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We are living through a Great Shame Transfer that should change how we think about sexual assault forever

Alex Wong/Getty ImagesRep. Joe Barton, the Texas Republican.
  • The only way to change how we deal with sexual assault is to change how we deal with shame.
  • It’s time to transfer shame from the victim to the perpetrator and their enablers.
  • This will influence how we fight sexual crimes in the legal system.

As a nation we are all getting a crash course in what is and is not sexual violence – who perpetrates it, and how they do it, and how they get away with it. Part of it comes down to one word: Shame.

I’ll give you one of the stranger examples in recent headlines.

Yes, if Texas Republican Rep. Joe Barton’s nude photos were released by a scorned lover, he is a victim of revenge porn. In some states, including Texas, it is illegal to distribute the portrayal of anyone’s intimate body parts without their consent.

It doesn’t matter that Barton is a conservative, or powerful. It doesn’t even matter if you think he’s a hypocrite. Part of revenge porn, after all, is taking away someone’s power over their own body.

“Revenge porn, rape, sextortion are all intentional personal injuries,” Carrie Goldberg, founder of law firm C.A. Goldberg, which specialises in privacy and sexual consent, told me last month in an interview.

We were talking after the Harvey Weinstein allegations broke, and principally we were talking about shame – who creates it and gets to push it on to others, and who has to hold on to it.

“We should be using our courts to litigate this,” she said of the kinds of allegations that Weinstein was able to make disappear with nondisclosure agreements, “but we don’t.”

Since we don’t make a practice of litigating these matters out in the open, we’ve allowed those who perpetrate these crimes to remain shameless. Instead, all the shame falls on the victim. Barton, for example, didn’t want to report that he felt he was being threatened to the Capitol Police because of the shame that it would bring him and how it would affect his career.

This should sound familiar given the past couple of weeks.

Collectively, as a society, we’ve put in some unwritten code that it is OK for a victim to carry all the shame in cases of sexual violence. It’s the same unwritten code says it is weird for a powerful congressman like Barton to be portrayed as a victim. The code also casts shame on people who send nude photos of themselves, especially in certain parts of the country. This same code let guys like Charlie Rose pull the “shower trick” and let Louis CK live under the delusion that he was individually “admired” and not just systemically powerful. It let men like former NBC host Matt Lauer terrify women into silence.

This is where that changes, during a Great Shame Transfer. This is when we change the code.

Me Too sexual harassmentMihai Surdu/Shutterstock

The real barriers

“The real barriers [to reporting sexual crimes] are imposed by all of us when we don’t believe these women or downplay their concerns,” Susan Crumiller, a lawyer with Crumiller PC told me.

Shame, by the way, is why #MeToo is being used by all kinds of victims of sexual assault. The shame of having been raped is so great that it’s only in standing in solidarity with women who’ve been subject to a different form of sexual violence that many rape victims feel comfortable admitting anything happened to them at all.

It isn’t money that stops victims from reporting this stuff; a good personal-injury lawyer will work on a contingency fee. It isn’t the legal system; a perpetrator can hire fancy lawyers to bury Crumiller in paperwork, “but there’s a limit to that,” she said.

What has been limitless is a victim’s shame. So it has to be distributed. And in this Great Shame Transfer it isn’t just the perpetrators who should get a piece of it. We’ve moved on to another phase here. As a nation we’re starting to get angry at the enablers, now that we know it takes a village to foist all the shame of sexual violence on a victim.

For example, Charlie Rose’s longtime executive producer, Yvette Vega, expressed shame that she couldn’t “help” the young women she was hiring. Yet in her office, a male colleague was so familiar with Rose’s behaviour that he joked that one of the victims had been subjected to the “shower trick” after Rose exposed himself to her at his home. They are both carrying a great public shame now, but they should have been carrying it for a much longer time.

In Alabama, an entire town – the police, the security at the mall, people at high-school football games – was on alert, trying to ensure that Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore didn’t attack underage girls. In doing so, though, the entire town was ensuring he never felt shame. And, according to his accusers, the town wasn’t always successful.

Now Moore’s enabling has been extended to the White House in an act that will no doubt bounce off our shameless president and bring shame on our country. We deserve it. We should feel ashamed that an alleged serial child molester has the president’s confidence. At least we should if this Transfer is working.

In this Great Shame Transfer, some of us in society must now figure out if it’s more shameful to have affairs with several women as a conservative or to potentially engage in extortion. And some of us actually have to grapple with whether or not it’s more shameful to be a Democrat than to be accused of sexually harassing and assaulting underage girls many times. Gropers and screamers and coercers and manipulators. We have to spend time thinking about how terrible they are.

If this feels uncomfortable, it should. It is.

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