Somewhere along the way we all stopped treating each other like human beings and instead now need some sort of justification before we decide whether or not we can respond with sympathy.
I am not surprised by this watershed of sexual misconduct. It’s incredible (and somewhat disheartening) that it took a brave few to come forward to create a safe space large enough for everyone else to work up the courage to speak their own truth.
What I am surprised by is how many people – both men and women – seem to struggle with how to respond. The scenario is always the same: a story comes out and then the victims are quickly diminished to money/fame-grabbers, political ploys, opportunists or feminist whiners. What’s worse is I hear people referring to this as a “women’s issue”.
This isn’t about women or some sort of political movement. This is about people who have experienced pain. This is a human issue. And this kind of categorization and justification is not only a reinforcement of rape culture, but it blankets over the real truth: fear. The fear of knowing that there is no justification, no typical scenario, that no one is exempt.
Look closely at these responses:
“Well they didn’t leave the room or immediately report it, so some of the responsibility is on them.”
“Why were they at that party/in that hotel room/dressed like that/drinking that much in the first place?”
“It was a different time, it was part of the culture back then.”
“They’re a good person, I’ve never experienced that side of them.”
This is reasoning – a mental survival technique. Our brains always need to find a way to explain why something awful happened. We need to identify it, classify it and separate ourselves from it so we can tell ourselves it would never happen to us. The reality that rape or harassment can happen to anyone, any time is just plain too scary to think about.
But maybe we should. Maybe we should tap into that fear and start to think about the day it happens to you. The day someone you love is violated and stripped of their dignity. What would you do?
Would tell them you need to wait until you heard all the facts? Would you tell them it was their fault? Would you ignore them?
When someone you care for is hurt, it doesn’t matter what the specifics are, you respond with compassion, comfort and love. But why are these emotions only reserved for those closest to us? Why is it never just our knee-jerk response to everyone? We always want everything to be black and white. But this, like so many other deeply complicated topics, will never be that simple. There will always be shades of grey and every story is unique.
I get it. Empathy for something that you haven’t yet experienced is difficult. But sympathy shouldn’t be. You don’t need to experience rape to understand pain or fear. You don’t need be sexually harassed to understand anger or shame.
What’s happening right now feels like a reckoning, but these experiences are nothing new – we’re just a more captive audience. This may not have happened to you or someone you love, but it’s probably happened to someone you know. It’s time to tap into our own fear and with every story, remember what it really means to be human.