Breaking the Culture of Silence

Miss Representation Director Jennifer Siebel Newsom and Executive Producer Regina Kulik Scully examine the media’s response to Penn State and Herman Cain, and what it says about our culture…

Last Wednesday night, as we were trying to figure out who won the San Francisco mayoral race and get other updates on the news, all we could find on TV were people discussing Kim Kardashian’s divorce or Mariah Carey’s weight loss. Meanwhile, a few brief mentions about the heinous sexual abuse crimes committed by Assistant Football coach Jerry Sandusky at Penn State floated across the screen. It was as if that was just another fleeting piece of news between the “real” infotainment stories from Hollywood. It wasn’t until the sexual abuse actually threatened the school’s storied football team that it became national news. These tell tale signs in our media help breed and foster the insidious ‘culture of silence’ that we have in America today. A culture that enables the ‘predators’ to go unimpeded knowing no one will call them out, let alone punish them, while the victims who do come forward often get blamed, vilified and victimized over and over again.

We are watching this ‘culture of silence’ played out right now, not only at Penn State but also in our nation’s capitol. Last Thursday Herman Cain’s lawyer threatened the presidential candidate’s would-be-accusers (he already has at least four) to “think twice” before coming forward in the future. Meanwhile the media, led by folks like radio personality Rush Limbaugh, are going into overdrive attempting to discredit and demean the women who have already spoken up about Cain’s past, accusing them of being liars and worse. David Greenberg of The Atlantic puts the blame on “journalistic scandal mongering” suggesting we should “reach a level of civic tolerance great enough to greet hyped-up stories about politicians’ sex lives with a collective yawn.” Really? Is that what we need – a country that turns it’s back on sexual harassment (and even assault) allegations as simply private matters? Leslie Bennetts of The Daily Beast said it best, “Sexual harassment…is about power…and anyone who thinks that the chronic abuse of power over women is ‘insignificant’, is by definition, unfit for office.”

When media personalities ignore, trivialize or denounce these important stories, we as a society learn to keep our mouths shut. In doing so, we are aiding and abetting all kinds of abusive behaviors and bolstering the arrogance and audacity of predators and sexists. And, by not discussing these topics ourselves and bringing them to the forefront of national attention, we are also accepting the status quo. We are in essence saying that rape and violence towards our most vulnerable citizens is not a big deal.

The Penn State story really only became of widespread interest to the news media when Coach Paterno was asked to leave Wednesday evening. Prior to that it was a minor blip on the radar. What we heard next online and in the news were reports of the outpouring anger and sorrow of students at Penn State over the University’s decision to distance themselves from a man who himself seemed to stand-by while this ‘culture of silence’ festered in his own organization.

But the greater sadness here is that Paterno’s fans, who are clearly focused on his football legacy and impact on athletics at the school, were inadvertently perpetuating the problem by reacting this way. Imagine what it must have been like for one of Coach Sandusky’s victims last week, looking at images of angry young people protecting and glorifying Coach Paterno on TV, reacting as if some great injustice had been done to them. Or what of all the 10 year-olds out there who have yet to speak up about their experiences with abuse – are they more or less likely to do so now, knowing that people reacted this way? Luckily many at Penn State have since redacted their anger and even held an inspiring vigil, though much of the impact on the victims may have already been felt.

We know firsthand what it is like when you call out the perpetrator of an abuse and your teammates distance themselves from you and refuse to see him for who he really is. He gets off on lesser charges and goes on to the next school whereupon he commits the same crimes, harms more student athletes, and the cycle repeats itself. When we allow for the truth, instead of hiding behind the veil of athletic glory, the ruined legacy of a trophy, we can prevent others from being violated.

We also know firsthand what is it like when your brother is the victim of a predator posing as a friend. We know the long-term effects, have watched as he retreats into a world of silence and spirals into decades of alcohol and substance abuse, suicide attempts, and emotional tumult. We have watched as years of his effort and courage finally result in breaking the silence and telling his story – and finally finding some peace (check out the inspiring story in the documentary Boyhood Shadows). And we are not alone. Most of us are close to someone with similar stories.

