Let’s Not Lose the Moment (Again): Listen and Believe. Speak Up and Speak Out. Take Action.

As a board member for the Portland Women’s Crisis Line (PWCL) I have found it very difficult to sit quietly as the alleged sexual abuse scandal at Penn State unfolded and other, subsequent scandals have followed at other institutions. It is clear that socially, most of us lack the knowledge, skills or ability to intervene when gender-based violence occurs. So I submitted a commentary to Morning Edition around the three actions PWCL (and other organizations) suggest that anyone can and should take when abuse or violence may have occurred. I did not even receive an automatically generated message that said, “Got it. We’ll let you know if we want to use it.” I am only alarmed in that amongst the saturated media response about what went wrong, there has been very little education about what we should do. This is a teachable moment that could mean the difference between a life of trauma or a life a peace, or even the difference between life and death.

I cannot keep quiet about this issue so I have decided to breath new life into the Lund-Chaix blog. I do not even know if anyone is interested in reading it at this point since nothing has been posted in at least four months. I, clearly, do not have the ear of national broadcast media, so I need to make use of the outlet I do have. We have a small collection of short essays on a variety of themes that we have been building over the last few months, but nothing so profound and life changing (or life threatening) as an alleged ongoing period of sexual abuse against children and the subsequent inability to respond that amounted to a cover-up. This essay is a revision of the commentary submitted to Morning Edition.

The alleged cover up of the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State has created what some in the academic community euphemistically refer to as a “teachable moment.” In other words, someone or some combination of people have committed a major faux pas, and now the rest of us have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. Sadly, the leaders at Penn State have presented us with the very same teachable moment the leadership of the Catholic Church have presented us with over the last several years. We seem to have missed the learning opportunity.

Most people in the US society are uncomfortable openly discussing sex, even under the best of circumstances. When sex takes the form of gender-based violence, such as child sexual assault, discomfort can morph into outright denial, shock, disbelief, and worse yet, silence. When survivors of clergy sexual abuse began to come forward publicly I believed that we, as a society, had finally become comfortable enough openly discussing sex that we could learn how to respond when sex is utilized as a form of violence. At a time when few of us would be willing to discuss the intimate details of our consensual, and loving sexual encounters, countless survivors have publicly confronted the intimate details of violent and humiliating experiences they were powerless to stop. It is clear from the events at Penn State we have not learned the lessons shared from the pains of adult survivors of child sexual abuse.

Everyone has a moral obligation to respond to any suspected case of gender-based violence, no matter how minor it might seem. This includes everything from child sexual abuse, to an adult who is sexually assaulted or beaten by an intimate partner, or even words intended to humiliate and control someone through their sexuality. Failing to respond may leave survivors to suffer permanent damage from ongoing abuse, or produce an ever-increasing number of victims who may believe they are powerless under the threat of abuse.

There are three, simple, things that everyone can do when someone has experienced gender-based violence. These three simple actions come from the Portland Women’s Crisis Line as well as other organizations that help survivors recover and regain their sense of empowerment.

First, listen and believe. Simply listening with an open heart and saying, “I believe you,” may be the most important thing anyone can do. Your words and actions may shape what happens next. In the case of Penn State, few children came forward themselves at the time, but there were witnesses who tried to expose the alleged assault. Then graduate student, Mike McQuery, and janitor Jim Calhoun were both witnesses to unbelievable (alleged) events, and both tried to share what they saw. Calhoun’s supervisor did not pursue the issue, nor did he provide Calhoun the encouragement and support he needed that may have helped him take his concerns to someone who could put an end to the alleged abuse. While Joe Paterno, McQuery’s supervisor, did discuss McQuery’s concerns with university administrators, that was the end of it.

When someone discloses to you he or she has experienced or witnessed any type of sexual abuse or gender-based violence, you may be the first person to hear the story. If you do not listen openly, or if you do not believe it, you may be the only person ever to hear the story. Listening without giving advice, and believing unconditionally may be the first step toward healing, and the first opportunity to help a survivor find the power to stop the abuse he or she is experiencing.

