CEDAR RAPIDS — In a society where sexual abuse and sexual harassment still are prevalent, we each have a lot of work to do, said speakers at the “Iowa After #MeToo” panel discussion during The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas conference Friday.
Katryn Duarte, assistant director of sexual assault services at Iowa City-based Rape Victim Advocacy Program, and attorney Jill Zwagerman, who specializes in sexual harassment and gender discrimination cases, told audience members that movements like #MeToo — which has led to many high-profile men being ousted from power after allegations of harassment or assault — are positive but aren’t enough.
Zwagerman, who represented Jane Meyer and Tracey Griesbaum in a gender discrimination lawsuit against the University of Iowa Athletics Department that resulted in a $6.5 million settlement in favor of the two women, pointed to the current controversy surrounding Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, whom California professor Christine Blasey Ford has accused of sexually assaulting her when they were both in high school. Zwagerman likened the current events to accusations of sexual harassment by Anita Hill against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
“I don’t think we’re going to see real change. That’s a really pessimistic view, but we went through this situation already once in the ‘90s,” Zwagerman said. “We have to retrain all of our brains and start training our children to think differently about the roles of men and women. Once we do that, we will see real change.”
“If we focus on single events, we do not see the system, and the system is not going to change,” she said. “If we want to change, we have to interrupt the system. The way we interrupt the system is starting with ourselves. ... If we all start doing the internal work, eventually, society will change. But if we don’t do that work, it will be history repeating itself.”
She said sexual abuse and harassment are about power, rather than sex.
“Sexual violence is power and control, using a tool to take somebody’s humanity,” she said.
Fighting that, she said, means fighting the idea that some people are inherently “less than” others. That extends to violence and discrimination based on categories including race, age, ability, sexual orientation, gender identity and immigration status.
“I see sexual violence as part of a social justice movement. It’s a tree on a branch. It’s part of a larger system,” she said. “It’s not just men, it’s when someone is in a position of power, and they want to take from someone else.”
Both panelists reminded the audience why many victims do not report their abuse.
“When we are brought up in society, we are told sex is private. We cannot discuss it. ... One of the things we internalize is, if sex is used to harm us, how are we going to talk about it?” Duarte said. “And depending on the relationship with the person causing harm, is it safe to come forward?”
Many victims believe they are to blame for what happened to them, Duarte said. Sometimes, that is a way to subconsciously take back the control that was taken from them.
“It’s a coping mechanism — if it was my fault, I can do something about it,” she said.
Others are gaslighted, manipulated by their abusers into feeling they are “crazy” or overreacting. Victim-shaming also plays a role. Zwagerman spoke about the recent murder of Iowa State golfer Celia Barquin Arozamena.
“One of the first things people said was, ‘Why was she golfing by herself?’” Zwagerman said.
Society puts the onus on women to “make sure they’re safe,” but “We don’t make men have psychological exams to make sure they’re safe to be in society,” she added.
Duarte said, no matter what gender people identify with, they have a role in changing those mindsets.
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“This is a societal problem. We need every member of society to address it,” she said. “It is not about us versus them, it’s about how can we come to solutions together.”
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