An uncomfortable truth: our society has a problem with how we respond to sexual harassment and gendered violence. You are part of this problem, even if you do not directly participate in this behavior.
In December 2020, Lindsey Boylan accused New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo of sexual harassment when she was employed as his aide. She published tweets alleging the governor often commented on her physical appearance at work. In late February, she also published an essay on Medium that detailed her experiences as an aide to Cuomo more extensively.
In the Medium post, she describes a work environment that felt toxic and uncomfortable to her and other female staff members. “Governor Andrew Cuomo has created a culture within his administration where sexual harassment and bullying is so pervasive that it is not only condoned but expected,” wrote Boylan. “His inappropriate behavior toward women was an affirmation that he liked you, that you must be doing something right. He used intimidation to silence his critics. And if you dared to speak up, you would face consequences.”
And face consequences she did, despite no longer working for the governor. According to a report by the New York Times, Cuomo and some of his allies within the state government drafted an open letter they hoped former aides would sign. The letter attacked her credibility and suggested her accusations had been politically motivated. (Boylan is running for Manhattan borough president this year). Aides to Cuomo also called at least six former aides to ask whether they had been in contact with Boylan or to learn more about the accuser. Some of these former aides said they felt the calls were a tactic to intimidate them and discourage them from speaking out as Boylan had.
Whether or not Cuomo and his allies intended it, these actions sent a clear message to other women in their workplace: This is how top government officials handle accusations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior towards women. Don’t bother coming forward in the future. You’ll just be discredited, and your coworkers, past and present, will be asked to rally against you.
Boylan is not alone in experiencing these kinds of attempts to delegitimize sexual harassment allegations. According to Vice President for Education and Workplace Justice Emily Martin, these tactics are incredibly common. “We’ve heard from thousands of individuals who are seeking help to address workplace harassment, and more than 70 percent of them say they have also experienced retaliation,” she told the New York Times.
Of course, white-collar office workers are not the only people who experience sexual harassment. A recent study from UN Women UK found that 97 percent of all women in the United Kingdom have been sexually harassed. As troubling as this statistic is, it comes as little surprise to the women who have experienced gender-based harassment and violence and have friends, family members, and co-workers who also share these demoralizing experiences. And while this study focused only on women in the United Kingdom, the pain, humiliation, and fear that this behavior inspires in women and young girls transcends borders.
The issue of gendered harassment and violence, of course, is even more apparent for women of color and goes beyond sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior. According to data from the Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community, 1 in 4 Black girls will be sexually abused before the age of 18. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 1 in 5 Black women is a survivor of rape. More than half of American Indian and Native Alaska women will experience sexual violence in their lifetimes, according to the Department of Justice.
The recent deadly shooting in Atlanta provides disturbing evidence of how widespread misogyny and racist conceptions of Asian women as hypersexual can fester and lead to horrific violence against Asian women.
So what is the point of laying out all of these gruesome statistics and anecdotes of gendered harassment and violence? The point is that these problems are real. Sexual harassment and assault don’t just happen to women in news articles. It happens to the women in all of our lives. It happens to our daughters, mothers, sisters, friends, coworkers, and to strangers we pass on the street or in the aisles of the supermarket. It happens to me.
Unfortunately, there seem to be a lot of men on social media and positions of power who simply do not want to come to grips with reality. The majority of women experience gender-based harassment or violence during their lifetimes, but a lot of men continually seek to deflect blame.
Surely, I am not the problem. My friends and relatives are not like that. Those are just jokes. Women can be so sensitive.
If your friends or coworkers are sexual harassers and you fail to speak out against their inappropriate behavior, you are complicit in the problem. If they share nude photos of girls sent to them in confidence and you laugh along, you are complicit. If you watch a friend coerce a woman into sexual acts when she is too intoxicated to consent and you do not intervene and discourage the behavior, you are complicit. If you don’t speak up against harmful attitudes towards transgender women, you are complicit. If you can read the countless testimonies from women all over the world about the pain and shame of their experiences with sexual harassment and assault and fail to hold yourself and other men accountable, you are complicit.
It is practically impossible to avoid internalizing misogyny when it is so prevalent in politics, popular media, religion, and practically every other facet of society. Women also have to grapple with the internalized misogyny that leads us to resent other women for their successes and personal choices when it comes to family, sex, and even fashion choices. Men cannot be expected to grow up completely free of bias against women when it is so prevalent in popular culture.
However, everyone has a choice on how they respond to widespread misogyny and gendered violence. Some choose to deny these obvious problems and deflect blame onto victims. Others simply do nothing to provide support to women and help us achieve a world in which we do not have to accept sexual harassment in the workplace, sexism from our male partners and relatives, or the fear of assault by friends and strangers.
When it comes down to it, women deserve to live our lives without the physical harm and emotional turmoil that gendered harassment and assault place on us. We deserve the same security and confidence that men enjoy. If you want to be an ally to the women in your life (and I’m going to assume you do), you cannot compartmentalize the violence and harassment women face as something intangible that you only read about in the news. You need to start viewing this problem as something that directly affects your loved ones.
Call out your friends for problematic language and behavior. Question the biases you hold when you feel yourself doubting the lived experiences of women. Be an activist when it comes to gendered harassment and assault and spread awareness of the problem.
Just don’t be silent. It’s not the neutral stance you think it is.