“You’re dealing with people’s lives!” one of my classmates exclaimed. Everyone had perked up. It isn’t every day that 11th-graders get to take a break from learning about World War II to talk about sex.
Our history teacher had decided to devote a period to discussing current events, specifically the Me Too movement. But this student wasn’t referring to the devastating impact that rape has on its victims. Instead, he was concerned with how an accusation can hurt the accused. “Lives” in this case meant someone’s livelihood, financial stability and reputation, not a person’s psychological and physical well-being.
Other highlights of the conversation included multiple statements that began with “Rape is bad, but…” and assertions like, “You can overcome abuse, but you can’t overcome having your reputation squashed.”
Most people attending a private New York City school like mine are highly privileged, and as a result seem to more easily identify with people who have had similar life experiences ― like the successful (accused) white men who came up in our discussion.
This might be natural, but it’s dangerous.
Because the boys could more easily imagine being falsely accused of rape, they were more empathetic toward the perpetrators than the victims. They weren’t receptive to the female voices in the room, even as women ― some on the verge of tears ― spoke about their feelings and fears regarding the recent flood of high-profile sexual assault allegations.
“Relying on a 'trickle-down' approach to empathy toward women will be just as ineffective in this conversation as it is in economics.”
The Me Too movement, which calls attention to the mistreatment of women in Hollywood and other industries across the country, is crucial to our evolution as a society. But unless there is specific sexual assault and harassment education in high schools and perhaps even middle schools, we will continue to breed the same kinds of men and boys that triggered this movement in the first place. Relying on a “trickle-down” approach to empathy toward women will be just as ineffective in this conversation as it is in economics.
There is an immense gap between the conversations happening among adults and the conversations happening among my high school peers. After I wrote about this discussion for my school’s newspaper, my mom’s Facebook friends shared the piece and commented about its relevance. But the comment section on my school’s website remains blank.
To combat the inevitable defensiveness of the boys in my class, my teacher began the conversation by only allowing girls to speak. There were a number of eye rolls, but the boys abided by the guidelines nonetheless. Later, when the male members of the class were allowed to contribute, a boy interrupted a female student. My teacher paused to point out how troublesome it is that men think it’s OK to interrupt women while they’re speaking. Many boys erupted in disbelieving laughter.
“We can’t expect boys and men to empathize with victims of sexual assault if they aren’t taught from the get go that women are not objects for their consumption.”
Just as disappointing are the self-proclaimed feminist boys ― the ones who have listened to girls describe their frustrations about daily injustices, but in this moment chose to stay silent or only spoke to acknowledge the merits of both sides. These boys might see themselves as on the “right side of the issue,” but they’re part of the problem if they aren’t comfortable supporting the female voices in the room.
After a woman publicly accused Aziz Ansari ― a man who has been outspoken about being a feminist and wore a Time’s Up pin to this year’s Golden Globes to protest gender inequality in his industry ― of ignoring her “verbal and non-verbal cues to indicate how uncomfortable and distressed she was” while on a date, I became painfully conscious of the fact that even the most well-intentioned men fail to recognize the ways in which they perpetuate the problems they claim to fight against.
As the discussion in class devolved, my friends and I sat stunned. The boys around us denied the most basic markers of gender discrimination like the low number of female CEOs and the wage gap. And although their comments were flawed, they don’t reveal as much about the moral character of the boys themselves as they do the culture surrounding sexual assault and harassment in our country.
The unfortunate reality is that we can’t expect boys and men to empathize with victims of sexual assault if they aren’t taught from the get-go that women are their equals, not objects for their consumption and pleasure. We can’t expect them to view rape as an offense worth prosecuting if our justice system favors leniency toward sexual aggressors.
“Rape culture isn’t a matter of opinion. This statement is not, as my classmates may try to frame it, an attempt to stifle free speech. This isn’t fake news. This is my future.”
My school and others like it champion political debate. Diverse opinions are important, but there is no pluralism when it comes to sexual assault and harassment. Rape culture isn’t a matter of opinion. This statement is not, as my classmates may try to frame it, an attempt to stifle free speech. This isn’t fake news. This is my future.
After the bell rang, as students rushed into the halls for lunch, another female student and I found ourselves in tears. How could they invalidate our feelings? How could they look around and not care about what will happen to us? We talked for a while about how futile we felt the discussion was. “They’ll never believe us and they’ll never understand,” we said. After confiding our disappointment and frustration in each another, I walked, dejected, to my locker ― hearing along the way how “ridiculous” that current events discussion had been.
Yes, I thought. Ridiculous. Ridiculous that in 2018 in a New York City private school, “feminist” is still a dirty word and my male friends would rather believe a man who’s accused of rape than the victim.
Although several weeks have passed, I’m still haunted by our discussion that day. We can write until our hands are bloody and speak out until our voices are hoarse. But unless our school, our community and our country decide to believe women who come forward, my friends and I might have to say “me too.”
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