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Sexual victimization discussion takes center stage

Shutterstock Woman in the power pose.
Shutterstock Woman in the power pose.
Published Dec. 22, 2017

It seems that every week we are made aware of another sexual abuse allegation. Accusations have been made against famous politicians, sports celebrities, TV stars, movie producers, the man next door. Many of my students and clients have shared their opinions on social issues such as this one.

I've heard comments ranging from "These women are just looking for attention" to "I feel so empowered." I have heard quite a few men take up for those who have been accused, saying that men are always crude behind closed doors and that if you're not part of the "boys club" you wouldn't understand. I've also heard people say women are becoming too sensitive and will call anything sexual abuse.

Largely because of the mixed societal beliefs about the upsurge in allegations, many of these reports don't lead to much public scrutiny. However, it seems clear there has been a shift in the way people are processing these allegations. The push and pull between empowered women and chauvinistic men has led us to an interesting social space, one where women are taking back control of their bodies while living in a (still) patriarchal nation.

A few months ago, the #MeToo campaign took over social media. The campaign actually began in 2007 with Tarana Burke, but was just recently turned into a hashtag after Alyssa Milano used the phrase on Twitter and asked followers to share their stories of sexual harassment and assault. In the past few months, there have been more than 12 million posts on Facebook using the #MeToo hashtag.

There is power in numbers, and more women feel empowered to speak openly about their sexual victimization. With more women speaking openly about this, we are beginning to understand the magnitude of the problem. Women have long been shamed about their sexuality, and as a result, they often don't speak out when victimized. A friend on Facebook offered her thoughts on the #MeToo campaign: "A few days ago I posted #metoo, and then shortly removed my post as I felt embarrassed that I said me too. I understand that the movement is to not make me feel shamed but I did. I also didn't want my loved ones to say, 'What happened? Are you okay?' And to be honest Men and Women, Society on a whole made me feel this way — Shamed! Thank you to the women out there for sharing your stories and being open, honest and whole! It's not easy! You have given me the strength to say #metoo!" Millions of women like her spoke out about their sexual victimization, and in doing so, empowered a nation of women to think more critically about their own feelings of shame.

Although times are changing, men still hold the most power in our society. Many of the men who have been accused of sexual misconduct have had some degree of power or authority over the women who accused them.

For a long time in the United States, women who were sexually victimized were blamed for their victimization. Victims were asked questions like "What were you wearing?" "Did you say no?" and "Were you intoxicated?" It wasn't until the Violence Against Women Act, signed in 1994, that a federal rape shield law was created. This law prevented defendants from introducing evidence about an accuser's sexual behavior, history or reputation. The aim of this law was to make it easier for women to report their abuse by protecting them from public shaming or potential embarrassment.

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Although there are legal measures in place to protect women from sexual shaming, there are still informal ways to shame women into silence. Many of Harvey Weinstein's accusers, for instance, kept quiet because they were afraid he would ruin their careers. A lot of the cases we've heard about in the news recently have similar power dynamics.

In the past, it wasn't safe for women to speak out about their sexual victimization for fear of rebuttal or judgment. The shame, secrecy and embarrassment women have been socialized to experience about their bodies and sexuality are still an issue, and continue to influence societal views of sexual abuse allegations. It's important for women to take back control of their bodies and sexuality and speak out when wronged. It is only when women bond together, and men listen, that any kind of social change will occur. The #MeToo campaign has shown victimized women that they're not alone and has made men more aware of the magnitude of the problem.

If you are a victim of sexual abuse, there are places for you to get support. Private therapists scattered around the Tampa Bay area are trained to help. The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay (crisiscenter.com) is also a great resource for those who have experienced trauma.

Dr. Katie Schubert has master's and doctorate degrees in sociology and gender studies from the University of Florida and a master's degree in clinical mental health counseling from Adams State University in Colorado. She completed her postgraduate studies at Florida Postgraduate Sex Therapy Training Institute and is a certified sex therapist, providing therapy to individuals, couples and families on issues related to sexuality, sex and gender in St. Petersburg. She also is a professor of sociology at the University of Tampa. Contact her at drkatieschubert.com.

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