We All Helped Build The Wall Of Silence Around Victims Of Sexual Assault
By Guila Benchimol, December 12, 2017, Huffington Post
Gretchen Carlson, whose sexual harassment claims led to Roger Ailes's downfall, recently stated that "the culture of concealment and denial is coming to an end" and the Silence Breakers were just named Time Magazine's Person of the Year. But a culture of silence does not simply end when its victims are ready to speak up. For victims to be heard, we must understand what role we play in building the silence around them.
Silence is a sexual predator's weapon, protecting them from detection and prosecution. Simon Hallsworth and Tara Young explain that while silence is a common feature of most crimes, it is the noise that receives our attention. Silence, however, is not created in a vacuum. Collectively, we create walls of silence that make crime invisible, allowing it to persist. Similarly, according to Eviatar Zerubavel's The Elephant in the Room, a conspiracy of silence is the result of individual and collective efforts at denial.
The culture of silence is the most striking pattern in recent sexual victimization revelations. The underlying message in the investigative reports is that walls of silence were built by perpetrators, control agents and bystanders, highlighting why victims are silent, or silenced, for so long. This machine of silence enabled perpetrators. People looked away while victimization occurred and went to great lengths to ensure silence. Active measures to promote silence continue today, including attempts to undermine victims and those who report their stories.
How does this happen?
The combination of secrecy and power influences what people know and what they decide to do.
Perpetrators ensure silence by threatening victims if they dare to speak out or by attacking their credibility when they do. They also define their crimes in ways that justify their actions, which explains recent problematic apologies by those accused. The combination of secrecy and power influences what people know and what they decide to do. As reports have shown, powerful people control information about their sexual crimes and whether it can be accessed or discussed. This extends to non-famous perpetrators, too, who use their power over others to abuse and silence.
Control agents, including members of the criminal justice system or religious leaders, are complicit in building these walls when they do not listen to victims or when they cover up crimes they become aware of. Professionals, like lawyers, also silence victims by upholding rape myths to justify sexual assault. They also obscure the reality of the offence when discussing it in ways that minimize the crime.
Silencing by erasing criminality or using unclear language changes the perception of whether a crime has occurred, making whistle-blowing or reporting seemingly unnecessary. It also creates space for the indifference of bystanders who contribute to the wall when they remain morally mute about their knowledge or fail to hold perpetrators accountable.