‘TIME’ Included Non-Celebrity Women In Its “Silence Breakers,” And It Helps Address A Major Problem In The #MeToo Movement
By now, you’ve likely already heard that TIME Magazine’s 2017 Person Of The Year is “The Silence Breakers” — the survivors who have stepped forward with their alleged experiences of sexual harassment, assault, abuse, and other forms of misconduct at this watershed moment and have begun what many are referring to as “a reckoning.” It is, perhaps, one of the most significant recent choices for Person Of The Year — and that significance is all the more powerful for the fact that the Silence Breakers identified by the magazine are not limited to the celebrities who have spoken out about their alleged experiences. Both the title and the deeply affecting feature that accompanies its unveiling encompass everyday survivors as well: Hospital workers. Hotel employees. Teachers and professors. Dishwashers. Office assistants.
Although much of the discussion about harassment in the workplace taking place on a large scale at this moment has centered around public figures — when you look at many of the investigations and firings and other consequences alleged perpetrators have finally been facing, they’re nearly all high-profile individuals known by the general public — elevating the stories and experiences of those who don’t necessarily operate in industries of high visibility is essential. We can’t just address the problems we can see the most clearly; that would just be slapping a band-aid on the wound. We need to dig deep, and we need to listen — and that, ultimately, is why TIME’s choice, and the people the magazine has made clear it encompasses, matters.
In some ways, it’s actually a bit upsetting that it’s only now, in this Weinstein effect climate, that survivors of alleged sexual misconduct are more often believed than they are not. This kind of abuse has been going on not just for years, not just for decades, but for pretty much all of human history. And yet, it’s only after all this time that survivors are being believed — and only after those in some of the most privileged positions in our society have come forward. “When multiple harassment claims bring down a charmer like former Today show host Matt Lauer, women who thought they had no recourse see a new, wide-open door,” reads TIME’s feature on the Silence Breakers. “When a movie star says #MeToo, it becomes easier to believe the cook who's been quietly enduring for years.” This is even the case with the #MeToo hashtag itself: Before Alyssa Milano’s tweet about it launched it into the stratosphere, it had existed for more than 10 years prior, created in 2006 by Tarana Burke (who is a key figure in TIME’s feature) — and yet it had never received the support it currently has until now.
It’s upsetting because the experiences survivors claimed happened were no less true before these high-profile takedowns occurred. It’s only after they’ve occurred, though, that we’re starting to take them at their word.
“When a movie star says #MeToo, it becomes easier to believe the cook who's been quietly enduring for years."
This is not to diminish the experiences of those survivors who are, due to a variety of factors, more privileged than many other harassment and abuse survivors. High paychecks, fame, a job to which our society pins the word “star” — regardless as to whether the survivors have had these things or not, their narratives are overwhelmingly the same: They claim they were harassed, assaulted, or abused, often by people in much more powerful positions than they themselves held; in the aftermath, they say they feared for their jobs, their livelihoods, their professional reputations, and their physical safety, in some cases because they claim they were, in fact, threatened; and as a result, they were unable to speak up.
As Stephanie Zacharek, Eliana Dockterman, and Haley Sweetland Edwards put it in their feature on the Silence Breakers, “In almost every case, they described not only the vulgarity of the harassment itself — years of lewd comments, forced kisses, opportunistic gropes — but also the emotional and psychological fallout from those advances. Almost everybody described wrestling with a palpable sense of shame. Had she somehow asked for it? Could she have deflected it? Was she making a big deal out of nothing?” This is what our culture teaches us: That if we are harassed, assaulted, or abused, it is our fault. It is the result of rape culture, of a culture of victim blaming, of a culture of using the phrases “boys will be boys” and “locker room talk” as excuses for unacceptable behavior.
And, for virtually all of the survivors, the alleged perpetrators faced no consequences at the times. Nothing changed. The pattern of behavior continued.
