Town Hall Meeting on Sexual Assault

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It is almost impossible these days to turn on the television, the radio or open a newspaper and not hear or see a report of sexual assault or harassment. The #MeToo movement and Times Up have put a new spotlight on this historical problem. And as a result, people, some for the first time in their lives, are feeling safe and empowered to share their experiences of sexual trauma and abuse. Sexual assault and sexual harassment effect us all in one way or another and they intersect with mental health and mental illness in so many ways that the Mental Illness Task Force decided this should be the focus of our next town hall. Thank you for being here to participate in this important Community Conversation.

We are at a watershed moment. Our social discourse is in the middle of a drastic change, and we need to seize this opportunity to create a new paradigm. A paradigm of equality and respect and appropriate boundaries. The onus is on us to transform a culture of sexual harassment and assault for ourselves and for future generations.

In response to allegations made against him, Harvey Weinstein said that he grew up when “all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different.” In fact, that perspective is still infused in our culture today.

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Weinstein’s comments force us to confront sexism as a primary contributing factor in sexual assault and sexual harrassment. Indeed, 1 in 6 women will be the victim of rape or attempted rape during their lifetime.

To put that into context, let’s start with this quote:

 That is NOT to say that only women are victims. In fact, 1 out of 10 rape victims is a man. And let me add that it’s even more terrifying to realize that most rapes and other forms of sexual abuse are not committed by strangers on the street, but by people we know, interact with, live with and trust.  

That is NOT to say that only women are victims. In fact, 1 out of 10 rape victims is a man. And let me add that it’s even more terrifying to realize that most rapes and other forms of sexual abuse are not committed by strangers on the street, but by people we know, interact with, live with and trust.  

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And rape is not the only form of sexual assault. In fact in the United States, someone is the victim of sexual assault every 98 seconds. That means by the end of our town hall tonight, almost 100 more people will have been sexually assaulted.

Today we all live in a highly sexualized society, but by and large we are not given the tools to deal with sexuality in a healthy manner. The average age of exposure to internet pornography is now 11 years old. Rap music insults women and calls us ‘whores’; mainstream advertising celebrates gang rape; and societal pressures, especially in women’s magazines, induce young women to starve themselves to attain some imaginary ideal body. Meanwhile, we continue to confuse our young men by glorifying male sexual conquests as a way to prove one’s manhood. We are all caught up in a system that seeks to dehumanize and objectify us and we are all suffering as a result.

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We need to recognize that everything we do has a consequence. This diagram comes from NOW NYC and The Service Fund. And it helps clearly illustrate why derogatory and sexual comments are not harmless comic relief.

Jokes become part of our language. Language shows up in images. Images justify disrespect. Disrespect leads to verbal abuse. And verbal abuse escalates to rape. Objectifying language is not only offensive, it is dangerous.

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Like many of you in this room, I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and workplace harassment. I am grateful for the #MeToo and the Times Up movements that are unmasking this horror, freeing us from shame, and exposing the way in which our stigmatizing of victims – both women and men – has shielded us from addressing this long standing, life altering abuse. Today we continue to unpack the messages we carry, to find places of safety to share our experience, to reject stigma, and to craft a common language and understanding about what it is to treat each other with respect; to refuse to reduce any human being to an object.

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We have an incredible panel today so I’m going to turn things over to the people who work in this area day in and day out, who see its tragic outcomes, and who appreciate, understand and offer paths to recovery and healing. I also want you to know that we do have therapists in the room tonight so if you find the community conversation overwhelming and need to talk to someone about your own experience, there is someone here who can talk to you tonight.

Now let me turn to our panelists.

To Be Continued...