Sexual Assault, and the Silence of Victims

The string of sexual assault cases hitting the mainstream media for the last month or so has been nothing short of a wild, horrifying ride.

Every day, it seems, new accusations come out — from the literal dozens of women harassed by Harvey Weinstein, to the then-underage young men accusing Kevin Spacey of assault, to, most recently, rape allegations leveled at former “Gossip Girl” actor Ed Westwick.

Reading individual stories from the victims and hearing what these accused rapists have done, is, frankly, downright revolting. The imbalanced power dynamics of it all are what really get to me, far more than any details of the encounters themselves (though those are not exactly light reading, either). Sexual assault is awful as is, but the use of one’s power and fame to conceal it only further compounds it — and creates a vicious cycle, if Hollywood’s elite are anything to go by.

Most people have known about or at least guessed at the darker underbelly of sexual harassment in and around the entertainment industry for a while now. After all, with so many wildly attractive people, isn’t that part of the dangerous glamour of it all? And yet, a few I’ve talked to about the topic seem truly surprised, as if all of this is coming out of nowhere.  But to me, it just feels timely. After all, this time last year, we elected a man who bragged about grabbing women by the pussy. The fact that we, as a collective, are finally getting serious about sexual assault a year later feels right, if not a little late.

There’s a lot to be said about why these men do these god-awful things — a whole discussion on male chauvinism, gender politics, sex, and the power dynamics involved to talk about. But the other question, and the one I’m far more interested in, is this: Why, exactly, do victims wait so long to come out?

One part of the answer is obvious, in my eyes: in the moment or moments after assault, those on the receiving end of this sort of abuse do not want to think of themselves as victims.  It’s a coping mechanism of sorts — a way of dealing with the sheer trauma of what has been done, of shoving things under the rug, and rationalizing away whatever has happened — but it’s also a damaging mindset that needs to be reversed.

Let me put it another way. Because we live in a culture that values independence and strength, and thus negates the agency of victims — wrongly conflating victimhood with weakness — the label will automatically have detractors. No one likes to be a victim, let alone think of themselves that way.

And considering the disdain and skepticism leveled at those brave enough to come forward with allegations, it’s no wonder most choose to shut up instead, often for years on end.

It’s one thing to choose not come forward. But when women refuse to admit to ourselves when we’re systematically victimized, we just give fuel to those who claim — despite all evidence to the contrary — that women are doing just fine. That a little sexual harassment here and there is OK, it just comes as a part of the package deal that is life.

Clearly, there are women — for a myriad of reasons, given the current climate — who don’t want to accept that women are victimized in any way. Maybe there are even a lucky few who have never experienced sexual harassment. But the existence of a few who have lived their lives under an umbrella of privilege does not mean that it’s not raining on the rest of us.

Naming what is happening to women — that we are being harassed, held back, and yes, victimized — is not weakness. It takes strength to tell uncomfortable truths. It’s high time the world started listening.

About the Author

Namankita Rana

Passionate about technology, women’s issues, art, fashion, and global politics. Though maybe not in that exact order.