Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Steven Seagal.
If you’ve read the news lately, you have probably seen these names populate the headlines. Each of these men — actors, a director, a politician — stand accused of sexual abuse. As time passes, more names get added to the list. More survivors step up, empowered by the wave of others doing so. Fears are faced, people find their voices again and speak out — and when they do, they join a symphony. Together, their voices are louder than whatever silenced them before.
There is a certain comfort in solidarity. It can be the crucial validation someone needs, knowing that someone else (or in this case, quite a few people) understand so perfectly what has plagued them — what they have lived through and perhaps relived over and over again. It’s people holding hands and saying, “We are here.” Their narratives don’t have to compete or ask for acceptance. They just add up.
To see this many people come forward is painful and horrible, but not shocking. And this, I think, is what makes the “adding another name to the list” phenomenon, perhaps an unintended side effect of solidarity, so dangerous — just as each day brings forth the name of a new perpetrator, countless victims follow. Victims we don’t really pay attention to.
As this past week has shown us, this is what tends to happen when reports of abuse surface:
- News breaks that a prominent figure has been accused of sexual abuse.
- News focuses on the prominent figure, emphasizing their prominence. The article will mention their career, maybe list a few accomplishments (e.g. movies they have starred in or directed, how their local campaign is going, etc).
- Reporter entertains the potential for the accusations to be a hoax (e.g. in Roy Moore’s case, where some claim the allegations are a politically motivated, last-ditch effort to swing the election against him).
- The accused will release a statement, to be quoted numerous times by various news outlets.
- Articles surface about how will this affect the accused’s career, their reputation. “What will happen to them? Will their movie still air?” is answered over and over again.
And then it happens again, but with a different name.
Exactly whom the acts of sexual abuse have happened to blurs into the background. What about their careers, their lives? They become numbers. The survivors are known as “they” or “them” — a collective mass growing larger each day. Each addition to the group, each additional person saying “me, too” warrants a fleeting sadness at most. “Another one,” we think to ourselves and shake our heads. Our sympathy has a habit of stopping there.
It reminds me of mass shootings. They don’t faze us anymore. When someone asks, “Did you hear about the shooting?” our usual response is “Which one?” They happen so often that their effect is lost on most of us, unless we have some personal tie to the event, like family or friends who were affected, or if it happened in our hometown. We grow numb.
Even more haunting is that, for one reason or another, people feel like they cannot speak up. In this case, it took one willing survivor, and then several others came forward, and then people affected by different abusers started speaking up. The men named at the top are powerful men — they have status and influence and so, so much money. The weight of their names, coupled with the intense media coverage any accusations made against them would pick up, could lead victims into a corner. Understandably, it follows that some survivors choose to deal with it on their own instead of becoming public figures in the media, forced to relive traumatic moments in public, drawn-out court cases.
A final important thing to remember: The survivor’s individual experience is not less important just because others have experienced it too. If we treat this multitude of shared experiences as a single narrative — if we grow numb to it — we normalize it. And so it spreads.
People shouldn’t have to demand to be heard — we just need to listen.
Contact Amanda Rizkalla at ‘amariz’ at stanford.edu.