Second, speak up and speak out. This is where we must look within and summons our inner leader. Speaking up and speaking out means interrupting the violence, interrupting the abuse. We are taught that it is rude to interrupt, but in the case of child sexual abuse, or any type of gender-based violence, it is dangerous not to interrupt. Our inner leader must surface routinely at any signal of potential violence, since few abusers start out committing acts of rape or battery, but rather engage in a relationship-building process that evolves slowly into the unthinkable.

A leader’s work is difficult. A leader’s job is to take a stand. It does not require the likes of King, or Mandela, or Gandhi to interfere with someone who is assaulting or abusing another person, especially a child. McQuery or Calhoun might have physically intervened, but did not or could not. If Paterno had no other authority as head coach, he could have ensured that Sandusky never had the opportunity to be alone with a child and redirected the investigation to an external jurisdiction that would have taken action. Even with the respect conferred on Paterno by the campus and community it would have been personally risky, and taken a great deal of courage for him to speak up and interrupt the abuse in this way. It is risky for anyone to interrupt such violence. Calhoun became physically ill, and feared for his job.

Some at Penn State, as is common, were unsure whether to speak up, because they were unsure whether Sandusky had really crossed the line and intentionally committed (alleged) abuse. There is no line. If I am unsure of abuse I must speak up. It means someone could be getting hurt, and I need to interject myself in that moment. If I cannot interject I must immediately let someone know who can intervene and put an end to any wrongdoing. Immediately. We must adopt a zero-tolerance policy, even if that means interrupting that derogatory joke that hurtfully perpetuates sexual stereotypes. When we see or hear something that makes us uncomfortable that is our gut telling us to speak up, not to rationalize something that we know is not okay.

Finally, take action. This means being very public about ensuring that all gender-based violence is unacceptable. The board of trustees at Penn State were emphatic that child sexual abuse is not okay, and it is not okay to turn a blind eye with the hope that with a few words and even a few sanctions it will stop on its own. Volunteering for a local hotline, educating neighbors and colleagues on responding to assault, or making a financial commitment to an organization whose mission is to stop gender-based violence are all ways that ordinary folks, on an ordinary day can send the message loud and clear that sexual violence is unacceptable.

These three things are simple, but they are not always very easy. It can be so difficult to listen non-judgmentally, to believe something so shocking and unbelievable, to suppress the rage that can emerge upon learning of abuse, and to refrain from taking charge and telling a survivor what he or she should do, no matter how much you think it might be in the survivor’s best interest. Yet open, warm, and trusting we must be as a silent witness. The gut reaction that tells us we must speak up and interrupt violence is usually triggered by that terrifying fight-or-flight adrenal response that leaves us wanting to turn and run as fast as we can, physically and mentally. Yet we must do what our parents told us not to and get in the way and face the violence, no matter how seemingly trivial, even if the perpetrator and victim are both strangers to us or figures of authority. And taking a public soapbox against sex acts can leave us feeling downright humiliated and as vulnerable as survivors of sexual violence. Yet our public and private deeds must be a reflection of the belief that all types of gender-based violence, including child sexual abuse, is unacceptable.

These are three simple things that anyone can do, but they take practice. They take courage. We are not powerless to stop gender-based violence. We owe it to the children and families who have experienced sexual abuse to put an effort into learning and practicing how to listen and believe, speak up and speak out, and take action. Our response must develop into a routine. The teachable moments are far too painful and lasting for the survivors for us, as a society, to fail this lesson one more time. It will take all the students, faculty, staff, parents, community members, and the rest of us to put an end to gender-based violence. Listen and believe. Speak up and speak out. Take action.

2 thoughts on “Let’s Not Lose the Moment (Again): Listen and Believe. Speak Up and Speak Out. Take Action.

  1. Great blog, Alisha! I would add, don’t judge the victim. Women in abusive relationships are not stupid or passive, and have complicated feelings about their abusers.

  2. Absolutely. Often times the hurt comes from someone a survivor trusts. It is confusing and complicated, to say the least. Thanks for adding that important point.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *