Recent revelations that Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein has allegedly been an aggressive sexual predator for decades have renewed the often-frustrating public debate about sexual assault, with skeptics asking how likely women are to be sexually assaulted, who is really affected, and how we should tackle the problem, if at all. Weinstein has, according to both an Oct. 5 report from the The New York Times and an Oct. 10 report from The New Yorker, used his power and influence to intimidate, coerce, harass and even assault dozens of women, and every day more women are coming forward with stories about Weinstein.
Despite the fact that there is little overlap between the women whom the Times and The New Yorker interviewed, and at last count at least 30 women have shared their stories about Weinstein, there are — as always when we discuss the epidemic of sexual assault — doubters.
"Why didn't they come forward earlier? Why stay silent?" you can see in tweet after tweet. Some even question whether or not the lesser-known actresses have fiscal motivations, while others blame higher-profile actresses, like Angelina Jolie, for not coming forward sooner and saving other victims.
And in response to the news that Weinstein, her friend, had been accused of sexual assault and even rape, fashion designer Donna Karan questioned the women: She said, "How do we display ourselves? How do we present ourselves as women? What are we asking? Are we asking for it by presenting all the sensuality and sexuality?"
The reaction to the Weinstein allegations is a snapshot of the way in which we treat — and doubt — the reality of sexual assault and its victims.
But the reality is that sexual assault is an epidemic, affecting 20 percent of women in the United States. It is a public health crisis of massive proportions.
The National Sexual Violence Resource Center, a nonprofit partially funded by the Centers for Disease Control that "collects and disseminates" all manner of information on sexual violence, reported in its 2015 factsheet on sexual violence that 1 in 5 women will be raped in their lifetimes, and 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted while in college. And while rape and sexual assault isn't exclusively a problem for women, a staggering 91 percent of the victims of rape and sexual assault are female, according to the NSVRC.
This is a number that repeats itself over and over again. Per The New York Times, a 2011 study called the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, funded in part by the Dept. of Defense, found nearly 1 in 5 women reported having been sexually assaulted.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also found that nearly 1 in 5 women report being raped at some point in their lifetime. Similarly, 19 percent — again, nearly 1 in 5 — of undergraduate women report attempted or completed sexual assault since entering college.
You'll see the same kinds of numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), an arm of the Dept. of Justice, and Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), an advocacy group. You'll also see a pattern: women ages 18 to 24 are the demographic most likely to experience sexual violence, most of the time at the hands of someone they know, according to BJS. That is the demographic reportedly targeted by Weinstein.
One of the criticisms survivors of sexual violence and their advocates hear is: but if this is such a large problem, why don't we see more arrests? More convinctions and prison time, even?
In the instance of Weinstein — similar to Bill Cosby and President Donald Trump — doubters say they don't believe that all of these women have been victimized over a long period of time yet are somehow just now coming forward. Some have to be lying, for financial or political gain, or, in the case of lower-profile cases, for the attention.
Well, just because reporting numbers are low doesn't mean that these statistics are off the mark.
According to the BJS Special Report on Rape and Sexual Assault Victimization Among College-Age Females, 1995–2013, 80 percent of students don't report their assaults, and 67 percent of non-students in the same age demographic also don't report.
Women listed their reasons for not reporting, which included "police would not or could not do anything about it;" "did not want to get offender in trouble with the law;" and "fear of reprisal."
The fear of reprisal is particularly important for understanding low reporting rates in general — and for understanding why the Weinstein story, which was reportedly decades in the making, is only now becoming public knowledge, with more women coming forward every day.
One of the most chilling aspects of both The New York Times and New Yorker pieces is how Weinstein allegedly used his power: if a woman resisted, he would coerce. If she continue to resist, he would threaten. He would allegedly threaten to ruin the careers of these often unknown actresses, who had no social capital and no means of fighting him if they did come forward. Speaking out meant crushing their dreams, possibly ruining their reputations.
On the other hand, survivors who do speak up are often silenced. Take Rose McGowan for instance. She was one of the women named in the New York Times piece and has since been vocal about her personal experience with Weinstein on Twitter.
When she called out Ben Affleck for allegedly lying in his statement — he said he was disgusted and deeply disturbed, and she said he knew Weinstein was a predator — her Twitter account was suspended. Twitter released a statement saying that it was due to a terms of service violation, but people have been tweeting all day about the ways in which Twitter allows violence to proliferate on their website while silencing a victim of sexual assault.
On a less visible scale, Allison Huguet, one of the survivors of sexual assault covered in Jon Krakauer's book on campus sexual assault Missoula, alleged that her long-time friend and University of Montana football player Beau Donaldson raped her.
After Huguet reported Donaldson and the story went public, she received death threats, jeers, and more. (Donaldson confessed on tape and later pled guilty to rape, but Huguet still continued to receive threats and nasty messages, including the common assertion that she was lying.)
Whether it's a hugely powerful movie executive or a hometown hero, the fact of the matter is that sexual predators exist in all facets of American culture, in every town, and women bear the brunt of the damage. And whether it takes survivors of sexual assault five minutes, or five hours, or five decades to come forward, we should believe them. The first time.