Accountability in Preventing Sexual Violence

As I stated in a previous post, most women have experienced sexism and inappropriate sexual behavior. I am no exception. Reflecting back on one such situation in my past reminded me of how we, as individuals and as a system, can take steps to prevent the slide from disrespect to sexual violence.

During college a young man stalked me by e-mail, telephone, on campus and in person. When I told him to leave me alone, he claimed “I was being rude and making a big deal out of nothing”. He just “wanted to get to know me”. He continued to stalk me. I began to question myself, avoided my e-mail, and became fearful of returning to my room alone. I told friends who were supportive and encouraged me to report him to the college student affairs. When I finally did, I felt embarrassed because “nothing big had happened.” The college representative indicated otherwise. They issued him a clear warning and consequences if he did not discontinue his behaviour.

Sometime later before his graduation, he approached me in a public place and apologized. He said he realized his idea of “woe-ing” a woman may have been way off. I was relieved and accepted his “apology.” I found out afterwards he had complained about his consequences to a group of friends, one of whom knew me. This friend called him on it which had apparently prompted his apology. Later, I approached his friend and thanked him for his wise words. He shrugged and said something that stuck with me – “He’s not a bad guy, but he totally crossed the line and that wasn’t ok. He needed to suck it up. I just told him that.”

Luckily this was a mild incident in which the system worked. I was lucky it didn’t escalate further. This was not my first, nor my last negative sexist experience, and I also know many women who were less lucky. I choose to highlight this example, because one, it is my own, and two, the help I received. Both individually and systemically, people heard, acknowledged and acted (often without me) – the college, an administrator, my friends, this young man’s friend and the offending young man himself.

The discomfort and pain is already there in our cultural history, and we all need to take responsibility for our roles and our behaviors in it.

It is only when we address this from both angles, systemically and individually that we make progress and steps towards healing. We need to shift to a more open culture, instead of staying silent, feeling guilty for naming unpleasant topics, and guilt about giving others appropriate consequences. The discomfort and pain is already there in our cultural history, and we all need to take responsibility for our roles and our behaviors. This includes not just sharing our pain and asking for help as women, but more importantly all of us listening to others’ stories without judgement and to stand by them and name what crosses the line. Men need to take responsibility for their choices and behaviors.  Our culture is responsible for creating space for acknowledging what is not right and reinforcing the fitting consequences, and then also moving on.

Now, years later I see the power of this young man who called a friend on his unacceptable behaviour and justification for the consequences without demonizing him. He indicated for him it was “not a big deal.” Perhaps for him it wasn’t, he saw it as something a good friend should do – call it as it is. How true. Yet, something small for him had a big impact on my situation.

This guy was willing to speak up to a friend, in a group of friends no less. It allowed his friend to reflect more honestly on his behaviour instead of blaming the college system and me. He took it a step further and acknowledeged his behaviors and attempted to rectify his mistakes. These small acts gave me hope at various levels. One, I did not need to demonize him as an individual to give this situation a place and move on in my own healing. Two, I gained a renewed respect and faith in men and our ability to build a future together.

This is what I encourage others to stop and consider. How can you encourage this common basic courtesy and sign of respect for others? How can you name a hurtful behavior without judgement and shame? Can you support, stand behind someone else speaking up? Can you identify to someone where they can access more support? Can you encourage someone to acknowldege, take responsibility for and “repair” the consequences of their hurtful behavior?

Not because you are a father, a wife, a boyfriend but as a friend and fellow human with a hope for building a more respectful open culture.