It’s hard not to have any thoughts about #MeToo with all that is going on with the movement and the Supreme Court Hearings. I’d like to take a moment to think about this in terms of how it affects individuals on a personal level and set politics aside.
When you hear a woman has claimed she has been sexually harassed or assaulted, what are your first thoughts? Do you instantly think the woman is lying? Do you believe it may have happened but you wonder if she did something to cause it? What about the man involved? What are your first thoughts about him? Who do you tend to believe in these he said/she said situations? Have you thought about why you think the way you do? Perhaps we need to start.
I ask this because recently I have become aware of the insidiousness of implicit bias. Implicit bias basically means we have a predetermined belief about something but are not consciously aware of it. According to the Kirwan Institute of The Ohio State University, implicit bias “refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. The implicit associations we harbor in our subconscious cause us to have feelings and attitudes about other people based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age, and appearance.” (http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/research/understanding-implicit-bias/).
I am embarrassed to say that despite all of my professional training, I still discover my personal implicit bias rearing its ugly head. For the record, I believe women who say they were sexually assaulted. If we do not believe them, they will never come forward. That is borne out over and over again. Yes, I believe there are some women who make false allegations. However, I believe them to be few and far between. Why would a woman publicly make such a statement knowing the negative attention and stigma that awaits her? I also believe, as statistics have shown, that it is a small group of men who repeatedly assault women. This means that there are a handful of men who commit most of these assaults. So, if they assaulted someone once, they are likely to do it again.
Where I trip myself up is when my thoughts go to the circumstances surrounding the event. Where did it happen? What was everyone doing? Was there alcohol involved? What was the woman wearing? If I step back and ask myself why does it matter what she was wearing, it is clear to me this is irrelevant and dangerous thinking. It is dangerous because we tend to put blame on the woman if something bad happens to her because she was “asking for it.” If we follow that thinking then the conclusion we logically come to is that the woman wanted to be raped, that she dressed for that purpose. This, I cannot agree to. I don’t know of any woman who, in a sane, sober state of mind, ever gets dressed for a night out thinking she wants to get raped. The woman, regardless of how she was dressed, did not cause or force her attacker to attack. He alone made that decision. If she was impaired, said no, fought him off, etc., then how can she be blamed for the attacker’s behavior? She is not to blame because she did not do anything wrong.
How to Change
None of us want to be judged for our appearance or have others assume they know how we feel or what we think. So why are we, as a society, so quick to do the same to a sexual assault survivor? Maybe because it’s easier to do that than to think about how prevalent sexual assault is. How many famous and non-famous people have been exposed to some kind of assault? It speaks to how many men are in power and the extent to which this power has been used.
So, if we recognize we all have implicit bias, what can be done about it? The first step is to begin to think about how and why we come to our conclusions. We need to ask ourselves if the information used is based on fact. If it’s not, then what is it based on? It could be a past experience, a comment someone has made or a talk we heard. Simply put, we need to be mindful of what we are thinking rather than accept our automatic thoughts. We need to challenge our thinking and our beliefs rather than just going along to get along.