As I sat down to write this commentary, Matt Lauer and Garrison Keillor were the latest in a long line of popular and influential men in media and politics to be fired for sexual harassment.
Over Thanksgiving as I was walking with my sisters we talked about what was happening with the men in the media. They asked if I thought this was a watershed moment, one where the narrative of how women were treated would change.
My answer to that is, I don’t know. What has been happening to the women coming forward is nothing new. And, if all we are doing is firing men and people keep talking about how surprised they are that a man as nice as Matt Lauer or men labeled as feminists like Louie C.K. or Al Franken can do these things then nothing will really change.
I have two children. One boy and one girl. I have always believed that I need to raise my children differently. I need to teach them different tools for how to survive in the world. I need to teach my white boy how not to rape. How not to use women’s bodies as objects or believe that he does not need to examine the power he has just through birth. I have to teach my girl how to defend herself against sexual violence. I need to teach her to love her body and know that it is hers to control. I need to teach her that her body is not an object. I need to teach her not about what to do if she is assaulted, but what to do when.
But, how do I teach this to my children if we don’t start to make changes in how we look at women and how we believe women should be treated? The men who are being fired are not what society has created as the image of a sexual predator. Instead, they are men who were raised to believe that this is an acceptable way to behave towards and in front of women. They were raised in a culture where women’s stories have not been validated.
Women have long been sharing their stories of sexual violence, yet we do little to support survivors after an assault. Instead of listening to the long history of the ways women’s bodies have been treated as sexual objects, people want to know why these seemingly good men cannot just be forgiven. They want to argue that not all men grope or sexually assault women. They even argue that some women are sexual predators, so why do we only talk about men.
Sexual violence is about power. It is a way to assert control. We teach our children at a young age that men are in positions of power. We teach them by asking boys to carry chairs so they can “work their muscles.” We teach them by allowing our sons to dress as women at Halloween because they think that it is funny to look like a girl. We teach them by making girls take notes and be secretaries and continuing to have boys and men be leaders. We teach them when we give excuses for a man grabbing a girl or demanding a hug. We teach them by saying boys will be boys, by commenting on young girls’ looks, by forcing our children to give hugs to people, and by criticizing anyone who calls these practices into question. We show them through the books we read, the movies we watch, and emphasis we put on careers that are predominantly male.
We teach our children that women are objects. We tell our girls that they are distracting to boys and that they need to be responsible for how others look at them. We believe it is okay to regulate what girls wear or don’t wear because somewhere we have found that it is okay to teach girls that they are objects of desire. And, when we do this, we raise boys who believe this to be true.
It is all the little things we think are harmless that create this culture. I am not saying that we do all of this purposefully, but how do we change this culture? How do we move away from perpetuating this view of women? I believe that every woman has a #metoo story of sexual violence, harassment or trauma. Yet, through these actions, we have raised girls in a culture where they feel shame for sharing their stories.
It is because of all of these things that I do not forgive these men. I do not care about the careers of these men or what happens to them now. Let their careers tank. Let them finally face the results of their actions. What I do care about is the women who are sharing their stories. We can only change the culture by valuing these stories and how we react to them. How we treat women’s narratives and how we move forward is more important than the men who committed these acts of violence.
I believe these women.
Because I believe these women, I also believe we need to change the way we talk to young boys about power and young girls about possibility. Young girls need to feel strong. Young girls need to see women in positions of power. They need to see the possibilities for women. Young boys need to know that women aren’t objects. What girls wear should not be controlled by boys’ emotions. We need to use language that empowers girls and gives boys the tools to see girls as people. We need to create laws that protect victims. We need to have policies that do not make girls and women feel ashamed of their bodies. We need to stop thinking about how to reconcile what these men did and instead start thinking about how to make women’s voices heard. Only then will we start to see lasting change.
Rebekah Buchanan is an Associate Professor of English at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcome and encouraged.