The Harvey Weinstein sexual misconduct and assault revelations have captured the attention of Hollywood and the rest of the entertainment industry, which means the story has captured the attention of the American People and much of the developed world’s population. Sexual harassment, assault, and related misbehavior are now in the spotlight. It is a cause with the full backing of celebrities from around the globe. Celebrities are outraged and ready to fight for victims of sexual misconduct and assault, but what they are against is difficult to define and what they should do is difficult to determine. Unless the star power is quickly channeled into a meaningful project, the momentum will be wasted on near-meaningless PR stunts.
When someone is raped, sexually assaulted, or even used for sex, that person is being treated as nothing more than a living object. While sex is simply an act of pleasure to some, most individuals view it as a personal and emotional experience that defines part of their individual identity. Being objectified can destroy someone’s sense of identity, personal security, and self-worth for this very reason. As such, the harm of sexual violence stems from the victims' loss of security and confidence in society's ability to shield them from those who harmed them. Sexual assaults are not simply about the physical act of sex. These crimes steal the ability of victims to make intimate choices while violating the victims' sense of security in one of the most personal aspects of their lives.
This is why even a prostitute, who sells sex as a commodity, can be psychologically damaged by rape. Sexual assault at the hands of a trusted figure, such as a loved-one, boss, or commanding officer, within the confines of a “safe place,” such as one’s home, neighborhood, or a hospital can, therefore, be extremely traumatizing. Meanwhile, even a husband can rape his wife, and vice versa, if the spouse is forced to engage in a sexual against her, or his, will. Although gaining traction, the idea that a married woman has a choice when it comes to sex is not universally accepted. For traditionalists, who believe a married woman should feel obliged to satisfy her husband’s sexual whims, marriage is a means of legitimizing the mistreatment of women as living objects. Beyond assault, this also why sexual misconduct of any kind can be just as psychologically damaging.
Furthermore, one woman’s harmless flirting is another woman’s sexual harassment. Because sexual harassment and other forms of sexual misconduct depend heavily on the subjective reactions of the person targeted by sexually-suggestive behavior, it can be difficult to determine whether or not someone has crossed a line. It is also why accusations of sexual misconduct can be extremely difficult to prove. Conversely, it is why it can be extremely difficult to dispute accusations of sexual misconduct. To be safe, companies tend to adopt policies that prohibit any form of sexual conduct or sexually-suggestive language. Some even adopt so-called “zero-tolerance” policies, which can victimize the innocent accused and do nothing to protect victims, yet most struggle to find effective, balanced solutions.
Quite frankly, it is very difficult to root out sexual predators and other abusive individuals. Not only are abusive individuals particularly gifted at manipulating situations to shield themselves from anyone who might hold them accountable, silence is a far easier course of action. First and foremost, no one wants to destroy someone’s life with a false accusation, especial when that person is a friend, family member, or mentor. Second, no one wants to believe someone they love and respect is an abusive person, especially a sexually abusive person. Even sexual predators do not tend to think of themselves as predators or abusers. They often legitimatize their sexual misconduct or frame it as quirky and harmless fun, misunderstanding, or mistakes.
With that in mind, zero-tolerance policies, which result in the immediate termination or ouster of anyone accused of sexual assault, are simply an example of an organization reacting to a situation in order to protect itself. This writer’s college, for example, adopted zero-tolerance policies that resulted in the firing of an innocent individual, who coached a youth soccer team and happened to record teen athletes without their shirts on during a practice, after a mother made, then retracted, a baseless allegation. The college later discovered a long-time facility member was a pedophile who allegedly never victimized children. His poetry depicted sexually suggestive imaginary while he was known to flirt with young-looking freshmen girls and offer them rides to isolated areas. The school’s reaction to his arrest for attempting to purchase child porn was to act the part of the hurt and betrayed victim as they reached out to their donor base.
In this writer’s high school, there was a teacher who had a reputation for having sex with students over the course of decades. He even married one of his students after she became pregnant with their child. He eventually retired. The question is why did no one do anything. For starters, the accusations against both individuals were well-known and implicit in their behavior, yet the evidence, if there was any evidence, was not widely available. Rumors or fact, those in the position to gather evidence and ensure their could be no improprieties, did not seem to have much of an interest in pursuing the rumors about the professor and teacher. On the one hand, victims and their parents did not want to deal with the drama of the situation and school administrators did not want to probe accusation that could cause them a great deal of trouble. On the other hand, people seemed to be accepting of the “humorous” situation as long as the young victims actually consented.
Society accepts sexual misconduct when it does nothing to address the potential for sexual misconduct. When accusations of sexual misconduct are heard, the ensuing investigation are uncomfortable and troubling for everyone involved. An investigation may not even yield conclusive results. As such, the best approach to dealing with sexual misconduct of any kind is to avoid it by ensuring situations where sexual misconduct might occur do not arise. This means developing a robust code of conduct for businesses, schools, and other organizations, so the potential for sexual contact is eliminated or recorded. It means taking a proactive approach to protecting potential victims and accused. It requires people to protect each other from situations that might allow sexual predators to victimize individuals.
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