America continues to live in the wake of sexual harassment allegations against prominent male TV and movie stars, politicians, and others in positions of authority. Hearing such reports, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed that we haven’t yet fully addressed our culture’s underlying problems of harassment and abuse. Fortunately, women—and men—now feel a more free to use their voices to speak about past injustices, thanks to movements like #MeToo. This is a large step in the right direction, because accountability happens when abuses are brought to light. But we need to do more.
Perhaps part of the issue is that while we are getting better as a culture at calling out harassment and abuse, we’re continuing to consume media that depicts these as normal or even attractive. Some people have been rightly frustrated that the same media influencers seeking justice for harassment and abuse victims depict attractive renditions of harassment and abuse in their own entertainment careers. When chart-topping songs, television shows, and movies depict aggressive, even violent, sex as desirable (e.g. Fifty Shades of Grey), and convey messages like “I want your body” and “you know you want it,” it’s no wonder we have a sexual harassment problem in America.
It may be argued that enjoying such movies, music, and even video games is acceptable. Nobody gets hurt because they are merely fiction, we say. So long as both partners consent, it’s fine. But the fact of the matter is, what we see and hear impacts us.
Research indicates that high exposure to media violence can lead to diminished empathy. We might not become violent, abusive, or crude when we consume explicit media, but we run the risk of becoming desensitized or less outraged by it. In the same vein, if we accustom ourselves to language that promotes violence, abuse, or crudeness, our sensitivity toward harassment and abuse becomes diminished.
While we can’t expect all of entertainment to change overnight, we ourselves can change the kind of content we consume and support. In a media landscape where we are surrounded by movies, music, images, and words that subtly (and not-so-subtly) promote treating people as objects for others’ pleasure, we can suggest a different script. Below are a few practical ways in which we, individually and collectively, can begin asking society to better itself for the good of all women and men.
01. Eliminate degrading words from our vocabulary.
Suggesting a woman can be reduced to a sexual object is partly what got us into the #MeToo situation we’re facing today. Referencing a woman in terms of her sexual parts or zeroing in on a part of her body fails to view her as a full person and is not okay. Even the seemingly-innocent “Hey, sexy” refers to a woman only by her outer appearance. I am not saying that we need to be puritanical in our approach to addressing one another, but the way we speak says a lot about the way we think about others and about the world around us—and it can also have an effect on the way we think.
For this reason, I think we should ditch the term b*tch when referring to our girlfriends, even if we mean it as a joke. Sending mixed messages that vacillate between friendly and degrading is a part of the harassment problem to begin with, so we would do well to stop participating.
02. Avoid media that portrays people as objects.
Though I’m not saying that we need to avoid all movies and songs that have the slightest hint of objectification in them, we should examine whether or not there are consequences for bad behavior in media portrayals of sexual relationships. Is bad behavior pointed out for what it is, or is it glorified as good or brushed under the rug?
There might be scenes of disrespect toward women in a particular movie or song, but within that movie or song is the disrespect presented as such and are there consequences for this disrespect, or is it falsely labeled as “love” or “the norm”? When society blurs the lines between abuse, disrespect, or use and love, that’s a good time to turn it off and speak up.
03. Reconsider how we talk about pornography.
Until we can accept the fact that pornography is highly addictive and hurts women and men alike, we’ll continue to have problems with sexual harassment in society. Studies have shown that exposure to pornography correlates with being desensitized to rape scenarios, so there’s reason to be concerned these problems will only worsen the more we fund the sex industry. We should resist normalizing pornography, strip clubs, and other forms of “adult entertainment.”
Even the term adult as code for porn is highly problematic. A case in point: A few years ago, when I was working in a high school, one of the students told me he couldn’t wait until he was eighteen so he could go to the strip club. This disturbed me then, as it does today, because my student was equating being grown-up with the use of women. Until we can detach the idea of objectification from what it means to be an adult, I think society will continue to struggle with harassment and abuse. Perhaps we need to start with our own vocabulary surrounding porn. If we call pornography “explicit” instead of “adult,” we begin to dissociate adulthood with degrading people.
Though speaking up against sexual harassment is positive, we also have to realize that our whole culture needs to shift to eliminate it. As women and men continue to reveal their stories, I hope we’ll not only listen attentively but also have the courage to take a personal inventory of the ways we’ve been conditioned to think about relationships between men and women. Media has often painted a warped picture of these relationships, one that needs to be addressed if we are to continue moving toward a society that truly values the dignity of all.