Wednesday, November 09, 2011

i believe her

Yesterday when the news about Penn State's cover-up of sexual assault and exploitation unfolded, echoes of Herman Cain denials were dancing in my head. It occurred to me at the time that when the public learns of incidents of sexual abuse against boys or men, no one ever questions the motives of those who make their stories public, or subject themselves to renewed pain and anguish as they endure revisiting a chapter of personal devastation in their lives. It only seems to be women who are suspect, whose motives must be dark, self-centered, and driven by the need for attention or money.

As I revisit this reflection this morning I need to amend a portion of my thinking from a day ago. A distinct difference between stories of men molested as boys and women molested by men is that children and teenagers lack the capacity to assert their own voice and claim their own power because personal power does not rest within us until life and adulthood have provided the crucible for such power to be forged. The dynamic between perpetrators and victims when the former is an adult and the latter is a minor is different than it is between adults, and our response to such violations fall rightly across a spectrum of disdain and disgust .

That said, sexual assault and harassment perpetrated against women share a dynamic with acts perpetrated against boys: they are dynamics of power, with sex its vehicle of expression.

As a survivor of sexual assault I speak to this not as a clinician and feminist, but as one who had to work hard and painfully to learn and understand that acquiescence to this form of power was not a choice or a betrayal of self, but a cultural pattern of response to deeply entrenched societal acceptance of the abuse of power by those who wield that weapon at will. Make no mistake, power is a weapon.

I expect men who are accused to deny the accusation. I expect eyebrows to be raised and speculation to begin. I am not surprised that a woman's motives are challenged. I likewise challenge, however, the too-long held acceptance that power may be used to intimidate, dominate, violate or in other ways humiliate another person who lacks comparable power. I challenge the resistance to accepting that a woman who makes her pain public does so for any reason other than exposing the truth. I also challenge any man accused of harassment or assault to look hard at his relationship with power and to consider that he might be vulnerable to its lures. If just one man would explore the possibility that inappropriate behavior resulted from his comfort with power and acknowledge the damage that resulted, a door would open to a new world of understanding, respect, and relationship. If Herman Cain would do this he would begin the process of dismantling the arrogance that possesses him, and he might discover the riches of humility that serve as the basis of true leadership. He still wouldn't get my vote, but he might well earn my respect.

Once upon a time, after recovering from the experience of paying a difficult price at the hands of a group who praised and highly exalted themselves to excess, I was appointed to a position where I was given the authority to make decisions that could have significant impact on the lives of others. A friend who saw this appointment as a sort of vindication for me also recognized the opportunity for the appointment to be problematic. "Beware of your power," she said to me. It is a caution I have never forgotten.

At this time in my life I believe that I have a healthy and respectful relationship with power. While I am grateful for that that, I am also keenly aware of the cost paid to enjoy that relationship now. The wisdom I gleaned can best be offered by sharing the counsel given to me. When the mantel rests upon you, beware of your power. And share that warning with others.  We all need to hear the truth when it is spoken.


Suzan said...

Amen and amen!

The Bug said...

What Suzan said :)

Terri said...

...and, just because Herman Cain claims to have no memory of the women does not mean it did not happen - it does however suggest to me that there is a disconnect between his behavior, its impact on others, and his sense of self. Or, in other words, he is mindless, arrogant, and feels entitled. I really appreciate how well you have articulated this. I believe her too, and the other women as well.

Oh, but also, just because a woman is an adult does not mean that the assualt is any less egregious.

True, children are more vulnerable because of their innocence and lack of adult experience...but sadly women have been devoiced and taught to be nice and not assert ourselves, in essence making the power differential potent - and, we also tend to think we caused it or brought it on ourselves or are somehow to blame. So, while we may not be sexually naive, we may still lack the ability to be assertive. And, then of course, when a woman does assert herself, look what the media does and what the perpetrators do - during the woman into the problem. Didn't Cain actually say something like that, calling the woman unhealthy? or unstable? Really, he should be ashamed and so should others for not calling him on his "blame the victim" tactics.

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