Updated: Dec 8, 2017
I remember witnessing history in the late 1980s and early 90s. I will always remember the images of revolutionaries sitting on the Berlin Wall demanding that it be torn down. The wall was erected in 1961 to separate East Berlin from West Berlin. The wall was designed to cut off access for those who wanted to flee the oppression of the communist system. It was fortified with concrete and guard towers. There was a section on the eastern side called the “death strip.” If anyone entered that area, they would likely be shot and killed.
But in 1989 a series of events took place, primarily in Poland and Hungary that caused a chain reaction that, within a year, brought down that wall. Millions of us in the US watched as people from both sides sat on top of the wall cheering as big machines and individuals with hammers and chisels in hand chipped away at it. We first saw the cracks expanding and before long one whole section of the Berlin Wall came crashing down. Those who had lived in the cold and darkness of oppression dared to resist and the bravery of a few gave courage to the many and communism fell. It took a small group of very courageous souls to stand up to spawn a groundswell of others who found the courage to change the world.
I think we are witnessing today the same transformation of our culture as more and more women are finding their voice and disclosing the secret they have been forced to live with. In the face of fear and at the risk of significant personal cost, a few are telling their story of abuse and sexual assault. And the courage of the few is now creating a groundswell of others who are finding their voice. This could be our Berlin Wall. And it is time that this wall of power and control that allows a person to sexually assault another person and then silence them be torn down. The wall has not fallen, yet. I believe we are witnessing a crack in that wall that is only going to expand.
The list of names of those who have attempted to or did sexually assault another person is rapidly growing. Some of the names on that list are people many find easy to hate for other reasons. But the list also includes some well-respected personalities. The latest is Matt Lauer, formerly with the NBC Today show. The disclosure about Lauer, I believe, will open a more significant crack because it brings to light some of the hard challenges that have to be addressed regarding sexual assault. And as we address these challenges we stand on the precipice of a cultural revolution of our own.
If you watched the announcement on Wednesday November 29th on the Today Show, you saw the obvious heartbreak of Lauer’s two co-hosts who were shocked and shaken by the revelation. There on national television, we got to witness the struggle two women had in reconciling what they had come to know about a man whose accusations of his assault contradicted their own experience with him. How could someone they love and trust do such a thing? Is it really true? How do we have these questions without blaming the victim or saying we don’t believe her? I thought Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb did an admirable job of picturing for us the confusion and sadness this issue generates. Many are at a loss as to how to proceed and how to respond. How do you make compatible the two realities that are now in conflict? What do we do with the information that a man you have worked with for years and have come to love and respect also be a man who sexually assaulted someone?
Are we witnessing the approach of the tipping point, the point at which everything changes quickly? Though the number of brave women who have come forward is small in comparison to the number of women who have experienced sexual assault, it is enough to expand the crack in the wall. Every voice brings another strike of the chisel against the wall. And now others will find the courage to speak up and strike a blow. We will see this list grow over the next months and years and the names of the abusers will shock us. What we have already witnessed in the Catholic Church is about to happen in the secular world. I would imagine there are a lot of men in panic mode today.
(And I know that women can perpetrate sexual assault. But the vast majority of these assaults are by men against women. )
Sadly, the Protestant church will not escape the tearing down of the wall. I know women who have experienced this in the church and have tried to speak up and have also been silenced. But that is about to change. Just read hashtage churchtoo to hear their stories.
When this wall comes down, and the dust settles, I hope we will see real change in our culture. What does that change look like?
1). We will start to believe the statistics. And when we believe the statistics, hopefully we will start to believe the victims. Every 98 seconds an American is sexually assaulted. Every 8 minutes that victim is a child. Only 6 out of every 1,000 perpetrators see a day in jail. One out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed sexual assault. Visit RAINN.ORG for more statistics and information.
