Two major news stories in the past year have fundamentally altered the conversation about sexual harassment, sexual assault, and sexual violence. The sexual assault allegations against Hollywood titan Harvey Weinstein elevated the voices of survivors and brought sexual misconduct out of the shadows and into the center of the public discourse, while the bitter battle over Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination—and his eventual confirmation—provided a sobering reminder of the entrenched power that continues to disadvantage women, uphold the status quo, and resist any calls for change. Together, these two stories help provide a clearer picture of where there has been progress and where progress is still needed to achieve meaningful change.
In October 2017, when the shocking claims against Weinstein catapulted sexual harassment and assault into the headlines, the rebuke against the movie mogul was swift and powerful as survivors sent a clear message that such conduct would no longer be tolerated or ignored. The story also led to the explosive growth of the #MeToo movement—which was created by social justice warrior Tarana Burke, who, for more than a decade, has worked to support young women and girls of color facing harassment and violence. #MeToo soon went viral and became the battle cry for all survivors of sexual misconduct across the nation and around the world.
Almost one year later, in September 2018, the already controversial Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh was thrown into a tailspin following the emergence of previously unknown sexual assault allegations. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who had known Kavanaugh years earlier, accused him of sexually assaulting her at a social gathering when they were both high school students, but she had kept silent out of fear of being dismissed or blamed. Unlike with Weinstein, however, the response to the Kavanaugh allegations was subsumed by partisanship, with his supporters disputing the accusations. These supporters, who controlled the overall nomination process within and outside the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, leveraged their power, hunkered down, and used every tool at their disposal to protect the nominee, ultimately helping to secure Kavanaugh a seat on the nation’s highest court.
In the aftermath of both stories—the bitter Kavanaugh nomination battle and the organic rise of the #MeToo movement—much has been written about where the nation stands. The collision of these two contrasting narratives exposes how sexual misconduct maintains its stubborn foothold, even during this time of heightened awareness. Clearly, there must be an intentional effort to confront the factors that make such behavior so impervious to attack—one that will tackle head-on the power centers that insulate different forms of sexual misconduct and perpetuate an environment in which harassment or violence can continue to thrive. To that end, the following actions must be prioritized in order to overcome five key obstacles:
1. Dismantle the imbalance of power at the individual level
Sexual harassment and assault are about power; perpetrators misuse their power by deploying sexual or sex-based demands as weapons to coerce or intimidate others. For too many survivors, this imbalance of power contributes to their fear of coming forward—fear on which perpetrators rely to exert control and gain advantage. In order to create a climate in which no form of misconduct is tolerated, it must be a top priority to mute the ability of powerful individuals and their supporters to direct, shape, or influence the process used to consider sexual misconduct allegations. And to help counter potential biases, decision-makers should take steps to remove from an investigation or oversight process individuals who have a stake in the outcome or favor a particular party, or they can identify outside investigators to provide advice or support. Furthermore, disciplining individuals who make disparaging public comments or otherwise try to interfere with a fair process sends an important message about not favoring one party over another.
Individuals who hold power—whether in private sector workplaces, government, schools, or other settings—are often best-positioned not only to preserve their power, but also to protect individuals within their circle and to undermine survivors. The #MeToo movement has been incredibly successful in helping to disrupt these power imbalances and highlight survivors’ stories, but this work is far from done. As the Kavanaugh confirmation process made clear in real time, senators on the judiciary committee and in leadership who supported Kavanaugh used their power to put Blasey Ford in the weakest position possible, questioning her credibility, mocking the seriousness of her allegations, and even reportedly considering having her testify alongside Kavanaugh. These actions—all intended to elevate Judge Kavanaugh and diminish Dr. Blasey Ford—show why it is critical to have an intentional focus on changing individual power dynamics.
2. Pursue structural change to combat systemic practices that disadvantage survivors
When focusing on the different ways to address sexual misconduct, there must be a commitment to structural change, which starts with reviewing internal practices and ensuring that any internal process operates in an even-handed, bias-free manner. This type of assessment must be comprehensive and informed by best practices, not just a cursory analysis focused on one bad actor. Any measures that are taken must also include efforts to better empower survivors, such has providing them with access to advocates or counsel who can provide independent advice on specific problems.
