Tom Reardon has worked with victims of sexual violence in the Phoenix area for more than two decades. After watching Leaving Neverland, the HBO documentary about Michael Jackson's alleged sexual relations with children, he was moved to write this series of stories for Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention month. Today is the third of four lessons from the documentary.
Talking about sexual violence is really not America’s strong point.
We are great at talking around it. Many of us have soapboxes, me included, that we climb up on at any given opportunity to espouse the evils of sexual abuse and sexual assault (or what we commonly call “rape”). The reality, though, of just how difficult it is for us to have a mature conversation about sexual violence is evident in how prevalent the problem remains in our country.
The backlash alone, from Leaving Neverland is clear indication of the pains we, as Americans, will go through to avoid actually talking about the subject. It is no surprise that the documentary is polarizing, but what is surprising is the length much of popular media has gone to to avoid discussing just how powerful a statement both Leaving Neverland and the hourlong discussion, Oprah Winfrey Presents: After Neverland made. Both showed us the nature of sexual violence and its impact on the survivors, their families, and society in general. The media focus primarily has been on the personalities involved and not the importance of having open discussion about how we can effectively stop sexual violence from happening.
We are living in the era of #MeToo. For some of us in the world of sexual violence prevention, when #MeToo came along we thought, “Finally!” There is considerable hope out there that the time has come for a truly open and change-inducing conversation to take place regarding putting an end to sexual violence, as well as addressing some of the root causes of sexism, patriarchy, gender bias, and the list goes on.
At the beginning of the post-documentary Oprah special, Winfrey drops a mini-bomb as to why she wanted to be involved. She stated that in 25 years of doing her syndicated talk show, she has dedicated 217 episodes to sexual violence, but she felt that the four hours of Leaving Neverland did a better job of explaining that sexual abuse is not just abuse, but it is also “sexual seduction.”
Winfrey: “I know people all over the world are going to be in an uproar and debating whether or not Michael Jackson did these things or not. Whether these two men are lying or not lying. But for me, this moment transcends Michael Jackson. It is much bigger than any one person. This is a moment in time that allows us to see this societal corruption. It’s like a scourge on humanity and it’s happening right now. It’s happening in families. We know it’s happening in churches and in schools and sports teams everywhere.”
Sexual violence in all its forms is a “scourge” on our society, but is #MeToo really addressing it? We all know someone who has been sexually abused or sexually assaulted, the key difference being that assault is something that occurs on the inside of the body. It is statistically impossible for us to go through our lives without knowing someone who has experienced these crimes. Depending on whose statistics you believe, as many as one of three females and one of six males experience sexual abuse before 18.
Think about everyone you know, or better yet, your Facebook friends list, and do the math. You, dear reader, probably know a lot of people who have experienced sexual abuse and may have also experienced it yourself. The odds are good, though, that your friends, family, and/or acquaintances have not told you what happened to them. They also probably haven’t told anyone else what has happened either as we discussed in the first part of this article.
One in four women are sexually assaulted in their lifetimes and as many as one in 10 men experience rape as well. This also means that we all know people who have experienced this type of sexual violence where there is penetration of the body through the mouth, vagina, or rectum without consent. As with sexual abuse, the vast majority of rape survivors do not tell anyone what has happened to them. If we include sexual harassment in the mix, the numbers skyrocket as roughly 80 percent of high school students (which includes 85 percent of females and 76 percent of males) experience sexual harassment at least once before they graduate.
Winfrey went on to talk about how the term “abuse” is not necessarily accurate when it comes to many instances of child sexual abuse. For Wade Robson and James Safechuck, their interaction with Jackson was clearly (at least in the stories they share) a loving relationship, which makes it even harder for most of us to wrap our brains around. In Leaving Neverland, Safechuck describes a wedding ceremony that he and Jackson had including an exchange of rings. Each of Jackson’s accusers in the documentary talk at great length about being “in love” with the performer and this is why they did not see what was (allegedly) happening to them as “abuse.”
While watching the documentary, I was constantly reminded of children I have worked with over the years in my role as a sexual violence prevention specialist — children who shared similar sentiments. Although I never had students disclose that they had held a mock wedding ceremony with their abuser, the person who abused them was almost always someone they loved and trusted, and as I mentioned in the previous post, it was often someone that they did not want to “get in trouble.”
The fear of losing the abuser in their life, even though the child may not like what is happening during the abuse itself, is strong enough to keep a child silent, especially one who does not yet have the ability to communicate what is happening to them to another adult in their life.
This is more than #MeToo. This is all of us. We are all affected by sexual violence and the silence surrounding it. When survivors don’t talk about it, lives are affected. Substance abuse is common for survivors, as well as self-esteem issues, eating disorders, difficulty building healthy boundaries, and depression, to name a few.
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Silence also allows the perpetrators to get away with their crimes and move on to one victim after another. It’s not enough that the famous faces behind #MeToo disclosures lose their shows and jobs and fans, unfortunately. Without help, or in some cases, incarceration, what is to stop them from continuing to commit their crimes?
The truth is that they won’t stop. Sexual predators move from victim to victim, like a submarine trying to find its way deep under the surface of the ocean. They are constantly pinging away to see who might be out there that they can sexually abuse or assault until they either die or get caught.
And yes, in case you were wondering, #MeToo, but what does that even mean without action, healing, and hopefully, change?