If you have heard me speak, you have heard me share this comparison: The American Cancer Society, on their website, estimates there are 18 million survivors of cancer in the US. My wife is one of them. The low estimate of the number of survivors of child sexual abuse is around 42 million and some put that number closer to 60 million. Add to these statistics the number of women sexually assaulted as an adult and we begin to see the magnitude of the problem. So for every one person you know is a survivor of cancer, there are probably 3 or 4 or more survivors of sexual assault in your world. You just don’t know who they are because they have been silenced. Be prepared to learn who in your world has been carrying this secret. A question to contemplate is: How do we become a safe place for a victim to share her/his story and begin the journey through healing to hope?
2). We need to debunk the myth that if a woman had indeed been assaulted 10, 20 or 40 years ago, she would have said something. Never allow the distance between the time of an assault and when that person finds the courage to tell her story to be the basis for an assumption that she is lying. Until you have lived on the other side of that wall of oppression and silence, you need to allow for the very real possibility that this person has been threatened or silenced in a myriad of ways. I think of my friend who was sexually abused as a child by her stepfather. He ran a funeral home and he would abuse her in the same room where he cremated the dead. After he would have his way with his stepdaughter, he would say, “If you ever tell, this is what will happen to you.” There are very real reasons a victim won’t speak up.
3). We have to discover ways to navigate through the challenge of balancing justice and mercy. Justice says “innocent until proven guilty.” Mercy extends care and support to someone who has been victimized. How do we wait for justice to prove a person innocent or guilty of an accusation (which will take years) without demeaning, discrediting or further silencing a person who is longing to be believed and to heal? There are no easy answers. But given the sheer prevalence of sexual assault, perhaps we need to change how we respond. For example, rather than “get behind” a political candidate by insisting he is innocent until proven guilty, we take a step back and allow for the very real possibility that the accusations are true. And until such a time as that can be proved, we make sure our responses and comments extend mercy and gives a possible victim the reason to hope. We don’t have to take sides. We don’t have to actively defend a man who has been accused just because he shares the same political views we do, especially if we have never met him or know him personally. When we do defend him, we may become complicit in keeping a victim silenced. I know what you’re thinking: “But what if the accusation is false?” A fair question. But maybe based on statistics the first question ought to be: “What if the accusation is true?” This simple adjustment in our engagement on this issue will bring about change.
4). As this list of names continues to grow, there will be some names for whom their abusive action seems consistent with what we have learned about them. But there will be others that will confound us. There is never a reason to dismiss abusive behavior. But does their abuse totally negate any positive contributions that person may have made through their work, in their family and community? Is there room for a man who attempted or committed sexual assault to have made very bad and hurtful decisions without being a sexual predator? Can they ever be trusted again? Is redemption possible? Can they ever regain a life of meaning and purpose? The answer must be “yes.” For just as it is possible for a victim to find new hope and purpose, it has to be possible for an offender to move through evil, then brokenness and on to redemption. Their victims may find it very hard to ever forgive. And we can’t demand they forgive. For those of us who have not been victimized, we have a responsibility to both victim and abuser. Where we find a person who is truly sorry for their actions and who wants to move past being that person who violated another, we need to help. We need them to tell the story of their own journey of transformation and becoming a different type of man. This could lead to generations of young men coming after them who can learn the lessons these stories will teach. If we don’t get to hear these stories, we may miss the opportunity to redefine manhood for that next generation.
5). And this may be the most important cultural change of all: We can’t just be reactive. We, men especially, can’t just do triage on those who take the fall with the wall. We have to move upstream (to switch metaphors) and address the systemic issues that have contributed to this inappropriate and often criminal behavior. We must redefine manhood. We need men to show young boys how to respect a woman. We need men to say to other men who are speaking or acting inappropriately that it is not okay.
I am just one man. I have never sexually assaulted a woman. I believe there are more men like me than like the growing list of abusers. But it is no longer enough to have not abused. We have to do more. We don't need another "hashtage" proclamation on social media. We need men to speak up and say "enough! Real men don't sexually abuse children or sexually assault women."