There is infrastructure that undergirds any existing power dynamics within an institution. It is not just that there are powerful individuals, it is that these individuals are backed by institutions that affirm and legitimize their status. Therefore, it is necessary to examine existing structures and systems in order to unearth biases and preferential practices. The Kavanaugh nomination process provides an example: The entire infrastructure, from the judiciary committee processes to the hearing formats and the voting timetable, was deployed to craft a process favorable to the nominee and his Senate supporters. Leadership could therefore refuse Blasey Ford’s request for a comprehensive and independent investigation; ignore recommendations for additional panels with leading experts; put arbitrary time limitations on the FBI’s review of the allegations; and force an expedited vote on the nomination—all without any risk of being overruled. Although the Senate is a unique environment, the same problem can occur in any setting.
3. Challenge long-standing gender biases and women’s roles
Sexual misconduct remains a problem, in part, due to the persistence of deep-rooted gender biases and perceptions about women. These attitudes often influence whether sexual misconduct allegations are taken seriously, who is blamed, and what remedies, if any, are pursued. They also can influence who is targeted; many women of color, for example, must deal with the added difficulty of sexually charged, degrading, racial and ethnic stereotypes that increase the likelihood that they will confront some form of sexual misconduct. Rooting out gender bias takes time and requires intentional work—including strategies such as enlisting skilled experts—focused on both the attitudes about women and the opportunities for women within any institution. Women are often uniquely poised to play a critical role in identifying bias and helping to transform an existing power structure. However, simply having a woman participate in or defend a particular process does not render it free from gender bias. There must be a serious commitment to addressing how conscious and unconscious attitudes are affecting women’s experiences. Any process that harbors or perpetuates biases and stereotypes about women is flawed and must be changed, regardless of the gender of those administering, protecting, or defending the process.
During the Kavanaugh nomination hearings, the members of the Judiciary Committee all-male majority were quick to embrace Justice Kavanaugh, but they avoided engaging with Dr. Blasey Ford as an equal. These members barely acknowledged her presence, sending a strong message that they viewed her as less important and thus evoking other settings in which women have been devalued and dismissed. It is precisely these attitudes that the #MeToo movement has been so powerful in rejecting. Superficial measures that focus on optics rather than solutions are of little value. During the Kavanaugh nomination, the committee majority deployed a never-before-used strategy of hiring an outside, female prosecutor to cross-examine Dr. Blasey Ford, choosing to hide behind a female voice while effectively putting Blasey Ford on trial. This move only reinforced the committee’s broader failure to move beyond symbolic gestures and both identify potential areas of bias and pursue meaningful action steps to create a fair process.
4. Center survivors
Too often, there is a reluctance to validate the experiences of survivors and focus on whatever they need for support. Healing does not operate on a precise timetable. Therefore, it is critical to have resources available for survivors and those around them—coworkers, teachers, and others—in order to be as supportive as possible and identify the appropriate support or counseling services.
5. Ensure transparency and accountability
To make concrete progress and effectively combat different forms of sexual misconduct, it is imperative to have in place a transparent process that promotes accountability and incentivizes the truth, in all respects and at all times. This process should involve thorough investigations; it should also credit those who come forward or admit wrongdoing, support bystander intervention, and create a culture that says that harassment and assault are unacceptable. Harsher penalties should be reserved for those who are untruthful or engage in cover-up. There must be investment in coherent, effective restorative justice strategies that promote healing and offer counseling for survivors and perpetrators. Too many institutions are still unwilling or reluctant to engage in these types of robust measures. Instead, they often focus on eliminating what is perceived as the problem as quickly as possible and then engaging in damage control. Therefore, action steps focus on the individual level, with either a quick dismissal or resignation—or, occasionally, a robust and determined effort to protect an accused individual.
Tackling each of these obstacles is essential to building on the learning about how to best address the needs of survivors of sexual assault and harassment. The energy and engagement propelling the #MeToo movement have drawn fresh attention to the stories of millions of survivors and the need for bold action that recognizes the diverse experiences of women; combats gender, race, and other forms of bias; and rebukes efforts to trivialize the needs of survivors. Yet the movement has also helped shed light on the work that remains undone. Unfortunately, these insights have not consistently been taken to heart. The very tools that have been used over the years to discredit survivors are still the weapons of choice attacking survivors today. In order to respond to the needs of survivors and make real progress, it is crucial to learn from the lessons of the past. More to the point, an unflinching commitment to institutional transformation must be at the heart of any effective effort to eliminate sexual harassment and violence.
Jocelyn Frye is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.