In the midst of all the breakout stories related to sexual harassment and misconduct by America’s celebrities — from Matt Lauer to Charlie Rose to Al Franken to Kevin Spacey — I am worried.
I am not worried for the men who have been named so far. There are many more to come — some will be named publicly and ousted, and some will not. This issue has been so widely rampant for decades. Almost every woman I know has a story related to sexual harassment in one form or the other and it is about time that such grievances that women have endured for so long come out in a public way.
What I am worried about is how we handle this crucial moment in American culture.
It’s one thing to name individuals such as Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore and others; it’s another thing to talk about the structure and the system that has created and enables such behaviors and abuse of power and of women. To take this moment and transform it into a cultural revolution and a real cultural change, we need to ask and answer an uncomfortable question: How did we get here?
We need to look at the interconnection between how women are treated and viewed in the workplace vis-à-vis the harassment issue. When women are still making an average of 78 cents for every dollar a man earns, when women occupy only about 20 percent of the seats in the United States Congress, according to the Center for American Women in Politics, and when women are vastly underrepresented in board rooms across American corporations, including the media, it enables a culture in which women are not perceived as equal. When women are not getting paid equally we’re also not being treated equally.
Beyond the individuals being named so far, we need look at the institutional levels where women have been overtly sexualized in the media sector, in the advertising sector, in the fashion sector, in the Hollywood sector, and in the political sector. When women’s images are highly sexualized all over the place from the advertising world to the media world, we all need to look at ourselves and try to figure out how men and women have played a role in co-creating such an imbalanced cultural atmosphere.
It is time to have a real dialogue between women and men in which we examine the times we were complacent in allowing such violations to happen and in the times in which we were complicit in creating a culture that allowed for the overt sexualization and objectification of women that is impacting our own behavior, and our views of each other as men and as women.
Going at the rich and famous who have been named so far is one thing. Their sacking from their jobs is a good deterrent and future assurance that behavior will not reoccur in people who occupy positions of power and influence. But in order for this conversation to create a true cultural change, we must also talk with the average man in the street, in our lives, our colleagues and friends — some are assessing if they have done anything wrong, some are being defensive toward women, some are expressing anger and resentments towards women and some are indeed standing fully by women. It is the everyman that we need to engage with so he understands what it feels like to be on the recipient end of certain behavior, certain words and physical touches, if not other more imposing violations.
There is a saying that goes: “We see things as we are, we do not see things as they are.”
With this in mind, I think all men should ask themselves the following questions: What are the situations in your life where you have seen things as you are, and thought that your word or touch may be benign when it was not? What are the times in which you knew you were pushing a line with another woman verbally or physically and let yourself do it anyway thinking she is allowing you or she is liking it? When were the times in which you were conscious or unconscious of the power difference between you and your subordinate? And when were the times in which you were ashamed of your acts? We need to talk about all of that — do that publicly in a process that allows for the larger learning for all.
Equally we need to have the conversation with the average women in our lives — our sisters, our daughters and our colleagues. The questions to ask: When have we seen wrongdoings and looked in the other direction when it did not impact us directly? When did we stay silent out of fear and shame when it happened to us? And when did we enable bad behavior in certain circumstances by not putting a stop to it immediately — or by even engaging with it at times? The harder question here is have we ever compromised ourself willingly because of our fears or desires in the pursuit of success?
In a tweet I received this morning after an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Jerry Valencia said, “Have you forgotten the OVER saling of sexuality that started in the late 80s to get ahead in Society? The beginning of a affordable cosmetic surgery, publications like Maxim magazine to today’s “bling jeans”? Blame the stick, not the dogs for chasing it….”
Well, Jerry, the dog is still to blame for crossing a line and not every stick is a stick. There is never an excuse for any man to cross a line with a woman no matter what she wears! There is freedom of expression here where we need to respect women expressing themselves as they wish. Still, I think we should look at the larger sexualized culture as you said, our roles in it as men and as women, and how it may have contributed to where we are today. We need to do it for our children at, least so they can take this moment and move it forward rather than think it is only about the guys who have been named so far.
Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.
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