Commentary
By James Simpson 10-17-2017

All across Facebook, women are using the phrase “Me too” to courageously and publicly acknowledge that they are survivors of sexual harassment and assault. It is a chilling testament to the prevalence of unwanted and uninvited sexual advances, mostly by men, toward women, nonbinary people, and some men.

It has been overwhelming. The sheer number of women in my newsfeed who have displayed their courage, strength, and resilience by posting this message on Facebook is shocking. And that’s the point. These posts are meant to be a marker to those around them — their families, their friends, the neighbors, their coworkers, and especially other survivors, that the experience of women in our society is something that we can no longer ignore.

Women are showing that, despite being subject to the most violent and forceful manifestations of our patriarchal society and culture, they are willing to stand up in defiance and in solidarity to ensure that we as a society no longer allow incidents of sexual harassment and violence to go unchallenged, unnoticed, and unbelieved. And almost certainly, many other women who have experienced harassment or assault have decided understandably not to speak out. “Survivors don’t owe us their stories” explained Alexis Benveniste on Twitter.

And so we have to ask ourselves — why has it taken the brave and courageous actions of women to bring this systemic problem to light? Why has our society silenced and belittled this problem to the point that women have had to bare the painful responsibility of publicly acknowledging their traumatic lived experience, in many cases causing them to relive and remember some of the most traumatic experiences of their lives?

As a man, I am responsible for this. At worst, I have actively engaged in this behavior, and at best I have stood passively by as I watched it happen.

While I worked in the Senate, I was at a work function with colleagues. Among the guests that day were key stakeholders and leaders from the state for which I worked. Most were people of wealth, power, and influence — all were people on whom I relied daily, and to whom I was answerable in my work.

Toward the end of the reception, an older man began being very forward toward one of my female colleagues. It was the sort of "locker room talk" and behavior with which we are all too familiar. In the moment, I knew it was wrong — I knew she was uncomfortable — and yet, I was silent. I allowed what I thought to be my work responsibilities to render me silent, while my colleague graciously and jokingly took the unwanted advances and unwelcome attention with a smile on her face. Later that evening, as we walked to the Metro following the reception, she broke down. She was shaken by the experience, and even more shaken by my — and others' — lack of intervention.

This is an experience all too familiar to those posting “Me too.” And it must stop.

As beneficiaries of a privilege undeserved, and as the main perpetrators of the preservation of the patriarchy, the response from men must be as unequivocal and as unified as the statement being made by our friends and family.

We must believe the stories and experiences of women and other survivors in our lives. 

We must apologize for the ways and times we ourselves have been guilty of or complicit in incidents of harassment or unwanted attention — even the seemingly harmless throw away comments, jokes, and even the well-intended compliments.

We must challenge those behaving in inappropriate ways — men catcalling on the street, friends making inappropriate jokes— especially with friends and family members with whom we have trust, and most sadly when we ourselves are the ones at fault.

We must offer support to those around us who are survivors of incidents of harassment or violence.

And finally, we must commit ourselves to use this moment to create a movement that recognizes and celebrates the full humanity embodied in each living person. A movement that recognizes that everyone should be able to live their lives free of harassment or fear, and work equally for the betterment of themselves and the benefit of all those around them.

But this won’t happen without change. It is often said that, “no problem can be solved by the same consciousness that caused it.” This means that men cannot solve this problem we created.

This is a problem that will only be resolved when more women are invited to the table to make decisions and lead in our governments, our board rooms, our organizations, our families, and our places of worship.

We hear you. We believe you. We are sorry. We are committed to challenge and we are committed to change. I promise to do better. Will you?

James Simpson is Senior Adviser to the President at Sojourners.

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