There is a great deal of anger in the air these days: anger at the state of the country, anger at the media, anger at the government, and anger at sweeping ignorance. There are good reasons to feel angry and concerned, especially for women, because, this past November, there was a wave of people willing to (at best) temporarily put aside and (at worst) completely ignore disturbing statements made on the campaign trail about women. These vulgarities ripped back the curtain to reveal how low on the ladder women are considered in some sections of society.
Therefore, a march, or any demonstration, underscoring the inherent dignity of all women is a powerful idea. This is what the recent Women’s March purported to do, when millions of women marched throughout the world and hundreds of thousands of women demonstrated in the nation’s capital one day after the presidential inauguration.
I am struck by the shock and alarm that seem to be fueling both this protest and the opposition to it. As a legal scholar and an advocate against human trafficking, child exploitation, and domestic abuse, I must note that the raw, ugly truth of our culture’s depreciation of women is old news. The minimizing of any campaign’s negative tone toward women, and the acceptance of candidates who are openly hostile to women’s dignity, simply should not come as a surprise. The government is supposed to represent American values. If we take a look at our culture, on this score this government actually does so very accurately.
There are two sad truths we need to acknowledge at this point. First, there is no new threat to women, and no one candidate awoke a sleeping giant of misogyny that was being suppressed below the surface. No, in a culture like ours it is right out in the open, and such a victory should have been expected. This is the same culture in which a judge — a pillar of the community — sentenced his fellow Stanford man to a mere six months in jail (three months served) for his sexual penetration of an unconscious woman behind a trash dumpster, because anything more would “have too severe an impact on him.” This same sex offender’s father called the rape “twenty minutes of action” for which his son should not pay a “steep price.” This is the same culture in which a high school engaged in a cover-up of its athletes’ sexual assault on an unconscious female student – an assault they joked about on video. This is a culture in which the policy of the NFL, the professional version of America’s game, is to penalize players more for overinflating footballs than for abusing their wives and girlfriends — and that is only if the high-school students are not safe, with nearly 50 percent of them reporting sexual harassment at school. Nor are our national heroines exempt, with 5 percent of active-duty military women victims of unwanted sexual contact, including rape.
The most tragic part of this very sad tale is not so much the treatment of women but the acceptance of it. We know that a misogynistic mindset is pervasive when it has accomplished the most insidious harm of all: It has conditioned women (and men) into accepting sexual assault and harassment as normal and, therefore, not enough to disqualify a politician. More than ten years ago, the American Psychological Association warned that the many negative effects of the sexualization and objectification of girls include the development of negative attitudes about themselves, by tying their inherent worth only to their ability to be sexual beings for others. The consequence of this is a diminished sense of self and an acceptance of the normalization of their sexual objectification. It is manifested in the well-documented underreporting of sexual assault and harassment. This election is further evidence of this collateral damage.
Oppression and objectification are evil enough. More evil is convincing the objectified that they do not deserve to be treated with the dignity inherent to all human beings. Protest is good, especially protests not hijacked by those advocating any issue other than the one on which we should agree: that all women deserve to be treated with the same inherent dignity as men, and not to be considered as anything less. Even better would be a paradigm shift in which we return to our lives after the protests and counter protests and reject the daily social messaging and cultural celebration of language and images that objectify women.
Our first president, George Washington, noted that “experience teaches us that it is much easier to prevent an enemy from posting themselves than it is to dislodge them after they have got possession.” The enemy that is misogyny has possession. Instead of being surprised that our community has openly accepted such abusive values, we should do more than protest. We should work to dislodge these values from the fabric of our culture. Only then will we be able to reject them in our candidates and in our politics.