Sexual assault and harassment allegations by courageous women accusing Harvey Weinstein and Bill O’Reilly, followed by the #MeToo campaign, have made America aware of the prevalence of sexual violence in our society. The #Metoo campaign, in particular, prompted an avalanche that started rolling and is exposing thousands of sexual predators locally and globally. Sexual harassment has become a hot topic.

America truly has more than a problem. Pick any industry or institution and the stories are there, indicating that there are no cultural boundaries for sexual assault and harassment. We need to do more than root out the abusers; we need to rethink our sexual culture, which makes sex objects of females and rewards men for aggression, for testing boundaries, and doing the unexpected. Men in such a culture might become predators particularly when they are powerful, famous, and protected. “When you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump said.

Culture of Silence

Sexual predation happens because men have more power than women and because they can get away with it. It’s acceptable—not by the women but by the culture of silence that permits and condones such behavior. Women are beginning to speak out, but we need men who know who is doing the harassing to stop colluding with the sexual predators and speak out, too. Collusion enabled Weinstein to continue for 30 years. This is how a rape and sexual harassment culture works.

As women come forward and the names of sexual predators circulate through all forms of media, as companies and institutions begin to enforce the rules they say they have, the aggressors will begin to face consequences. It may mean that men lose their jobs or are blackballed from jobs they want. It may mean they face the legal consequences of their actions. It may also mean that the numbers of survivors speaking out and the sheer magnitude of the problem leads to attention fatigue, and the issue slides out of focus again. And, as with domestic violence, there will be those women whose false claims cause a backlash that taint the credibility of survivors. 

We should also be aware of and sensitive to those women survivors who have not spoken out because they feel that exposure diminishes their trauma and can even retraumatize survivors. Actress Rachel Wood, who has disclosed her rape and sexual abuse, has tweeted, “Has anyone elses [sic] PTSD been triggered thru [sic] the roof? I hate that these feelings of danger are coming back.”

The media, our taste for the sensational, and the anger that drives us, must find a balance between continuing to expose perpetrators, showing solidarity with women, and respecting the due process of law.

And this really is not just a women’s issue. There are reports that 23 percent of men and boys experience sexual violence or harassment over their lifetime. The rates of rape or sexual assault are lower for men than for women, but males report that sexual coercion, which pressures or manipulates men and boys into sexual activity they don’t want, happens at a rate nearly equal to that experienced by women.

Changing the Culture

Changing the culture will take time and means investing in prevention programs that address the causes of sexually abusive behavior. Current prevention programs are usually aimed at teens and young adults, and focus on teaching girls and women how to decrease their risk of being assaulted. These types of programs are less than effective because they do not address the reality that most assaults are committed by someone known and trusted by the teens and young adults, by someone in power, such as a teacher, supervisor, close friend or family member.

We can each do our part to change the sexual culture. We can be involved in ensuring that prevention begins in early childhood and continues for life. As parents and grandparents, we can find teachable moments in our homes and we can work with educators to teach our children skills to prevent violence. Skills like these include empathy for others, communication, and problem solving that are augmented by programs that promote healthy sexual behavior, respect for self and others, and the true meaning of consent.

Lesley Frost, Advocacy Chair