The troubling thing is, neither our political leadership, our justice system, nor the media – the most powerful force of communication in our society – have taken this opportunity to pursue a real conversation around the crimes committed. Some news outlets such as CNN have demonstrated leadership in this realm, but it’s not enough. Who is really going to tackle this problem of sexual harassment and abuse in our society? Who is really going to call out the abuse of power by so many in leadership and authority? Who is going to hold every lawmaker, corporation, media outlet and educational institution accountable to address this issue so it NEVER happens again? We disagree profusely with Michelle Bachmann who stated the other night that our political leaders don’t have a role nor responsibility in rectifying this injustice of sexual harassment in our culture- that there are too many other important bills for Congress to champion. And those bills would be?? We should be embarrassed in our country that we allow and enable sexual harassment to continue the way it does, knowing how it harms our women and girls from aspiring to great things, great things that could transform our country for the better.

Limbaugh demeans women
Limbaugh on Cain’s succession of accusers “When one woman has to go to the bathroom. Bam, they all get up and go”

And, how have we allowed media personalities like Mr. Limbaugh to get away with such debasing and smearing comments towards women? Rush, if you are out there, how do you live with yourself? And, why are any of us continuing to support a media outlet that speaks about women this way? Did we not all come from women? Is there not a woman in each of our lives who we care about? Who we respect? To destroy women like this is criminal. And, for what gain?

We pray Mr. Limbaugh that you are not aware of the message you are sending to every victim of sexual harassment and abuse in our culture, that you don’t realize that you are telling each and every one of them to shut up and take the abuse. Yet while many men and women are oblivious to their own internal sexism and the impact of their words and actions, we can’t help but feel that your words and actions are extremely intentional. They are both misogynistic and misanthropic and they have no place in our culture. And, we feel the need to make that known.

Let us be very clear. This is not about partisanship – neither of us are of a political party. And we feel that our most partisan citizens need to stop hiding behind the veil of partisanship and start standing up for justice and what is right for our nation- especially our women and youth.

Thank you to Peggy Noonan for getting it. We applaud your courage to knock back at the insular GOP defense of Herman Cain, “…But what everyone else is seeing—what those who do not live in Republo-world are seeing—is a guy who, faced with the charges, nervously dodged, deflected and denied. What they are seeing is four women, not one or two. What they are seeing is something that may amount to a pattern. What the charges deserve is consideration, attention, deep reporting. What they don’t merit is raucous boos, and an insular spirit of ‘You’re either with us or against us.'”

Again, unless our media, our government and our citizens speak out and highlight the wrong doings in our culture, we all suffer as an inextricably linked society. Everything is connected – from gender and racial slurs to violence and self-abuse. All are quietly ‘sanctioned’ by not being called out, or properly condemned. By not acting, we are cultivating and strengthening the greatest weapon against us: our culture of silence. And the cycle continues leading to a cyclical effect of violence and abuses, drug and alcohol addictions, an ever growing penal system and the downward spiral of poverty and crime plaguing our nation.

If our nation’s leaders – whether politicians, business leaders, media executives, military officers, educators, religious groups – you name it – are too afraid to openly discuss sexual harassment and abuse in their domain, then it’s high time we start dictating the direction – and volume – of the conversation.

Join us at where we are challenging the media companies, our government, our justice system, and our culture at large to take accountability for a culture that demeans, disregards, and disrespects women and our most vulnerable citizens, our youth. Help us to break the culture of silence and speak out against the injustices in our country. Our nation needs healing and it needs it fast.

To quote Alice Walker “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” For all of you who have suffered an injustice related to sexual harassment or abuse, now is your time to speak up and out. You are not alone. We are all here for you. Break the silence and let our unified voices be heard.

By Jennifer Siebel Newsom and Regina Kulik Scully,

You can learn more about Regina Kulik Scully’s brother’s inspiring story in the documentary Boyhood Shadows.