Can we all just take a step back and remember that there are real women with real lives behind stories of sexual harassment and assault? Some of us seem to have lost sight of that.
Recently, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) ran an ad designed to look like an open letter to her opponent, Kevin Cramer, accusing him of being unsympathetic to survivors. The ad included the names and cities of more than 120 North Dakota women whom it claimed were survivors of sexual assault. However, after the ad ran, many of those named said they did not give permission for the campaign to use their names publicly and some of them were not victims of assault at all.
In the heat of the campaign and in the rush to paint her opponent as uncaring in this #MeToo moment no one vetted the list. No one asked permission to use the women’s names in a campaign ad. Reportedly, the names came from advocates who worked with victims, but it was inappropriate for them to share that information with any outside group much less a political campaign. How did they think the campaign was going to use that information?
This is concerning coming on the heels of the leaking of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s name after Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination hearing was complete. Months earlier, Dr. Ford requested confidentiality from Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) because of the sensitivity of her accusations, but someone did not honor that request.
Regardless of how you feel about the veracity of her claims, I think we can all agree it was wrong to leak her name and force her into the very circus she wanted to avoid. We can’t encourage women to come forward with their stories and then take control of how those stories are told and make them public. Details of sexual assault, sexual abuse and sexual harassment are deeply personal and so sensitive some women never share them with their closest loved ones. To make them public against their will is to victimize them again.
It’s important to note that Dr. Ford was 15 years old at the time of her alleged assault although she did not tell anyone about it at the time. As an adult, she was the one in control of her story; it was hers to tell and it should have been her decision to go public. However, we are required to report sexual abuse of children and youth, especially — but not only— those of us who are youth leaders and mandated reporters. The rules for how to handle reports of abuse change when an underage girl is involved, but the obligation to keep her story confidential does not.
Around this time last year, I was invited to speak at the Wilberforce Fellowship, an annual young men’s leadership conference in Georgia. The #MeToo movement was building momentum nationally and conference founder and leader, Tim Echols, one of Georgia’s Public Service Commissioners, asked me to talk to the group — young men in their late teens to early 30’s — about sexual harassment. He wanted them to understand that sexual harassment happens to women who are just like women they know and he wanted us to talk about ways they can be part of the solution.
We discussed many ideas, but one of the key points we talked about was what to do if a friend or work colleague tells you they were sexually harassed or assaulted. The answer we landed on was doing whatever your friend or work colleague tells you to do. If she just needs to tell someone she trusts and asks that you keep it between the two of you, then you keep it confidential. If she wants your support while she reports what happened to the authorities or the human resources department at work, then you follow her lead. It’s her story; she’s the one in control of what to do with it. It’s common sense, really.
As #MeToo was gaining steam last fall, countless women came forward to tell their stories of harassment and abuse. Some broke decades of silence to share what happened to them with loved ones for the first time.
For most of these women, these were details of the most traumatic thing that had ever happened to them. We as a society had to face the fact that sexual harassment was not some obscure HR issue; it was personal and as close to us as the women in our lives. It was an eye opening moment for our culture.
A year later — like many powerful cultural movements — the #MeToo movement seems to be taking on a life of its own. In some ways, the stories themselves have become more important than the women to whom they belong, especially if someone can use them to paint a political opponent as insufficiently caring about sexual assault or the victims thereof. Suddenly, women discover they are no longer in control of their own stories or their desire for anonymity.
Sen. Heitkamp quickly and sincerely apologized to the women named in the letter. She took responsibility for her campaign and she appears to understand the gravity of what her campaign has done to these women. However, the names are out there and they can’t be taken back. But perhaps some good can come of it if we can all learn the right lessons. It’s common sense, but that can be in short supply when politics are involved.
Survivors’ stories are their own to tell and no one has a right to use them for political or fundraising purposes without their express consent. Let’s stop treating survivors as a political issue and respect them for the strong and unique women they are.