“We can no longer remain comfortable — change will truly begin when we become uncomfortable.”
— Donna Hylton, A Little Piece of Light
I am a man. Therefore, I can never truly understand the experience of a woman who’s been abused, whether the abuse is mental, emotional, physical or sexual.
Sexual abuse and harassment has become a topic of widespread discussion. Thankfully, many women have found a voice for their trauma. More than that, they have found people willing to listen, to hear, to finally believe their truth.
The statistics are staggering, and can even seem implausible. I gained a deeper understanding of the culture of abuse that has been cultivated in this country by reading Donna Hylton’s book, A Little Piece of Light. It elicited from me feelings of shame, remorse, compassion, hope and inspiration.
This is a woman (a distant relative of mine, I’m told) who overcame unthinkable sexual violence to become the powerful, loving force for change that she is today. She sheds new light on how common sexual violence is, and how damaging it is to the psyche. Donna also gives guidance for how we can become part of the solution. Sadly, America’s jails and prisons are full of women who were trying to escape from their abusers. Maine is no exception.
I began learning about the misogynistic culture that underpins our society from a wonderful professor, Dr. Ellen Taylor, who taught Women and Gender Studies during my undergraduate years with the University of Maine at Augusta.
I was open to learning, but resistant to accepting the new truths I was being taught. Because to accept these lessons would be to admit I had been part of the problem that continues to plague the women I love. I was not ready. But through the words of my distant relative I finally realized I could not avoid this. If we can ever hope for societal healing in this area, the collective accountability needs to start personally.
Though I have not physically accosted any women or girls in a sexual manner, I am guilty of cat-calling, making lewd comments, objectifying women in private conversation with other men, and laughing at derogatory jokes aimed at women. The list of “boys will be boys” behavior I’ve engaged in is extensive.
All the “innocent fun” men have at the expense of women needs to stop. There is nothing innocent about it, as these actions contribute to the degradation of the same women we say we love: our mothers, daughters, sisters, wives and partners.
People tend to grow into the identity they’re given in their early years. Rather than seeing myself as intelligent, handsome, respectful and generous, I saw in the mirror an ugly, worthless half-breed who would only amount to something if the white man let me. People who remember me from my youth may doubt this, because most of them didn’t really know me. They saw what I wanted them to see: a happy young man with an easy smile and a kind word always at the ready.
That perception of me is why so many people were stunned when my face was plastered all over the newspapers and TV screens as a violent monster. No one knew the depth of dysfunction that ensnared my inner being.
It actually took five years, and the knowing words of my mother, for me to begin understanding how I could transform from the gentle person I knew myself to be into the seek-and-destroy animal I became on the night of my crime. It doesn’t matter whether they are 8 or 80, man, woman, crippled or in a wheelchair; if anyone is a threat to your family, you take them down — kill them if necessary. This was the spirit of my father’s abusive training, buried in my subconscious.
What identities are we giving the girls in our communities?
I asked a young woman whom I respect and admire for advice on how to deal with society’s sexual violence problem. As a survivor and agent of social change, she replied, “Sexual violence is not something that men must look upon with sympathy, as if it were only a woman’s burden. It’s also a men’s issue and it starts with accountability.
“Call out your friends, your fathers, your brothers, the stranger in public making a rape joke or harassing another human being,” she continued. “Sexual violence lives on the back of a joke; when harassment and rape can be made funny, it can be made normal. It relies on people who don’t take it seriously enough, so that when it happens it is not taken seriously at all. Creating a culture of accountability is vital to ending sexual violence and harassment.”
We would all do well to practice this advice. Together, we can create a more welcoming tomorrow for the children of today.