Reconsidering our reactions to cases of sexual assault and harassment


Alice Li

Ever since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke out, an increasing number of women have stepped forward to share their experiences as victims of sexual misconduct. The list of men now facing claims of harassment and assault seems to get longer every week. Ben Affleck. Charlie Rose. Dustin Hoffman. It’s no wonder Trevor Noah joked, “‘It’s getting to the point whenever I see a beloved celebrity’s name trending on Twitter I’m like, ‘Oh, please tell me they’re dead.’”

For me, the most salient name on the list thus far is Louis C.K. Prior to hearing about the scandal surrounding him, I would have told you, without hesitation, that he was my favorite comedian. Although allegations of sexual harassment sometimes go back and forth, the case is pretty much closed with Louis C.K.; in response to the women who accused him, he released a statement admitting that “these stories are true.” He even acknowledges that he had wrongly exploited the power he wielded as a celebrity who was influential, successful and well-known.

When I first learned about the scandal, I was horrified. I was sad for the victims. Yet I also found myself doing all sorts of mental gymnastics in a futile attempt to make excuses for Louis C.K.’s behavior. At least it wasn’t rape. At least he admitted the accusations were valid. At least he seemed remorseful about his actions.

But, the truth is, nothing could ever justify Louis C.K.’s treatment of the women who stepped forward. And nothing could erase the shame and psychological trauma inflicted upon the women involved.

Moreover, the Louis C.K. scandal is only one of many that have surfaced in recent months. As women continue to share their stories, the pervasiveness of sexual misconduct becomes increasingly clear. These cases aren’t singularities, nor are they exclusive to the world of celebrities. Many cases of sexual harassment and sexual assault will never surface in our Facebook news feeds or receive national media coverage. And the most concerning cases are those in which those affected have no choice but to remain silent.

So what can we do to address this issue? At Vanderbilt, sexual assault is a topic that has already reached our collective consciousness. And, as Vanderbilt students, we are all receiving an education that is positioning us to take on an influential role in our present and future communities.

we neglect what should be the main object of our attention: the societal forces behind every case of sexual misconduct.

If we want to, we can use that role to viciously condemn those who are accused of sexual misconduct, including Louis C.K. and many others. Alternatively, we can try to forget about what happened and treat each instance as a one-time mistake that someone made, and nothing more. We can try to make excuses on this person’s behalf – an option that is especially tempting if the perpetrator is someone we know.

However, neither of these possibilities brings us any closer to reducing the incidence of sexual harassment and assault. Regardless of whether we focus our efforts on attacking or vindicating the perpetrator, we neglect what should be the main object of our attention: the societal forces behind every case of sexual misconduct. We forget the power differential that often forces victims to remain silent. We forget how sexual misconduct dehumanizes victims and can jeopardize the advancement of their careers. And we forget the importance of ensuring that victims have access to resources for recovery and support.

Ultimately, we need to seek justice in each case of misconduct as it arises, but we also need to think about each case in the big picture: what enabled the perpetrators to commit these crimes, how we can help the victims and how we can prevent these cases from recurring in the future.

Alice Li is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]