Overcoming the culture of silence

Sexual violence persists, as victims struggle to obtain objective justice.

Twenty-three years after Anita Hill's testimony at the US Senate hearings, little has changed in societal attitudes towards victims of sexual crimes, writes Moschella [AP]

March was a rough month for victims of sexual assault. Just as a military judge meted out a slap on the wrist sentence for General Jeffrey Sinclair’s sexual misconduct, Joshua Tate was acquitted of sexually assaulting a female cadet at the Naval Academy. Meanwhile, Dartmouth College made the news when a student made “how-to” instructions available online for students who want to try raping a woman without it looking “rapey”. And Anita Hill has been on the talkshows promoting a newly released documentary detailing her ordeal during the Clarence Thomas hearings.

These incidents remind us how reluctant our society is to believe women and victims of sexual assault, in general, who have the courage to come forward and tell their stories. These two military cases will almost surely dissuade others from pressing charges, an action that involves risking one’s own career prospects. On college campuses, students continue to commit crimes of sexual assault because they can, and they prepare in advance to lie their way out of any charges that the traumatised victim may bring. Anita Hill’s story seems as if it could happen again, with roughly the same results.

Inside Story Americas – US military: Sexual assaults on the rise

We need to ask ourselves why we as a society are willing to ignore and tacitly condone these grave crimes. The idea that it is okay to overpower and sexually humiliate and harm another human being is outrageous. As a professor of pastoral care, I find this notion anathema to the religious values I hold dear – love, compassion, and fairness. But one does not have to be religious to know and understand that sexual violence is an offense against our common human dignity. Why do we allow it to continue?

I think the intractable nature of the problem is a little bit like racial discrimination in this country; and in some cases, such as Anita Hill’s, the two forms of oppression intersect. We tolerate the injustice and offense of sexualised violence and racial discrimination, in part, because we would rather not believe that these evils persist.

These forms of violence are too disturbing to think about, unless one has to. Rape victims know this, and so they most often do not come forward, knowing that if they did they would most likely not be believed. Their credibility will be challenged, and their charges dismissed as a matter of “he said, she said”, which usually means, “We believe what he said”. Those perpetrators in positions of high rank, who possess social power and financial backing to secure top representation, know that they can use their resources to outweigh the truth in courtrooms and in the court of public opinion.

Similarly, people of colour, experiencing a myriad micro-aggressions each day, learn to keep quiet about them, at least in the presence of white people. So if you are followed around in a retail store, or have your bag searched at customs every time you travel, or are pulled over for “driving while black”, you learn to put up with it. Because if you complain, you will likely be accused of being “oversensitive”, or “playing the race card”. Worse, you can in fact still be arrested for “disturbing the peace”, if you are less than friendly and compliant while being treated unfairly.

Why do we tolerate so much injustice and violence to our own humanity? Why have efforts to eradicate sexism and racism been so ineffectual? The problem is that these kinds of “isms” are so deeply ingrained in our society and our psyches that many of us do not even recognise that they are there, in the cultural air we breathe, and in the implicit biases that we bring to interpreting social situations. We think we have moved beyond the bad old days, but if we read the news carefully, there is much evidence to the contrary.

We need to start listening to the persons who come forward to tell their stories, listening with compassion, or what Jesus called, “ears to hear”. We need to give those who have the courage to bring charges the benefit of the doubt, especially in situations where there is an imbalance of power. Persons who are sexually assaulted suffer consequences for the rest of their lives. Those who perpetrate such violence and are convicted ought to experience consequences commensurate with their crimes.

The all-white male senate judiciary committee of 23 years ago, led by now Vice President Joseph Biden, treated Anita Hill with disdain and dismissal. The guys’ attitudes toward her look pretty foolish now. Our current rationalisations for ignoring and denying incidents of sexual harassment and rape are just as flimsy. It’s time we start taking women and other victims of sexual harassment and assault seriously, believing in their humanity, dignity, and their right to protection under the law.

Mary Clark Moschella is the Roger J Squire Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Yale Divinity School.