Saturday 28 October 2017

Women's voices, Harvey Weinstein and sexual assualt

I've been reading the New Yorker, and Annabella Sciorra's story of shame and upset at what Harvey Weinstein had allegedly done to her.  What stood out for me was the shame that she felt, and her horrible reluctance to tell her story because others would 'know' what she had experienced.

It brought back the terrible memory of sitting in a lecture, and having a professor explain to us that when women are sexually assaulted, their strongest emotion is not fear or rage, but shame.  Shame wasn't the only emotion Annabella Sciorra expressed.  She shared her fear as well.  And hers was a fear so strong that she was unable to tell her story.  Initially, she denied being Weinstein's 'type'.

For me, it is these two factors - the fear of speaking out about rape or sexual assault due to shame, and the fear of speaking out because of, well because of sheer terror, that are at the heart of this story.  The terror of feeling physically vulnerable and unsafe is a cruel dynamic that puts a woman at the mercy of a predator.  The shame she experiences is an equally social dynamic.

In a fit of helpless frustration, I saw a woman speak out earlier this week about 'Hollywood', as though the women who were being assaulted had this happen purely because they were in a strange place, an out of this world place, where fantasy is made, and all women are sexy or glamorous.  This made it seem as though sexual assault only happens to women who make a living dressing their best, putting on make up and styling themselves to look their best (and possibly their sexiest).

This, I think, is one of the reasons women might feel ashamed about rape or sexual assault.  It is those social myths which point out that a woman has been sexually assaulted because she is somehow extra - ordinary.  She was a Hollywood type, for example, and perhaps her clothes were too sexy, or her hair too glamorous.  Perhaps she was dancing, or drinking, her skirt was too short, or she was so desperate for a job that she ended up in an uncomfortable situation.  In other words, perhaps if this woman did something 'wrong', and she is to blame for what has happened to her, normal women, everyday women, will be safe.

Putting the blame on a woman for sexual assault, whether the focus is on her clothing, her occupation, her hairstyle or her posture, blames a woman for her assault.  Likewise, if we see a woman as guilty because 'she shouldn't have been out at night', or 'she should have watched her drink', we place the blame on a woman for her assault.

Rape or sexual assault is dehumanizing, and it robs a woman of her voice, her physical boundaries and her feeling of safety.  After suffering such a terrible crime, a woman would feel ashamed, and she would feel ashamed because her humanity was robbed from her.  She becomes afraid to speak about because to share this feeling of degradation means going back into this terrible space.  Sexual assault is a violation.  A woman would not want to share it because sharing means having to recall it.

But what if a woman knew that no matter how hard it would be to share, her story would be treated with empathy or compassion?  What if her story was accepted and treated with empathy, and she knew that nobody would ask her about the length of her skirt or the height of her heels.  Where she was, how many drinks she'd had, or the career she'd chosen to do, wouldn't come into the picture.  Instead, she would share knowing that her voice would make her powerful.  What then?

It's a hard question to answer, because women do not generally share stories of sexual assault under these circumstances.  They do not assume that the automatic response would be empathy.  Brene Brown shares that empathy helps when it comes to shame, because it provides us with an antidote.  We don't have to share an exact situation or circumstance.  We don't only have to relate because we have shared  this experience too.  We relate because we are human.  And when we do, we take away some of the stigma or shame.  We do this to give a woman her humanity back.

When it comes to men, unpacking the social myths we tell about rape is important.  We can no longer just quietly mutter that 'boys will be boys' and leave it at that.  There is a need to give the majority of men their humanity back too.  Depicting men as base creatures who simply cannot help themselves if put in the same room as a 'Hollywood' type is unfair.  It lowers the standards, and says that men should be forgiven for being wild beings who are quite simply out of control.  It silences the voices of feminist men, men who would work towards changing gender related norms or beliefs, and men who would remove themselves from an uncomfortable situation. We need to see men who rape as predators so that we can see it for what it really and truly is - a despicable act carried out by a man who abuses his power.

If Annabella Sciorra believed that there was a system which would protect her, and a culture which would empathize deeply with her experience, would she have felt as scared to come forward?  Where are the gaps which prevent women from speaking?  And why do we find fault with women who do speak out?

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