Support Speech First: Packer’s Sexual Assault Debate
The red carpet of the 75th Golden Globes was stained with black. Female stars took advantage of their platform at a highly publicized awards show to support #TimesUp, a movement created by women in Hollywood to fight sexual harassment; some gave moving speeches condemning sexual assault, others brought female activists as their plus-ones, and almost all wore black as if mourning for the survivors of sexual abuse. This show came at a pivotal moment as an outflowing of misconduct accusations about men in power, many in Hollywood, swept the country after Harvey Weinstein was outed for his extensive sexual abuse.
It seems to me that we as a school community are now grappling with issues that mirror those emerging in our country and world: an outpouring of accusations and realizations, and then a difficulty coming to an understanding of how to move forward. In both cases, talking has been at the forefront of the reaction. The #MeToo movement, which has come to be nearly global, is grounded on the power of speaking up. The orations at the Golden Globes were just that: words. And where Hollywood has awards shows and movements, Packer has apologetic speeches from male administration and single-gender forums born quickly out of the painful controversy of a week.
The question to consider now is how valuable this discourse is, and where it must lead to create change. The women in black who were celebrated for their voices at the Golden Globes must know that speeches and dark dresses are not nearly enough in an industry firmly ingrained in sexism and abuse that continues to make victims out of female (and male) actors. On the other hand, I believe that within Packer it is the discourse itself that needs to be shifted.
I want to preface this by saying that I can only write from my own perspective. I am a wealthy, privileged, straight, white woman; I am not a victim of sexual assault. I have not had the experience of a woman of color in our community, and I was not present at the men’s forums. I have had the luxury to ignore the experiences of others, and to be able, in some ways, to leave the conversation in the forums if I need to. I cannot know how each person in Packer, with their individual experiences and perspective to match, has reacted to these issues. I can only write what I know and what I believe.
And here’s the thing: I have spoken and acted (or not acted) in ways that have contributed to rape culture. My friends have. There is a good chance that you and your friends have. Often, these mistakes are inadvertent, but just as dangerous nonetheless. It is very difficult not to fall into a culture that is so pervasive, so ingrained in the collective psyche of the community. Yet we are the only ones keeping it pervasive, and thus we are the only ones who can end the cycle. This is a cycle that leads to catcalling, to objectification of bodies, to victim-blaming and slut-shaming, to groping, to casual coercion, and to rape.
In my opinion, a step forward begins with recognition and an acceptance of responsibility. It begins with an understanding that, regardless of what you have or haven’t done, every single person in our school can contribute to a discussion. You do not have to be an abuser in order to be involved in a conversation about abuse, and you do not have to be a victim to discuss issues related to them.
I recognize that conversation at Packer can feel purposeless. From what I have gathered, the male forums didn’t feel as productive as they should have, and that can be frustrating. But that is no reason to give up; in fact, it is only further incentive to show up and work toward a mutual understanding, to restructure, to experiment.
What I mean to say by this is that the wider culture of sexual harassment at Packer is a problem that will require the involvement of more than one sect of our school. This is not solely a female problem, a male problem, an abuser problem, or a survivor problem. The problem is one that belongs to all of our society, and one that will take all of it to remedy. This is not an issue that can be ignored by a significant portion of the community while those involved figure it out.
What the Golden Globes were missing, beyond physical action, was a representation of all of the voices in that community. While many male actors wore black suits and displayed pins inscribed with “#TimesUp,” not one used the stage of the show, which they were placed on again and again, to physically speak up against the issues that have recently been sweeping our country.
We are missing voices too, but in a different way.
I left the first forum feeling shaken to my core. I couldn’t bring myself to go to class and face the boys and men who I felt couldn’t understand the indelible shift that had just occurred within me. But what I didn’t recognize at the time is that there is a certain privilege that accompanied my ability to be shocked by the stories of the women around me, to experience a physical change when I suddenly recognized that Packer is very much entrenched in this issue. What I also didn’t recognize was that the stories I heard, on the whole, were not representative of the experiences of the entire female student body or faculty.
“A white woman can say that, now in light of all these accusations, she doesn’t feel comfortable anymore—but I never felt comfortable. I never felt safe. My friends have never felt safe,” said Hadassah Akinleye (‘19). “I found the female forum lacking because I felt that there was no intersectionality at all. I think that, as much as females in general have a certain experience at Packer and just in the world, the voices of women of color and LGBTQ+ people tend to get lost in the fray, so to speak.”
I am certainly guilty of shrugging off, of forgetting, of choosing to ignore, or of declining to hear. I have acknowledged that white feminism is not true feminism and yet I still am guilty of perpetrating it. In the second forum, I was completely unaware that many in that room were not yet ready to move to co-ed conversation until one woman of color brought it up, and I am still, for the most part, ignorant of the very different issues a woman of color has to face in our community and the world.
And this needs to change. I, and others in our community, need to start listening to everyone here, not just those we feel comfortable hearing, speaking up, and adjusting our plans of action accordingly.
I am under the impression, based on survey responses as well as conversations I’ve had, that many male students—and some female students—feel that they cannot move forward while remaining in a single-gender conversation.
“I think, for the men’s forum, how are we making conversation when, every time we bring up an example, we are the perpetrators of it? How is conversation of just us going to help us?” asked Archie Caride (‘19). “I feel like, for me specifically, I would really benefit from having a conversation that is boys and girls.”
For many women, however, to force a co-ed forum at this point would be too hasty. And I agree. If we are divided within ourselves, we cannot yet come together. These are issues that we need to try to solve alone before we move to a wider discussion.
“We have to be unified as a front, as one, and we can’t do that if certain people in the community feel like, every time they go to this forum, their voices aren’t heard, or they can’t speak,” said Hadassah.
We are at an impasse: one part of our community cannot move forward unless we engage in wider discussion, while another cannot engage in wider discussion unless we move forward.
There are many gaps we still need to bridge before facilitating a co-ed discussion, and there is no clear roadmap to start building those bridges. I do not have the perspective to know what the men in our community need to create a more productive conversation, or how to create a space where students of color and LGBTQ+ students can feel heard and, if not comfortable, at least safer. I do not even know if any of these things are possible.
What I do believe, though others might disagree, is that conversation is critical in this process. We cannot lunge into action until we can understand the issues we are trying to solve. These spaces for speaking need to be rethought and restructured in some way, because at the moment they only work for some. A shift in consciousness needs to occur in so many facets of thought at Packer, which will by no means be easy to do. This begins with acknowledgement, as I said before, but also by changing the way we go about our day to day lives and the way we lead discussion. And, most importantly, the steps forward we make in these discussions cannot remain in the room where they occur but persist in the wider community.