My work at Women for Women International exposes me every day to painful stories of women survivors of war experiencing sexual violence – and powerful analysis of what we must do to prevent it and heal. So I didn’t plan to spend my holiday break doing a deep dive into even more.
Yet I found that of all the popular media I consumed, the most powerful and exquisitely delivered centered on the devastating pain and trauma sexual assault has on women as well as the barriers to holding perpetrators accountable. Though these accounts of assault and rape were difficult to take in, I was at the same time inspired by the resilience of the survivors, by the increasing attention to this issue, and the hope that we are beginning to achieve change.
These accounts serve as a reminder that whether you are in South Sudan or Hollywood, ISIS territory or New York, women face impossible situations where (some) powerful men feel it is their right – their due – to take their pleasure, no matter our pain.
But they’re also a reminder that no matter where you are, healing comes from sharing your story, being heard, knowing you are not alone – and ultimately, taking action.
1 in 3 women still experience sexual violence globally. At its root is a lack of understanding of how brutally devastating sexual violence and abuse is – alongside the systemic undervaluing of women. Apple TV’s recently released and excellently produced Morning Show gets to that deeper understanding with its devastating finale. (I won’t share spoilers because I want you to watch it!)
The show and its finale accurately depict that most of the terror and pain of sexual violence remains internal because stigma and shame keep women from sharing. Assault and rape damage women’s confidence, mental health, careers, and their ability to trust and to love. Understanding the extent of the damage is foundational to building a culture where perpetrators are held accountable. And until we have that, we are limiting the potential and contribution of one-third of all women – and we all lose out.
An Untamed State
Roxane Gay’s 2011 novel goes even further: An Untamed State follows Muriel Duval, a Haitian American kidnapped while visiting her parents in Port Au Prince. She endures 13 days of increasingly brutal and devastating torture and rape. To survive, she disassociates from herself completely.
Through Gay’s vivid writing, readers intimately feel the experiences of Muriel Duval and the huge role isolation plays in trauma caused by sexual violence. Duval’s husband fails to support his wife because he simply cannot understand what happened to her or why it is taking her so long to trust and engage again. She must rebuild her connection to herself, her child, and her family. Roxane Gay has done an incredible job, and I highly recommend this book.
In Megyn Kelly’s YouTube response to Bombshell, she reinforced lessons I have learned in my own experience as a survivor: “The solidarity means so much.” Solidarity forms the basis of Women for Women International’s methodology, which brings women together in groups of 25 for discussions over the period of a year.
Our inner shame is as harmful as external stigma. Sharing your experience and knowing you are not alone – and ultimately, realizing that you are not to blame – is a critical part of the healing and the basis for collective action.
Bombshell gives a dramatic retelling of women joining together to hold Roger Ailes, then CEO of Fox News, accountable for his sexual harassment. By banding together as a broader movement, especially with the help of women with negotiation power such as Megyn Kelly, they were able to overcome a powerful abuser. Alongside the movie, I recommend viewers watch the 30-minute review by four of the women whose stories the movie portrayed.
Even when women come together and take legal action, we are not guaranteed change. Journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s fascinating book She Said and the podcast episodes they have done on The Daily are an excellent expose of how those in power use their money and connections. Biases in in many cases are managed poorly, and end up squashing and misrepresenting evidence.
This is how we have gone from dozens and dozens of women sharing that they had abusive experiences with Weinstein, to just a handful of cases going to court in New York and LA this week. This is why it is critical that we not only pass laws that criminalize sexual harassment and abuse, we also have to change the broader system: how cases are prosecuted; how police, detectives, and lawyers are trained; and how donations are made to campaigns – a tool Weinstein regularly used – so that cases aren’t dropped.
There are more thought-provoking podcasts, documentaries, novels, memoirs, films coming out every day. I’d love to hear from you: What have you watched, listened to or read recently which has given you greater insight, inspiration, or given rise to new questions? Let us share and act individually and collectively until women are no longer diminished, attacked, abused.