The social media campaign #MeToo has been an extraordinary space where victims of sex harassment and assault have found their voices. These victims are inspiring and you just want to believe that something good must come out of all of the pain that they have had to endure so long in silence. While the disclosures are amazing, they aren’t enough to ensure a Harvey Weinstein never happens again.
When Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney tweeted at #MeToo about her abuse by a gymnastic team doctor in response to the Weinstein scandal, people took note. McKayla rightly expanded the discussion from adult sex assault to child sex abuse, as attorney Paul Mones discussed here.
Like the elite athlete she is, she did not stop with a simple disclosure but also laid out a game plan for what needs to happen to make the world safer from predatory men with power, like Dr. Larry Nasser, who pled to child pornography but is alleged to have sexually abused her and hundreds of other top gymnasts. Here is her to-do list of what is needed:
One: Speaking out, and bringing awareness to the abuse that is happening.
Two: People, Institutions, Organizations, especially those in positions of power, etc., need to be held accountable for their inappropriate actions and behavior.
Three: Educate, and prevent, no matter the cost.
Four: Have zero tolerance for abusers and those who protect them.
And she further wrote:
Is it possible to put an end to this type of abuse? Is it possible for survivors to speak out, without putting careers and dreams in jeopardy? I hope so.
Our silence has given the wrong people power for too long, and it’s time to take our power back.
And remember, it’s never too late to speak up.
Her action points are right on. Yes, what she dreams of is possible. But to achieve her second point of accountability is a very heavy lift. Frankly, it is impossible to hold powerful people, institutions, and organizations accountable without massive legal change. The culture that permitted Weinstein, Bill Cosby, priests Paul Shanley and John Geoghan, and Nasser free rein will not end even if every single victim of sex abuse, harassment, and assault comes forward, and even if we succeed in educating every citizen in the United States. Disclosure and education are necessary but not sufficient. It’s not just that these predators used their positions of power to inflict life-changing pain on their victims. Rather, the legal and social cultures have been structured to shield the wrongdoers and keep the vulnerable weak. They have been publicly shamed, but the power construct they exploited remains precisely the same.
Indeed, society has signaled to these men in power that it is ok to take the spoils of war—the women and children—as part of their deserts for battles hard-won in moviedom, the board room, and sports.
There is, however, another power structure that has been bucking up these powerful men who have wreaked havoc on so many lives: our state and federal governments.
The Power Structure That Must Act to Turn the Titanic of Sex Assault and Abuse: The Government
The surprisingly hard part here is getting others in power—including every branch of government from the executive to the legislative to the judicial—to foment meaningful, lasting change against these bullies and predators. Yet, there will be no alteration in course without a legal overhaul. We need lawmaker leaders to step forward now.
Moreover, we need major corporations, professional sports teams, religious organizations, and school and sports organizations to decline to lobby against such laws. I know how difficult it is to release that power and how easy it is to listen to your lawyers tell you to block all possible accountability. That’s what lawyers do. But when organizations aren’t accountable on these issues, they rot from the inside out. Sometimes lawyers are right about the law and wrong about the proper path.
Our elected officials have to stop the wink and a nod to Hollywood, the bishops, the powerful boarding schools, pro sports, the United States Olympic Committee, and their own, like Dennis Hastert. They have to quit caring about whether they are on the “A” lists and instead choose the path of reaching down to help those who have fallen. They need to become protectors of the weak rather than enablers of the powerful. I mean, that is, if they want the sex assault, abuse, and harassment to end.
Some lawmakers have bravely stepped forward, but not nearly enough.
The Legal Change Necessary to Stop the Onslaught of Sex Abuse, Assault, and Harassment
Here is a short list of laws that need to change in the vast majority of states (the federal government can also play a key role by incentivizing the states to pass these reforms):
Plug the gaps in mandated reporting. Right now many states do not require coaches, private school teachers, or university employees to report suspected abuse despite the irrefutable fact that children have been sexually abused in all three arenas.
Eliminate the statutes of limitations for all rape victims, young and old. This needs to happen for instances occurring right now and going forward and for those that are in the past. You want to know who your predators are? Revive the expired civil SOLs for rape in every state.
Test the rape kits sitting right now in police stations and forensic labs across the United States. This is Mariska Hargitay’s mission with the Joyful Heart Foundation, which she founded. How ridiculous is it that we have all of this evidence of rape and we just let it sit? Well, refer back to the discussion of power above.
Fix the defamation laws so no predator can follow Cosby’s lead and use the threat of a lawsuit to try to silence the victims, as I discuss here.
Enact whistleblower legislation that immunizes sex abuse, harassment, and assault whistleblowers from adverse employment actions and from defamation lawsuits.
Create liability for organizations that shield and hide the actions of sex predators of every stripe.
Mandate insurance coverage for companies that will cover sex harassment, abuse, and assault by employees and volunteers. This way the insurance industry transforms itself from being a bystander and enabler to an active participant in changing institutional policies. People wear seatbelts because the insurance lobby made it happen. It could do a helluva job with this problem if it wanted to.
Lasting change is difficult. Nothing is more difficult, though, than shifting power from one group that has had so much force that it could squander and abuse it. There will be every excuse in the world not to undertake any and all of these necessary reforms. That’s how power operates. Only good leaders with steely resolve will level the playing field.
To every state and federal lawmaker: You can privately excoriate these criminals or you can remake American society into a place where we protect the vulnerable and punish those who abuse their power to sexually intimidate children and adults alike. After heroic disclosures like McKayla’s and so many others, it’s now on you.