A Call for Empathy

hand with word listen on it - a call for empathy

As the #MeToo movement coincides with allegations of sexual violence against a Supreme Court nominee, I am charging men with a key first step: just listen.

Empathy is the only trait necessary in order to first listen, and then learn, believe, and act. For those who are able to empathize with survivors of sexual violence, far too many only do so when a loved one – a daughter, sister, or mother – has suffered similar experiences. That’s understandable because most men don’t want to perpetrate violence, nor do we want be associated with such abhorrent conduct. But we cannot ignore the overwhelming dominant cultural influences at play here. Society’s views about women, sex, and power are grounded in deep seated roots of sexism, “masculinity,” and oppression, leaving women to often bear the fruit of society’s judgment.

This dominant culture is alarmingly apparent among those who are somehow able suspend empathy when their preferred political positions are on the line. Just as rampant rates of sexual violence and harassment equally impact all political persuasions, the capacity to modulate empathy is similarly non-partisan.

It takes no great sacrifice to respect at face value what another person says about their own experiences. Yet, how many more thousands of survivors of sexual violence and harassment have to repeat why the most excruciating and intimate of harms is singularly the most difficult to speak about? When will we listen and hear them? And when will we stop pretending that the timing of reporting an incident is somehow determinative evidence as to whether or not an incident actually occurred? The very least we can offer survivors of sexual violence and harassment is to respect their decision to speak up when they feel that it is safe, or important enough, to do so, and listen to them when they do.

It doesn’t have to be about man’s daughter, sister, or another woman in his life in order for him to listen and believe. A man who hasn’t experienced sexual violence or harassment (and many men do), has no basis to substitute his hypothetical judgment on complicated and deeply personal questions like the supposed right time to call the police, tell a friend, or tell family. It is patently unfair to make assumptions about what one thinks they would have done in order to cast doubt over what a true victim actually did.

For many of the empathetically-challenged, “I don’t think it happened” isn’t enough. It meanders from “well, if it happened, it wasn’t that bad” to “something might have happened, but she probably misunderstood it or got her feelings hurt.” Then, once there is little remaining doubt over whether an incident occurred, the excuses wind toward “she shouldn’t have been over there in the first place” or “what did she expect was going to happen when alcohol was involved?” And then there is the repugnant “boys will be boys,” which, in reality, rarely applies to boys of color.

How could those all-too-common responses possibly encourage any survivor to speak up?

If this plea for empathy in this moment needs to be made personal in order to sink in, think about it like this: wouldn’t you appreciate empathy if you were sexually assaulted or harassed? If you agree, please join me and 1,600 men in showing solidarity and support for Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. She deserves to be heard, with respect and empathy. I hope my fellow men will stand with us to listen to her, support her, and ensure that her experiences are given the respect a survivor deserves.