Jane Ledwell: “I believe you.” “I am so sorry this happened to you.”
Many of us on social media left these responses on post after post last year as a staggering, heartbreaking wave of friends and family told us: #MeToo.
Last year, almost every woman and non-binary person I knew, and numerous men, used two simple syllables to tell the world they had experienced sexual misconduct.
The stories behind those syllables were varied, but they all pointed to one conclusion: victims of sexual misconduct have lived with the consequences of violence for too long, while the perpetrators have too often faced none.
Make no mistake: sexual misconduct is a show of power that discriminates against a person as a result of their gender, age, race, ability, or other traits. Sexual misconduct creates harm, with physical and mental effects, and also with material effects of limiting options and careers and reducing or removing victims’ voices and visibility in the public sphere.
Sexual misconduct can affect anyone of any gender, but it is a tool of social control, so the groups most affected are those who do not have, but seek, their equal place in the world. Whether individual women have experienced direct or indirect attacks, it affects #UsToo. And moreso women who are also part of other disadvantaged groups.
So, what can we do when we see perpetrators of sexual harm flourish while their victims disappear – into themselves, into the effects of trauma, into lesser careers, or away to other provinces? What can we do when we see that women’s safety is so easily sacrificed for the success of men who harmed them? Perpetrators who left them creeping uncomfortable, unsafe, and self-loathing in their own skins?
It is galling to see people in high-profile, well-paid roles be rehired after settled cases of sexual harassment – their violation of others’ human rights. It is appalling when elected officials with histories of sexual misconduct continue to harass after being elected but are not held accountable through codes of conduct. It is terrifying when teachers are subject to little investigation or censure after complaints of misconduct in public schools.
When well-intentioned promotion committees or government leaders or principals are more comfortable waiting for more or better evidence than believing and supporting those harmed, it tells victims they are worth less.
And it is not enough to wait for violations to be addressed as criminal matters: there are countless barriers to victims achieving justice for sexual misconduct through criminal trial.
Since #MeToo, we’ve seen examples of guilty verdicts or career consequences for a few perpetrators: these have often only come after numerous victims and much time. And significant consequences are still so rare as to be met with shock – and sometimes outrage about the consequences’ effects on perpetrators’ reputations and relationships.
What can we do? It is government’s responsibility, on behalf of us all, to ensure that public and publicly funded institutions have robust policies to prevent and address sexual misconduct. We must be prepared to begin by believing reports of sexual misconduct, and follow up with appropriate third-party investigation that puts the survivor in the centre and doesn’t revictimize. We can ensure that community mental health systems and not-for-profit victim-serving agencies are well-resourced to help survivors heal when they are ready for help, without waiting lists, whether the trauma occurred last week or last century. We can amplify the voices of victims and survivors. We can promote their careers and restore their visibility in the world.
Society must move towards restorative justice that begins to truly restore what was stolen from survivors: their dignity and the privacy of their intimate lives, their human rights, their lost or abandoned careers and opportunities. We can expect perpetrators to take responsibility, to make apologies and to make amends, and to make reparations to the people they harmed. We can hold unrepentant perpetrators accountable.
We can hold ourselves, our organizations, and our systems, large and small, responsible to support people who experience sexual misconduct – and not to reward perpetrators.
Jane Ledwell is the executive director of the P.E.I. Advisory Council on the Status of Women and is a writer and editor based in Charlottetown. The Guardian reached out to Ledwell to write this guest opinion to mark the first anniversary for the #MeToo movement. To read more submissions on #MeToo, go to Theguardian.pe.ca. – The Guardian