This year has been a doozy. Especially when it comes to women's issues, there have been too many face-palm moments to count.
To be fair, there have also been many women-empowering moments. But in the sexual affairs department, this year has shown a depressing trend: headline after headline about sexual harassment and assault.
We started the year riding the wave of allegations against Bill Cosby. Then in February, singer Kesha lost a legal battle to detach herself from a contract with Dr. Luke, a man she alleges assaulted her for years. Shortly thereafter, Lady Gaga opened up about her sexual assault ten years prior and performed "’Til It Happens to You" at the Oscars. In June, the now famous Stanford sexual assault case drew the nation's attention on a devastating concrete example of a grave violation. Shortly after, in July, we heard the news of Fox News host Gretchen Carlson, who filed a sexual harassment suit against Fox News head Roger Ailes. Allegations continued to surface until Ailes was ultimately removed from his post. In August, comedian and actress Amy Schumer tragically revealed in her book The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo that her first sexual experience was one of assault. Then in October came the news that created an avalanche of headlines on the topic enough to bury us for the rest of the year: A tape was released featuring then presidential candidate Donald Trump casually commenting about how as a powerful figure, he could get away with groping women whether they wanted it or not. These were just the high-profile stories.
It may seem as if the United States is heading to hell in a handbasket. But I also find there’s something to be heartened about this year, and that's the mere fact that we're talking about it, that we’re investigating it, and that it’s being demonized.
Because it wasn’t always so.
A few weeks ago at an Atlantic forum, political commentator, professor, and Maya Angelou Presidential Chair Melissa Harris-Perry said she wasn’t surprised that Trump’s words didn’t disqualify him from winning the presidency. As Harris-Perry put it, "since when" have these qualities stopped a president from winning? “I am not even vaguely surprised by the idea that sexual assault would not be a disqualifier for the American presidency,” she said.
I need not spell out for you how past presidents have participated in unethical sexual conduct and gotten away with it. In the past, the exploited women have been largely silenced, discredited, and run through the mud. We still have a long way to go, but I’m pleased to hear more women speaking up now, and more people taking them seriously. Because the way things stayed in the shadows earlier was not only wrong to those women—it’s the secrecy that allows dangerous behavior to continue.
Patterns of sexual misbehavior are like those of infidelity in general; when they're kept in secret, they have longer shelf lives. As author and cultural commentator Kay Hymowitz pointed out in the 2011 book of collected essays Acculturated, it's a good thing that we in America still have a stigma against infidelity in public figures; it reminds us of the value of fidelity which, intimately related as it is to family stability, is an unquestionable social good.
If the stigma for sexual indiscretion is a good thing, then perhaps this year wasn't a complete bust. Patterns of sexual misbehavior often don't have a chance of stopping until they face consequences. And while the legal consequences can be murky—as the brief sentencing in the Brock Turner case proved—compared to past decades, we've definitely seen shifts in the court of public opinion. In particular, the women at the center of the sexual scandals have had stronger, more amplified voices and greater public support. There are far fewer women whose plights seem brushed under the rug and unheard.
Today, when a beloved a public figure like Bill Cosby receives allegations of assault, yes we go through a momentary period of disbelief, but we also see the alleged victims’ faces on the cover of New York Magazine, and their stories vividly and humanly told inside. In the Stanford sexual assault case this year, the victim "Emily Doe's" published statement went viral. Kesha's battle with Dr. Luke has been met with much public sympathy as well as the support of her fellow artists—Taylor Swift gave Kesha $250,000 to help during this difficult time and Zedd collaborated with her on a song for free.
In other words, while many women at the center of today's sex scandals must still live with the pain of their traumatic experiences, they at least have a greater platform to speak out about what happened to them, and, as I see it, the public is doing a better job of listening.
I’m heartened that more Americans are talking about assault, and that it is receiving greater stigmatization than before. And I hope it continues to. I hope we as a culture double down on the progress we've made. Because, in at least this case, I believe stigma serves a very powerful purpose.
Photo Credit: Evgenia Kohan