All of this, perhaps, is why the inclusion of survivors from a wide variety of industries and backgrounds in the title “The Silence Breakers” matters so very much. It’s been months since, as TIME’s feature on the Silence Breakers puts it, the proverbial dam broke; the New York Times’ initial report on Weinstein (who first put out a response statement reading, "I appreciate the way I have behaved with colleagues in the past has caused a lot of pain, and I sincerely apologize for it," and then said through a spokesperson that he “unequivocally denies allegations of non-consensual sex”), along with Ronan Farrow’s investigation for The New Yorker, were published on Oct. 5 and Oct. 10, respectively. But besides a few one-off pieces here and there — the Huffington Post’s pieces on what housekeepers in hotels and flight attendants on airplanes regularly endure on the job, for example — very little news coverage has drawn attention to the alleged experiences of those who work in jobs or industries that aren’t necessarily high-profile. The visibility of Person Of The Year is, for everyday survivors, long overdue.
We know that harassment occurs in all kinds of industries, happens to all kinds of people, and is perpetrated by all kinds of people. We've known about it for years. Consider the restaurant industry, for example: The 2014 report The Glass Floor: Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry found that two-thirds of women working in restaurants and more than 50 percent of men reported having experienced sexual harassment from management; that 80 percent of women and 60 percent of men reported having experienced it from co-workers; and that 80 percent of women and 55 percent of men reported having experienced it from customers. Women suffered from sexual harassment disproportionately. And in all states in which tipped restaurant workers earned a sub-minimum wage — around $2.13 an hour — the rates of reported harassment were higher.
None of this was a surprise to anyone who has ever worked in the restaurant industry. And still, not much — if anything — was done at the time of the report’s release. It’s notable that it wasn’t until after the publication of the New York Times’ Weinstein report that allegations against celebrity chef John Besh resulted in Besh stepping down from his position as chief executive of the Besh Restaurant Group. (Besh has apologized for his “unacceptable behavior” and “moral failings.”)
“When movie stars don't know where to go, what hope is there for the rest of us?"
Or consider those HuffPost pieces about housekeepers and flight attendants: The alleged accounts in both pieces include those from current and former workers in those industries. They range from alleged reports of lewd comments to unwanted groping to men taking out their penises and masturbating at people as they attempted to do their jobs. The stories are from both then and now. It is not a recent trend — and, as is the case with the restaurant industry, it’s not a surprise to anyone who has ever worked in a hotel or on a commercial aircraft. And yet, these types of alleged experiences have largely not been included in the discussion of sexual harassment in the workplace the Weinstein report brought into the national spotlight.
Indeed, the talk has centered primarily around those in high profile, public facing industries and positions: Entertainment. Politics. But according to recent research conducted by Jocelyn Frye of the Center for American Progress analyzing EEOC data from the years 2005 to 2015, workers in service-oriented industries face the highest rates of harassment and other predatory behaviors — and that harassment occurs in just about every industry you can think of.
This is why TIME’s decision to feature hospital workers and strawberry pickers and housekeepers and dishwashers and office assistants alongside movie stars and pop singers and politicians matters. It widens the platform, and it works toward creating the larger paradigm shift we so badly need — and which, hopefully, we are already in. What’s important is this: Now that this platform is here — now that those who have suffered from and survived alleged harassment, assault, abuse, and misconduct at work, no matter what kind of work they do or what their workplace is, have begun to have their stories and experiences elevated — now that we are finally listening — we have to keep listening. We need to listen to survivors from all walks of life. We need to ensure that perpetrators face consequences whether they’re high-profile or not.
Right at the beginning, TIME's feature on the Silence Breakers asks us the following questions:
“When movie stars don't know where to go, what hope is there for the rest of us? What hope is there for the janitor who's being harassed by a co-worker but remains silent out of fear she'll lose the job she needs to support her children? For the administrative assistant who repeatedly fends off a superior who won't take no for an answer? For the hotel housekeeper who never knows, as she goes about replacing towels and cleaning toilets, if a guest is going to corner her in a room she can't escape?”
But perhaps there is hope now — and that hope depends on our continued commitment to listening not just to survivors with certain privileges, but to survivors without them. It is no small thing to break one’s silence when so much is at stake — and it's on us to honor those who do.