What do the Harvey Weinstein allegations have to do with an Elephant?
More than you might think – at least a metaphorical Elephant.
Lately, there has been a lot of very important discussions about sexual harassment and assault. I sincerely thank the brave women (and men) who have come forward to openly talk about this terrible situation. This includes my good friend Dr. Cadell, the President of the American College of Sexologists as well as many others.
Many different reasons have been brought up for how Weinstein and others could get away with this behavior for so long. I’m writing this is because I believe a fundamental reason that enables people to do this is being overlooked.
It’s the “Elephant in the Room” — it’s openly talking about sex.
Still scratching your head? Consider this hypothetical scenario…
Had Harvey Weinstein, or anyone consistently physically assaulted women over many years would he continue to get away with it? Even if no visible marks were made, odds are women would speak out, warn others and demand they stop.
So why wouldn’t women do this for sexual assault? I believe it’s because women are both embarrassed to talk about it, and they have very real concerns that if they do it will harm them on many levels, including them being blamed for causing it. I also believe our culture is more comfortable to look the other way and do our best to ignore it.
But why does this happen? I’ll explain in a moment.
As a Sexologist, I’ve known the sad fact that sexual assault and harassment occurs more often than most people realize.
According to RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, 1 in 6 women are victims of rape or attempted rape. The number of women dealing with other forms of sexual harassment is much much higher. Sexual harassment and assault aren’t limited to women, men and sadly children face it as well. Every 98 seconds someone in the United States is sexually assaulted.
These attacks harm people on levels that go much deeper than just physical or psychological assault. This type of violence frequently causes ongoing challenges for the person later in their life with relationships and many other areas.
I as well have been sexually harassed, but fortunately, the outcome was different. Several years ago when I was at a local University, at the end of the day after everyone else had left, the director of the department approached me and proceeded to ask sexual favors. I laughed and said “no”. I was very very fortunate because he stopped. The next day I told all my co-workers, and the assistant director immediately had a meeting with him. He didn’t talk about it again and nothing came from it. Again, I was incredibly lucky in that he stopped and I had no challenges with my job later – other than him acting uncomfortable from then on.
This situation could have ended much differently if he hadn’t stopped, or if I hadn’t brought it up the next day. However, I was also fortunate because the culture of the office I was in supported me. Sadly, that isn’t the case most of the time. I just as easily could have been raped and if I’d brought it up been labeled as a troublemaker.
Sexual harassment and assault isn’t limited to women. Men and women face it in both heterosexual and homosexual scenarios. I knew an associate who confided in me that his female boss was making inappropriate advances including touching him and trying to kiss him when they were alone. He never confronted the upper management about it. He told very few people. After a year he found a new job in a different State and moved.
If men speak up they’re seen as weak. If women speak up, they face a gauntlet of cultural stigmas that I’ll cover in a moment. Our culture seems to make it harder for women though.
But, again you may be wondering why would women and men have challenges telling others?
This is what I believe, based on observations from the past 8 years of working in sexology research.
Our culture in the United States and many other places conditions us to be embarrassed about our fundamental sexual drive. Our natural desire for the pleasure that results from sexual expression is treated as being wrong, sinful and dirty.
The reality is if this drive wasn’t here, we wouldn’t be here – period. However, we are taught from a very early age to be deeply embarrassed by it. This indoctrination can begin as babies before we even know how to speak if our parents give us an uncomfortable and disapproving look if we happen to touch our genitals. That message is burned into our brain that our parents, who are the center of our universe and our source of survival, don’t approve of whatever it was we just did.
Later this is often expressed in more clear terms verbally, or we see and model their uncomfortable and embarrassed reaction to sexual topics.
But, as we grow boys are usually treated differently from girls.
Both sexes are usually conditioned to be embarrassed by their sexual needs, but boys are told: “boys will be boys”. However, girls are supposed to be proper.
Later men are considered “virile” and successful if they pursue women and succeed in having sex with them. At the same time, women are supposed to remain pure and proper until they marry.
Have you ever noticed that there isn’t a female equivalent to the word “virile” for women? Look it up.
So what happens if women pursue men? We all know the names, they’re called “slut”, “whore”, “tramp”, etc.
While you’re looking things up, see if you can find a male equivalent for “whore”.
Women are also often taught that they have to be careful what they wear or what they say because men may not be able to control themselves. So if she does say or wear something that could be construed as sexual, it might be implied that she might be to blame. In some cultures, women are still required to wear head covers. In the 1800’s it was believed that if men saw women’s ankles they’d “lose control’. Today the fuss is about women’s nipples.
At the same time, our culture has created an extreme paradox where sexual teasing and objectification of women is flaunted everywhere, primarily for the purpose of getting the interest of men.
Women buy into this as well and flock to whatever the latest fashion, push up bra, or fad appears to be popular. You may wonder if women doing this to attract men, or gain status among their female peers?
But actual nudity or public discussion of sex is taboo and often illegal.
Even among academic sexologists, sexuality is often talked about in third person and past tense. They would never say, “I masturbate and this is what works for me”. This is changing fortunately though.
All these conflicting rules of our society have created a perfect storm for sexual harassment and assault. Let’s list them out:
- Males are taught to believe a sign of their success is to have a high sex drive and be “virile”
- Women are taught that if they dress in a way that is too revealing men may not be able to help themselves.
- If a woman reports that she has been sexually harassed or assaulted, there’s the underlying cultural question of “did she cause this”
- If something does happen, people don’t want to publicly talk about it because it’s embarrassing and “not the appropriate topic” – especially if it’s about a person who is socially or politically powerful.
- Since it’s a taboo topic, women are rarely taught how to react or deal with sexual assault scenarios. They’re just taught it won’t happen as long as they act properly.
- In reality, there are bad people out there (male and female) and they will do bad things.
- If something bad does happen, since they’ve been conditioned this way, women sometimes wonder if it somehow was their fault (even though it wasn’t)
- We are now seeing that sometimes highly successful people can be monsters in this area. They also realized they could get away with this if they play along with these cultural rules, and the truly sick thing is the people in their networks found it easier to just look the other way because they were afraid to bring up the topic.
- There also is a sometimes very valid concern for women who did report sexual harassment or assault not succeeding in their industry as a result. Even if a very professionally powerful women spoke about this in the past, she would be going up against a whole societal paradigm.
All of these things combined have created a culture where sexual predators can exist, sometimes right in front of our eyes.
Only with multiple women standing up and demanding this stops will things change because otherwise society would likely have quietly judged the woman and moved on.
So I applaud the women who have been brave enough to face this and publicly speak about it. Their actions will hopefully give other women the courage to speak up and over time cause this cultural artifact of double standards for women to change.
This is just the beginning though. At least we are becoming culturally aware there is a problem.
To deal with it though we have to address these fundamental issues I’ve talked about.
The first step is to become more comfortable with our own sexuality so we aren’t embarrassed talking about these topics. Because to solve this problem we have to be able to openly acknowledge what is going on and not deal with it as a theory. We also have to look at both the male and female perspective on this.
Only then will all of these “Elephants in the Room” everyone knows about but don’t talk about will be dealt with.
Until that happens, we are part of the problem.
The good news is there are easy ways to become more comfortable talking about and accepting our own sexuality. I’ll go over that in my next article.