On Silence Breaking (Annie Selak)

Catholic Social Ethics

Time magazine recently named “The Silence Breakers” their 2017 Person of the Year. These women and men— celebrities and relatively unknown names alike— spoke out against sexual harassment through sharing their stories. The editor of the magazine wrote about this selection, affirming them “for giving voice to open secrets, for moving whisper networks onto social networks, for pushing us all to stop accepting the unacceptable.” These people have shared painful aspects of their lives in order to try to change the culture of abuse and harassment in our society. While I applaud this choice, I also can’t help but think, “Wait, we’ve been talking about this for years. What silence?”

As a woman, sexual harassment and abuse have been a part of the landscape of my existence for as long as I can remember. From the arrest of my childhood parish priest for molestation to my own experience of harassment, the reality of the entrenched relationship of being female and being a victim of harassment and abuse was as clear to me as any other identity marker. This experience only grew as I continued to grow older, with whistling on the street as I entered high school and responding to friend’s experiences of sexual assault in college. As a minister, I continued to experience sexual harassment with inappropriate comments from co-workers, and I saw the traumatic effects of rape culture on the students to whom I ministered. While marathon training, not once but twice I had men expose their penis to me and received no response from the police when I reported it. I share these experiences not because they are unique, but precisely because they are common, and in a non-derogatory sense, unremarkable. The far-reaching #MeToo movement displayed the near-universal experience of harassment for women. When I saw #MeToo posts pop up on my newsfeed, I was not surprised since this is such a constitutive part of the female experience.

Yet when news breaks that yet another (formerly) well-respected man is accused of sexual harassment, I see many men comment, “I can’t believe it” while women quietly respond that it is no surprise. Women are used to the familiar disappointment that an admired man uses his power to take advantage of women, then forcing the victim into silence. This knowledge is openly known among women, revealing how differently men and women experience daily activities such as work, exercise, taking public transportation, and running errands.

Reports of harassment and assault have been quite public in recent years, yet there were few, if any, ramifications for the assailant. In 1991, Bette Midler recounted Gerardo Rivera drugging and groping her in a televised interview with Barbara Walters, yet few took notice. Casey Affleck has settled out of court in response to harassment allegations, yet he still won the Oscar for “Best Actor” this year. Woody Allen has been accused by his stepdaughter, Dylan Farrow, of molestation, yet has lived virtually without consequence in the several decades following these allegations. The documentary The Hunting Ground details the sexual assault crisis on college campuses. It tells of Erica Kinsman, who recounts that she was raped by Florida State football star Jameis Winston. Despite DNA evidence and eyewitness accounts, Winston was not convicted, received no disciplinary action, and currently plays in the NFL. Kinsman and the other women detailed in this documentary have been speaking out against rape culture on college campuses for years. This documentary was nominated for two Emmy awards. People have been placing their experiences of harassment and assault into public discourse for decades.

These “open secrets” are hardly secrets. Perhaps no incident illustrates this more than the Access Hollywood video where Donald Trump openly brags about committing assault. He does not cloak his language in euphemisms, but instead describes “moving in on that bitch” and “grabbing them by the pussy.” Yet despite openly recounting his harassment and abuse of women and being accused by sixteen women of harassment, Trump was elected president. This is not a culture of silence, but a culture of indifference.

Can we still speak of a culture of silence when people have been trying to break the silence for years?

When we speak of the culture of silence that enables harassment, it is a specific type of silence. It is a silence forced upon women, directly or indirectly, through telling women that this experience is somehow their fault or not a big deal. It is a silence that tells women that no one will believe them. Importantly, it is a silence that retaliates against women through professional setbacks and increased harassment. It is a silence asserted by a culture of dominance that views women as a means to an end, with that end being determined by men.

I am also aware that while there is a spotlight on women reporting harassment, there are still many types of harassment that are neglected in the public eye and experience even greater degrees of silencing. For example, 47% of transgender people report being sexually assaulted, according to a 2015 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality. However, this experience is pushed out of the public narrative. White women, specifically those in professions like entertainment, are receiving more attention than working class women and minorities. Even in the issue recognizing the “Silence Breakers,” Time magazine featured Taylor Swift on the cover yet neglected to picture Tarana Burke, a black woman who began the #MeToo movement. Silence still shrouds the experience of women of color and transgender persons, as well as many other populations. This silence must continue to be shattered, and we as a society must proactively work to create systems that protect the most vulnerable persons.

Perhaps the most appropriate language is that this culture of silence is being exposed, rather than people are breaking the silence for the first time. The culture of silence is being exposed for what it is: a systematic effort to protect men at the expense of their victims. It is both overt and subtle. Overtly, the Republican Party is endorsing a man accused of habitual child molestation and abuse. Subtly, people continually question whether it is fair for men to have to step down over allegations. “These are only allegations, they could be wrong,” is often a comment made on social media. Yet this line of reasoning neglects how difficult it is to prosecute harassment and sexual assault in a court of law. In addition, sexual harassment and assault have extraordinarily low rates of false accusations.

Here, Catholic Social Teaching can be a helpful tool to further examine this culture of silence (see this article in America by Brianne Jacobs for an in-depth examination of CST and sexual harassment). This culture of silence is a social sin. It is not that our society is unable to see the power structures that enable abuse, but rather, that we are unwilling to see. We are unwilling to name these power structures as enabling abuse, in part because doing so demands action, and action requires change. Further, exposing systems of injustice can implicate us as individuals, raising questions such as “How do I benefit from these structures?” and “How do I knowingly or unknowingly perpetuate structures that facilitate abuse and harassment?” These are uncomfortable questions, yet they are also necessary examinations if we are to continue to expose this culture of silence as a social sin. The “silence breakers” are persistently calling for society to listen to their stories, and importantly, respond with action. The most common action at this point is the firing or resignation of the person involved, such as Al Franken and Matt Lauer. However, if these structures are to truly change away from systems marked by social sin and into more just structures, then a complete restructuring of systems of power that enable abuse at the expense of the vulnerable must occur.

I am encouraged by Time’s poll, where 82% of respondents said “women are more likely to speak out about harassment since the Weinstein allegations.” I am encouraged that discourse surrounding the interplay of harassment and race, gender identity, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status is increasing. Yet these are hardly markers that this issue is settled, or even close to resolution. If we as a society want to reach a place where harassment, abuse, and assault are not tolerated, then we have a long process of dismantling patriarchal power ahead of us. Collectively, we have to be willing to sacrifice our privilege and power— whether that be in the form of political party numbers in Congress or the comfort of familiarity in the workplace— in order to bring about a more just society. Importantly, we cannot assume that this will naturally happen on its own. This process requires hard work, uncomfortable conversations, and sacrifice, and will be filled with setbacks and retribution, yet it is the only path to justice.

Annie Selak is a Ph.D. student in Systematic Theology at Boston College, focusing on ecclesiology. She studies power and authority in the Roman Catholic Church, examining leadership structures and dialogue. Prior to studying at Boston College, Annie served as a Lay Ecclesial Minister in the Catholic Church, working with young women at Catholic high schools and universities.

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