There has been considerable conversation about the avalanche of accusations of sexual harassment levied against prominent figures, mostly men, by women across the country and around the globe. The problem of male aggression and abuse of power toward women is epidemic. And we have only seen the tip of the iceberg. Most women in our culture have experienced some form of sexual harassment.
The conversation thus far has focused on the men and what motivates them to act in such a deplorable manner. There has been some conversation about the culture that often promotes such behavior and tends to look the other way when it happens, often to the point of either dismissing the accusation out of hand or making it appear that the victim was in some way culpable (which they never are).
And these conversations are important and should continue. However, there is another side of the story that not been discussed. The spouse and family of those accused of sexual harassment are the silent, invisible victims. They suffer the fallout. They are similar to the passengers in a car driven by a reckless driver. How are they supposed to cope? What are the effects on them of public and legal accusations against their husbands and fathers?
What happens to a spouse when such allegations are made against her husband? At first, most women defend their husbands. They blame the accuser. They feel betrayed. They question themselves, e.g., “what did I do wrong?” “How could I not know who he was?” They often look back and recognize there were signs that they ignored. They condemn themselves, turning their anger toward themselves. They feel humiliated by the way their community and peers look at them. They become the subject of gossip. They want to protect their children who may also be feeling the judgment of their peers. They want to run away.
Unlike the victim in a car crash who may experience physical damage, these women experience damage to their sense of self, to their identity, that is much more insidious. The psychological turmoil is intense, building a sense of distrust and self-condemnation that may take months or years to resolve.
I wrote a novel (Gag Rule), where we see first-hand what it is like for a young mother of two to cope with allegations of sexual misconduct made against her husband, a high school music teacher, by his female students. Dolores, the protagonist in the story, takes the reader on her journey from being a submissive, trusting, loving spouse through hurt, anger, and depression, until she finds her own voice and begins the process of reclaiming her sense of self.
Historically, women have been taught to give men considerable latitude on inappropriate behavior. “Boys will be boys,” as the saying goes. Flirting, affairs, crude comments and behavior, abuses of power, objectification of women – women were trained to tolerate it all and say nothing.
Up until recently in our history, women were chattel, did not have the right to vote, and even today, do not have control over their own bodies. They were supposed to “suck it up” and know their place.
Perhaps with this recent spate of women having the courage to step forward, refusing to “know their place” and continue to be victims, will embolden all women to speak up, to call out the perpetrators, to find their collective voice, and say NO MORE!