How might we turn a hashtag into lasting social change?
The revelations keep coming, descriptions of sexual harassment and assault both disgusting and horrifyingly familiar. Amid the ongoing maelstrom of political gaffes and natural disasters, we are witnessing a wave of women coming forward to share stories of sexual assault and harassment. An endless row of survivors, lining up like lemmings to reveal private ordeals.
And yet there is comfort in knowing that we are not alone. That we can find the courage to stand up and say: Enough.
But now what? How do we take this beyond a passing social media moment? We can’t trust this administration to enact change on a policy level. In fact, it seems intent on the opposite.
We have to start the change at a personal level, through honest — even painful — conversations with our friends and family.
Because sustainable cultural change can only come about through mass individual change.
Last week, I discussed my assault with an old friend from New York who is still friends with my assailant. It happened years ago, when I was in college and our boyfriends were friends with our best friends and we all hung out in a big mess of crossed and indecipherable loyalties. After the assault, I found myself in the curious position of friendwrecker: should I keep quiet, and swallow my anger, or tell my story, and throw the wrench of ugly truth into our carefree lifestyle of late nights, barhopping, and brunch? What I didn’t realize back then was that he’d already thrown the wrench — and assumed, rightly, that I would take it upon myself to hide the carnage.
I finally decided to tell a close friend. But even she had a hard time believing me. Because the man in question was her friend, too: smart, caring, generous. He was all those things, and also: sexist, manipulative, and a liar.
Because the truth is this: The men who so deplorably take advantage of their physical, economic, and social power to satisfy their needs with our bodies are our friends, roommates, fathers, and sons. They are intelligent, loving, and funny. They may be upstanding members of society, admired by many around them.
They don’t always fit the stereotype of the creep who we’ve all been taught to avoid.
And the discrepancy between what we want to believe about them, and what they did, is why we are forced to bear their shame.
It isn’t our fault. It’s not fair. And yet the work lands upon us again. To tell our stories, difficult as that might be. But also — after the media moment has died down — to continue pushing these conversations.
We need to insist our assailants and harassers take responsibility, even if it means disrupting the peace. There will be a time for peace, but the fight isn’t over yet.
Last week, after a somewhat circuitous conversation, my friend finally said the words I’d been waiting for: “I believe you.” I wish she’d said them sooner, but I understand, now, that my persistence is crucial. I didn’t realize how much peace those words could bring to me.
My story matters. Our truth matters. Because the weight of all of our truths is what it’ll take to tip the balance of change.
Jenny Fan Raj’s writing has been published in print and online at Obra/Artifact, The Columbia East Asian Review, Bottlecap Press, 1888|Center, The New Engagement, and The Laurel Review, among others. She lives in San Francisco, where she is working on a novel set in Fukushima, Japan. www.jennyfanraj.com