Senator Amy Klobuchar has stepped up to sponsor the bill formerly adopted by Franken.
Though forced by external events, this is an example of meaningful change in the approach legislators take to conversations about sexual assault. Hopefully the recent influx of allegations will have one good side effect: male legislators recognizing a need to step back and let others lead on this topic.
Since Franken is far from alone on the stage of men in power accused of sexual assault, advocating for change in how we talk about assault and survivors is more important than ever. This is a multi-industry problem, and in the wake of so many allegations against powerful men, people are more willing to listen than before. This bully pulpit of sorts ought to be used to amplify the calls for change in culture, and in conversation.
With the ingrained fear of reprisal slowly draining away, more women feel safe enough to name their attackers. They are also taking a stronger stand against the systematic silencing of assault survivors. What makes changing the conversation difficult is where the support for speaking out ends. Most of the time, supporters applaud a woman sharing her story of survival, but as soon as she finishes telling her story the attitude turns to, “I’ll take it from here, honey.” This becomes the verbal equivalent of putting a hand over the survivor’s mouth mid-sentence.
From Hollywood to Congress, no one can argue that sexual assault is not a problem in the US. This issue will take years to address. The approach to conversations surrounding assault are a contributing factor, and changing this is a stride towards fixing the problem. If people can swallow their pride enough to let those affected most take the lead on conversations and action surrounding sexual assault, at least part of the broken system will be improved.