Yael Kidron is the director of the Character Education Program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.
When Christine Blasey Ford publicly accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual harassment, she took a big risk. She knew she would face suspicion and scrutiny. But the momentum built by the #MeToo movement afforded her the opportunity to be heard much more clearly and loudly than if she had done so five or ten years ago. What has changed? Talking about sexual assault is no longer taboo. It is a shared societal concern that requires a compassionate and fair investigation.
What Has the #MeToo Movement Accomplished?
The #MeToo movement has created a climate in which it is less easy to lightly dismiss sexual harassment accusations. The movement has reminded us that sexual harassment stays with victims for the rest of their lives and it can affect their family and other close ones. Importantly, it has taught us that the social environment gives victims a voice.
The ripple effect of the hearing the voices of victims can potentially create a social culture where perpetrators are less likely to feel protected by the shamed silence of the victims. This cultural shift can improve the well-being of a substantial number of individuals in our society. According to data released by the Center for Disease Control, an estimated 19.3 percent of women and 1.7 percent of men have been victims of rape. The percentages are likely larger when other forms of sexual misconduct are considered including threatened rape and other types of unwanted sexual attention.
Many victims never report the incident or wait a long time before they talk about it. Some of them may not disclose details because of self-blame, shame, fear of stigma, the lack of trust in others’ ability or willingness to listen and help, as well as the desire to leave the painful event behind and pretend it did not happen.
Victims of sexual assault are likely to experience lingering symptoms of stress which can be severe enough to interfere with school, work, and personal relationships. Victims may re-experience the event (e.g., through bad dreams and flashbacks) or avoid places and situations that remind them of the event. Also, they may feel depressed or show signs of self-neglect and even self-harm.
What Should Schools Learn from the #MeToo Movement?
There are several actions that schools can take to prevent sexual harassment as well as to support the healing process of victims.
- Provide an environment that respects victims for their courage to speak up. Train school staff and students to listen with empathy rather than ignore or question the integrity of the victim.
- Train adults and peers to listen carefully to the victim’s concerns and identify ways to address and alleviate these concerns.
- Use staff learning days and classroom lessons to prepare staff and students, males and females, to speak against sexual harassment of any kind and interrupt potentially harmful situations which can escalate to sexual assault – during and beyond the regular school day.
- Provide easy access to information on the variety of mental health services available to victims of sexual violence.
- Classroom-based curricula as part of health education and the core curriculum (e.g., English language arts, social studies) should address students’ perceptions of social norms, attitudes towards sexual misconduct, and self-efficacy related to acting against harassment as victims and bystanders.
The #MeToo movement has reminded us that the phrase “it takes a village” holds true also of sexual violence, and that every person willing to speak up or extend a helping hand contributes to the formation of a society where everybody feels emotionally and physically safe.
The Ethics Center’s Character-Based Literacy Curriculum includes a unit on this topic using the novel Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. For information about subscribing to the curriculum, please contact us at email@example.com.