By Phoebe Suy | Staff Writer
Panel members spoke about how Baylor can reform the stigma and the mentality surrounding sexual and interpersonal violence at Monday’s THIS Matters forum, which focused on the #MeToo campaign that recently swept social media.
“You don’t have to be a liberal feminist to care about this issue. You don’t have to be a liberal and you don’t even have to be a feminist,” Sarah Ritter, full-time lecturer and Master of Social Work program director said. “I think there’s something really special about incorporating people who have really different beliefs and different backgrounds and maybe being okay with the fact that you might really disagree with [someone] … but find[ing] common ground [with them].”
THIS Matters exists to “address immediate, unanticipated or unprecedented issues that occur locally and globally, directly and indirectly affecting [Baylor’s] campus community,” its website states. The forums offer an opportunity “to promote dialogue and critical thinking” on controversial issues. Past forums include “Patriotism, Protests & Pro-Athletes” and “After Charlottesville.”
Monday’s panelists included: Dr. Lenore Wright, associate professor and director of the Academy for Teaching and Learning; Sarah Ritter, full-time lecturer and Master of Social Work program director; Dr. Mito Diaz-Espinoza, program manager for First in Line; Charlotte Weston, New Braunfels senior and Public Deliberation Initiative student council member; Caroline Grace, Fort Worth senior and president of It’s On Us Student Advisory Council; Elizabeth Witliff, Baylor advisory board member; Dr. David Pooler, associate professor and associate dean of academic affairs in the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work.
The #MeToo forum was held in the Barfield Drawing Room, one of the larger and most central venues on campus. According to some of the panelists, the event’s relatively low turnout from the Baylor community, particularly Baylor men, likely stemmed from some of the taboos concerning discussions related to Title IX and sexual assault/harassment.
Wright said she believes it is likely the #MeToo campaign gained momentum after increased consequences for sexual harassment or assault allegations began to arise. For example, Wright said the firing of Harvey Weinstein and the “literal erasing” of Kevin Spacey from his most recent movie possibly gave survivors “hope and courage to speak out.”
“For a variety of reasons … there haven’t always been those consequences or accountability,” Wright said.
Furthermore, Wright also said she believes social media helped to foster a sense of solidarity among survivors who chose to participate in the #MeToo campaign.
Ritter said she believes past movements used to place a lot of misplaced pressure on sexual assault survivors to be the ones brave enough to come forward with their stories. The mentality used to be that it was the survivor’s responsibility to say something and if they didn’t, it was perceived to be their fault, according to Ritter.
“I think now there’s a lot of pressure in movements on the institutions to create a safe environment and more policies and procedures that encourage that kind of more honest conversation and safe space for people to come forward if there’s an issue,” Ritter said.
For example, Ritter said when Uber recently faced sexual harassment issues, they fired individuals and put policies in place that were more conducive to reporting assault.
“It’s our responsibility as institutions now to make sure survivors can come forward and have their voice heard,” Ritter said. “It’s not the fault of the survivor anymore and I think that’s a shift in culture and that’s what you’re seeing in Hollywood and other places.”
Grace said she appreciates that movements like the #MeToo campaign shift the focus from passive advocacy conversations to active discussions focused on criminalization and putting pressure on perpetrators.
However, at the same time, Grace acknowledged that she believes this survivor-sponsored movement also puts pressure on the oppressed to bring about their own justice. In doing so, she said the campaign neglects the forces empowering abuse and shifts the responsibility to victims to be their own saviors.
“While #MeToo and other survivor stories are meaningful pillars of this movement…we need to get creative–stories and statistics are not cutting it,” Grace said. “I think this has to go into stakeholders and power-holders here in our country, in our universities, in our societies.”
Faith-based institutions in particular, including churches and religious universities, have a role to play when it comes to issues of sexual harassment and assault, according to Pooler.
“I think religion needs major transformation. I don’t know how else to say it,” Pooler said. “I’m deeply troubled that most religion around the globe oppresses rather than liberates. If we don’t have some kind of renewal and transformation of religion, we’re doomed.”
Pooler said he has studied and built upon Diana Garland’s research to examine “how church leaders use their position and power and influence to exploit and harass and assault people in their congregations.”
“What’s even more of a problem is that congregations are so complicit in that and unable to understand power, easily victim blame and use religion as a way to simply dismiss something horrific by just saying it was a ‘moral slip’ and ‘we need to forgive,’” Pooler said. “That is so far from reality. We’ve got a long, long way to go.”
Pooler said he hopes his research and particularly his voice as a man speaking primarily to male perpetrators might make a difference.
“One of the things to really push change is to change the culture of men. It’s said that it’s better to raise healthy boys than to fix broken men,” Diaz-Espinoza said.
Diaz-Espinoza said he believes it’s a great thing that powerful men like Weinstein are being held accountable for their actions. However, Diaz-Espinoza said this doesn’t change things for substitute teachers or restaurant managers, for example, who don’t have as large a reputation to lose. If caught, he said perpetrators in these positions can easily move to the next town.
“[Men] should start understanding that the actual physical and emotional violence that they’re perpetrating against others is what [they] need to face,” Diaz-Espinoza said. “It’s not necessarily what you risk of losing, it’s what you risk of doing to somebody else. Make that the conversation.”
The conversation on sexual violence is not exclusively for men or for women. Weston said she believes ideological changes need to take place in the overall culture and conversation.
For example, Weston mentioned sexual education in middle schools and high schools. Rather than preaching abstinence as the only option or being completely sexually liberated, Weston said she believes schools should present facts, not ideologies. For example, facts about what is and what is not consent, what is and what is not harassment.
Furthermore, Weston said she believes a shift from an individual to a community focus could play a pivotal role in changing culture and ideology.
“I think that more of a shift toward community and the impact our actions have on the people around us, rather than solely on ourselves, can really lead to profound changes in the current culture that we have,” Weston said.
Changing the culture is not only the task of administrators and politicians. Witliff said she believes there are small, meaningful ways to seek change through conversations and daily interactions with children, personal families and friendships.
Ritter said she believes each person is individually responsible to bring the interpersonal violence conversation into their own spheres of influence. Ritter said people should start by examining their communities and friendships and beginning there. She said it could be something as small as not laughing at a sexist comment or not letting someone get by with saying something violent in nature.
“It is a male issue. It is a female issue. It is a human issue. I think if we start there and remember that and remind ourselves to continue to practice this in our daily lives. I believe change can happen,” Ritter said. “You don’t have to be a rapist for it to be your issue, you don’t have to be a victim or it to be your issue.”