Our Silence Does Not Protect Us

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Advice / Lehigh Culture & Community / Truth

Co-written By Sarah Heidebrink-Bruno and Sarita Mizin

*Trigger Warning: Sexual Harassment/Assault*

I was a little girl the first time a grown man, a stranger, touched me against my will. He told me that I was beautiful, that I reminded him of his daughter, then he reached in through an open car window to kiss my head. My mother was pumping gas at the time. I was too stunned to talk about it, but the whole way home, I could smell traces of peanut butter on my eyebrow from his kiss.

When I was 14, my first real boyfriend decided to ‘surprise’ me by revealing himself to me in his parents’ basement pantry. I remember staring at the canned goods behind him, not knowing how to react. The best I could think to do was laugh, in the hopes it would startle him enough into covering up.

In high school, one of my bullies slapped me on the butt on my way up the stairs. A friend of mine witnessed it. I reported his actions to a teacher. Nothing happened to him. His mom happened to work for my school.

The only time I was ever compelled to use the self-defense techniques that I learned in a RAD class in college was at a party where one of my drunken friends climbed on top of me and attempted to hump me. He claimed it was a joke, because he wasn’t actually attracted to me.

When I first saw the #MeToo hashtag trending, I posted it on my Facebook account out of solidarity with my friends and loved ones, but not for myself. I hadn’t even considered myself a victim or a survivor or any kind of sexual violence, despite the above encounters. To be completely honest, I still have a hard time categorizing these actions as sexual violence. Why is that? I suppose because I felt that the things that had happened to me were not that bad, relatively speaking. My friends and colleagues had disclosed so much worse to me over the years, that it was hard for me to think of these actions beyond the discomfort and shame that I felt in the moments when they occurred. And yet, here I am, twenty or more years in some cases, still ruminating over these experiences as more stories come to light of the seemingly endless list of celebrities, politicians, and leaders who have sexually harassed and assaulted women and men with whom they worked–victims who had trusted, even idolized, their mentors, only to be exploited.

So often with harassment and assault, after the initial outrage dies down, we fall back into the comfort of silence. In fact, victims and survivors often do not share or report because of the fear that they will not be believed, that there may be retaliation, or if they choose to go forward with a (often long and expensive) civil or court case, that they will need to relive a traumatic experience, with no guarantee that there will be any repercussions against their perpetrators.

I am writing this today because I have normalized my own experiences so for long, and I am tired of it. I’m tired of carrying the weight of these experiences with me, of feeling like I couldn’t, or shouldn’t, discuss them because they weren’t as traumatic as they could have been, because I minimized and rationalized them to the point where they seemed to just be the rent I paid for being a woman.

And although I can’t tell you what is best for you to do under your own unique circumstances, and I understand that it is not always safe for folks to come forward, I do strongly urge you to speak out. Share your stories, in your diary, with your trusted friends, loved ones, family members, therapist, chaplain, whoever you feel will be the best support system.

And if you are in a position to do so, report it. If you are in a leadership position especially, help others to go through the reporting process. So often, we share stories and knowing nods about the casual harassers–the acquaintances or colleagues who make inappropriate comments, who get a little too friendly at the bar, who make unethical choices–but never quite cross the line into being Perpetrators with a capital P, not in the way crime investigation shows depict them. And yet, by also choosing to remain silent, even when we sense that something is wrong, we inadvertently contribute to damaging patterns of behavior, potentially putting others at risk. We let victims assume that what happened to them was somehow their fault, as I had for so long.

But it is high time we say enough; we will not be complicit in the harm befalling our friends, colleagues, and students. As Audre Lorde so poetically reminds us, “your silence will not protect you.”

What keeps us silent, though? Like my colleague, I, too, experience the everyday harassment of being a woman in the world. Like many, I’ve been told that I did not have a place in my chosen professional setting. Like many more, I’ve been the target of persons in positions of power, experienced rape, and stayed with people who abused me for years while believing myself to be making relatively well-informed choices. Respecting the agency of the person I was at that time of some of these experiences, I can now see the extent of what I did not know. But now that I know, what can I do?

In a culture that simultaneously trades in sex, shame, and money even as it silences frank and honest discussions of all three, we are only just starting to talk about structural inequality and its role in the violent, the negative, and the unwanted parts of sexual relations across professional and personal contexts.

Yet, we are still operating in a culture of silence, a dam cemented over time by powerful individuals and institutions, holding back the voices of the less privileged. As the dam begins to crack, as it has now in the year of the Weinstein Effect, the words and stories we have access to shape how we experience the circumstances of our lives.

Right now, culturally, we are experiencing a flood.

These stories are our education.

When the structure incentivizes silence, speaking becomes an action in its own right.  If we do not act by speaking in support, I worry about what the world holds for those who have summoned the courage to come forward. If we are ready to do so, sharing our stories might give others the words with which to describe, distinguish, and name their own unjust experiences– whether they eventually share them or not. A vocabulary with which to name violence is part of the #metoo education.

I was able to access others’ narratives through my community and education. Without this, I might never have been able to find the strength to start a long process of confronting the violence in my own life through simple words of refusal. More significantly, without this education I might never have imagined that it could be otherwise.  Like many, I was taught to say “yes” far too often in the interests of making things run smoothly, being agreeable, being likeable. As recent conversations around sexual relations have recognized- it is hard for many to say “no” when they haven’t had any practice. The first “no” is the hardest. Yet, even when we learn how to say it, there are still a host of social, personal, and political factors that influence what and who we think deserves it. The tools we have at our disposal to evaluate and act within complicated situations increase when we talk about them. By talking, we come to know more, to witness more ways of “no”-ing than what we might have been able to imagine alone.

Structures of power are not invested in facilitating the coming together of those who have experienced harm within them. They isolate us from one another and tell us that it is for our own good. Now, when the world is reckoning with its own complicity, I am not interested in being quiet, helping unjust machines run smoothly, or keeping things to myself. The cost of someone else feeling alone when they hunger for support is too great.

Our own silence is not worth the risk.

In solidarity and love, we encourage anyone who feels safe doing so to speak.

Here, we have spoken.

It is the first act.

May many more continue to do so, so that together, we may take the next steps-more conversations and more action. Let us speak and think together- and  actively shape the community in which we are a part.

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