Before Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was ousted from the movie production company he co-owned after dozens of allegations of sexual assault and harassment, millions of victims of sexual violence went public with their experiences, posting “me too” on Twitter and Facebook as a gesture of solidarity with other survivors of sexual abuse.
Ruth Taylor Read, chairwoman of Women Matter Northeast Tennessee, said society still has a long way to go toward curbing sexual violence perpetrated by men.
Read believes the assault and harassment revealed by recent scandals involving powerful men allowed because of the power dynamics of society, specifically the under-representation of women in positions of power in the private and public sector.
This lack of representation and proportional power, Read said, contributes to patriarchal violence in general. Luckily, she said, more and more women and other victims of sexual violence are gaining the courage to speak out.
“I do think they’re being believed more. It’s a positive change,” Read said. “Of course, it isn’t as quick as it needs to be, but things are changing.
“We are slowly changing the pendulum swing to where women are feeling more comfortable coming forward. Until recently, this society has always shamed women for coming forward.”
Assistant District Attorney Erin McArdle said cases involving allegations of sexual abuse are often difficult to prosecute. Even when victims do come forward, she said “not every case comes with forensic evidence or DNA.”
She reviews between five and 10 sexual assault cases a month.
“If we have any evidence to corroborate the victim's story, that definitely helps. But a lot of times, it is a ‘he said, she said’ thing, and you’re trying to get information from a case that happened years ago,” McArdle said. “It becomes a credibility issue for the jury and judge to try. By the time many of them do disclose, it’s too late to get any evidence.”
Though many offenders are never charged and convicted in criminal court, Read said it was still relieving to see that Weinstein was fired and Kevin Spacey lost his role on the hit show “House of Cards” after similar allegations emerged, though in Spacey’s case, it was young gay men and boys accusing him of improper behavior.
“The more we see this come to light, the more we will see of this type of response,” Read said.
Still, she said many women who come forward about sexual assault are not believed due to the prevalence of “misogyny and victim blaming” that she said is often internalized by other women.
“I often notice the hesitation on the part of other women to accept the truth, and it saddens me when I see a woman diminish the stories of survivors,” she said.
She cited that the allegations against Spacey by one man were almost immediately believed, while dozens of allegations against Bill Cosby were questioned by many for months.
“We let Bill Cosby wander the streets, and he’s even on tour now,” Read said. “Because he was powerful, and his victims were women.”
As an advocate for victims of sexual assault at East Tennessee State University, Read said she’s heard many shocking revelations from women about their experiences with sexual assault.
A report by the TBI released in March said that in 2016, four forcible sexual assaults were reported at East Tennessee State University, with two being labeled as “cleared.” But because of the disbelief that many still face when coming forward, Read said most do not take legal action at all, which makes the statistics skewed.
Sexual violence is also a problem in high schools, and much like the recent cases involving wealthy, prominent figures like Weinstein, power dynamics often play a role in a lot of these cases, according to local woman Anna.
To protect her anonymity in light of the sensitive issue of sexual abuse, Anna will only be referred to using her first name.
While dating a boy in high school whose father was a police officer, she said she broke off the relationship after noticing a pattern of psychological abuse. This eventually turned into stalking and then sexual abuse when he showed up at her house one night.
Anna said her abuser often bragged about what he was able to get away with as the son of a high-ranking member of law enforcement.
“He laughed and said, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ He proceeded to do what he wanted,” she said of the assault. “I was crying. He knew I didn’t want to do that but he did anyway, and he was right. What was I going to do, call the cops?
“After that happened, he continued to harass me. He would come to my house and Silly String my car in the middle of the night as a power move. He would just randomly text me and talk down to me and say things like, ‘Haha, I (expletive) you.’”
Read said statistics show that perpetrators such as the one in this case — and the people implicated in the flood of public allegations in national media — are likely to be repeat offenders.
For every 120 sex offenders, there are 1,225 victims, and on average, these offenders are likely to commit at least six acts of sexual violence.