Photo credit: The Denver Post. | Women March in Barcelona, 2018.
As we start the new year, I want to take a look back at 2017 as one that marks a moment of change in the systemic sexism and a shift of our cultural consciousness surrounding sexual assault. 2017 will be remembered as the year that Donald Trump, a man accused of multiple accounts of assault and recorded describing his behavior towards women using degrading and vulgar language, was elected as 45th president of the United States of America; yet, it will also be the year that hundreds of thousands of women and men took to the streets to protest against his inauguration across the globe in the Women’s March in January. Furthermore, throughout the year the world watched as a watershed of powerful perpetrators were exposed and held accountable for their threatening, and in many cases, illegal behavior. The list of high profile men who have been exposed have held positions spanning across a diverse number of industries, proving how widespread and seemingly universal this problem of bullying and sexism is and how ingrained it is in our society.
The significance of The Time’s ‘Person of the Year’ being awarded to the ‘Silence Breakers’, the women and men who have spoken out against those who used their positions of power to intimidate and abuse, is so incredible as it has provided a platform through which they can share their story. In addition, the success of the #MeToo campaign that hit social media platforms by storm is another indicator that victims of such behavior do not have to fear the same scrutiny and prejudice that they have done in the past. The campaign, which was started by Tarana Burke almost a decade ago, epitomizes the importance of a shared experience of victims in order to overcome the inequality that they face.
The Circle focused on #WidenYourCircle as their campaign this January, to stress what women can achieve when they come together and how women benefit from being part of a network of support. This solidarity amongst women and their fellow feminists is an integral part of the process of changing attitudes towards victims of sexual assault and creating an environment in which they are able to come forward and confront their abusers without fear or stigma.
Although this open discussion of previously taboo subjects and the ‘revolution of refusal’, as The Times has coined it, is a huge step for many of the women and men who have suffered from such horrific abuses, we must now focus on how this reckoning can be further used to change perceptions and address the underlying problem of abuse. These were not isolated incidents. Women and men face intimidation and sexual assault on a daily basis and to the extent that if it were reported in the same manner as, say, gun violence, the media would be describing it as an epidemic of such. So why has it taken this long for large organisations and media outlets to speak out? Much of the reporting focused on the financial implications for the men who were accused of bullying, assault and, in some cases, of rape. Public figures are still skeptical about the validity of a woman’s testimony of abuse if she is under the influence of alcohol and huge corporations are still spending millions to cover up and play down incidents of sexual harassment in the workplace. Women everywhere, who are not in the same privileged position as many of those who came forward with their testimony are unable to stand up to those in a position of power as they are stuck in a system of inequality and, if the #MeToo campaign has succeeded in demonstrating anything, it is that women are under threat. Rape Crisis UK reports some shocking statistics concerning sexual violence towards women including 1 in 5 women aged 16 – 59 has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16 and only around 15% of those who experience sexual violence choose to report to the police.
In a TIME/SurveyMonkey online poll of American adults conducted on November 28-30, 82% of respondents said women are more likely to speak out about harassment since the Weinstein allegations. Meanwhile, 85% say they believe the women making allegations of sexual harassment. This is an encouraging statistic but if we are to make the events of the last year meaningful for the marginalized in a larger sense and as part of a process of changing the environments in which this form of abuse is possible as opposed to penalizing those at fault on an individual basis, then we must use the momentum of 2017 to continue supporting victims and refusing to accept this behavior of intimidation. In everyday terms, this means that we need to accept that the people responsible can be found amongst our friends and colleagues; understanding that harassment and assault is not restricted to rich and famous men who seem very far from our own lives but something we may need to stand up to within our own circles. Barbara Kingsolver put it succinctly in a recent Guardian article; ‘Let’s be clear: no woman asks to live in a rape culture: we all want it over, yesterday.’
The Circle supports a number of projects that benefit women who have suffered from sexual violence, including the Nonceba Women’s Shelter in Cape Town and Chai Day, an initiative started by The Asian Circle that aims to raise awareness and funds to support survivors of gender-based violence. Look out for our upcoming projects this year to see how you can get involved in making 2018 an even greater step towards equality.
Written by @AnnaRenfrew. Anna is a student at The University of Edinburgh and a volunteer at The Circle.