Views / Opinion

A tide has turned in the sexual assault conversation: Westwood

It is, I think, a kind of faith. Faith that allegations are in themselves worthy of response. That women at the very least, they ought to be heard.

Protesters stand outside the court house in Toronto ready for the verdict in the Jian Ghomeshi trial.

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Protesters stand outside the court house in Toronto ready for the verdict in the Jian Ghomeshi trial.

Something is definitely happening. 

Not necessarily the kind of something that will mean your daughter won’t face a one in four chance of sexual harassment or abuse when or if she goes to university, or be massaged at her desk one day by a handsy boss, or straight up propositioned for sex in the workplace. But there’s something happening that makes it seem far more likely her predator will pay. Maybe she’ll be able to sue over it with greater ease and win, or file charges that stick. Maybe he’ll lose his job. He’ll lose his reputation. Maybe he’ll face the music, as they say, and not simply dance away unharmed. 

An American sexual assault scandal has, at this particular moment, spiralled into a rash of sexual assault scandals spanning industries and even nations. It’s ruined its first target, Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, forced the resignation of Michael Oreskes, the head of National Public Radio in the U.S. and Michael Fallon, the British defense minister, both on Wednesday. 

It may have started with the New Yorker and New York Times exposes on Weinstein in mid-October, but it has since spread to famed New Orleans restaurateur John Besh, to Kevin Spacey, who came out as gay in the wake of allegations from other male actors, and George H. W. Bush, who’s dorky sense of humour allegedly extends to sexual advances. Other men in media, in entertainment, and politics have been named, and many lost their jobs. It would take half a column just to name them all. In the U.K., Fallon is said to be only the “first scalp” of a slew of sexual abuse and misconduct allegations at the British House of Commons that include rape. 

It also didn’t start with Harvey Weinstein. It started with the first sexual assault, and the first victim who sought justice. This sweeping fire of allegations owes a debt to the many who’ve toiled along the sidelines for decades, labeled angry feminists or just crazy women, at sexual assault crisis centres, emergency phone lines, shelters and other communities that support survivors and demand we treat the crimes of harassment as assault, as crimes. The whirlwind of allegations also owes some of its fuel to women’s (and some men’s) longstanding use of rumour mills and gossip channels that warn one another about predators. 

This particular dominos moment arrived on a stage set by previous cultural shocks of the Stanford rape case, the Bill Cosby and Jian Ghomeshi trials. There have been now infamous sexual assault scandals at universities and in sports teams, all wetting our appetite, it would seem, for this moment. 

And after the plodding, dogged work of journalists who’ve told or tried to tell these stories over decades, something has snapped. 

What is it? What is this tripwire that seems to have been set off, triggering alarm bells in women and men encouraging them to say something right now, and triggering those who’ve decided right now is the moment to publish those stories and those who’ve decided right now is the time fire those abusers. 

It is not belief — the idea that any and all accusations must be true. 

But it is, I think, a kind of faith. Faith that allegations are in themselves worthy of response. That women are as likely as not to be telling the truth. And that at the very least, they ought to be heard. 

I have no illusions these multiplying scandals will rid the world of sexual manipulations, groping, ultimatums, pressuring, abuse, rape. 

But it does seem like the lip service of women’s rights is starting to gain some broad practical, consequential traction. Perhaps, on sexual assault, a corner is being turned. 

We’re beginning to actually take it seriously. 

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