Ram Leela poster
The recent exposure of widespread sexual predation in the American media industry, from Harvey Weinstein to Bill O’Reilly, has elicited shock and sparked debate on violence against women in the United States.
Sexual harassment isn’t the exclusive domain of show biz big shots. It remains alarmingly prevalent nationwide, even as other crimes are generally decreasing nationwide.
In the U.S., a 2006 study found that 27 percent of college women reported some form of forced sexual contact – ranging from kissing to anal intercourse – after enrolling in school. This sexual violence is heavily underreported, with just 20 percent of female student victims reporting the crime to law enforcement.
Nor is sexual harassment limited to the United States. The U.N. has called gender-based violence a “global pandemic.” As experts in emergency medicine and legal research at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, we believe it’s important to acknowledge that this issue transcends national borders and class boundaries to touch the lives of roughly 33 percent of all women worldwide.
A world of trouble
According to World Health Organization estimates, one in three women worldwide will experience either physical or sexual violence in her lifetime, many of them before the age of 15.
In fact, for many rural women, their first sexual encounter will be a forced one. Some 17 percent of women in rural Tanzania, 21 percent in Ghana, 24 percent in Peru, 30 percent in Bangladesh and 40 percent in South Africa report that their first sexual experience was nonconsensual.
Intimate partner violence is also pervasive globally. In one World Health Organization study, 22 to 25 percent of women surveyed in cities in England, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru and Zimbabwe reported that a boyfriend or husband had committed some form of sexual violence against them. Globally, up to 55 percent of women murdered are killed by their partners.
Violence against women takes many forms, ranging from psychological abuse to the kind of sexual predation, sexual assault and rape allegedly committed by Harvey Weinstein. Honor killings, physical attacks, female infanticide, genital cutting, trafficking, forced marriages and sexual harassment at work and school are also considered gender-based violence.
Rates range from country to country – from 15 percent in Japan to 71 percent in Ethiopia – but violence is, in effect, a ubiquitous female experience.
Sexual violence is committed at particularly high rates in crisis settings like war zones, refugee camps and disaster zones.
In these places, even humanitarian workers are not immune. Dyan Mazurana and her colleagues at Tufts University found that many female development-aid staffers in places such as South Sudan, Afghanistan and Haiti had experienced disturbing rates of sexual assault, often perpetrated by their own colleagues.
Explaining sexual violence
For example, sexual violence occurs more frequently in cultures where violence is widely accepted and where beliefs about family honor, sexual purity and male sexual entitlement are strongly held.
Even in many countries that rank well on gender equality, including in the United States, weak legal sanctions against perpetrators of sexual violence can encourage and effectively condone such behavior.
So can cultural acceptance. Weinstein’s sexual predatory behavior was longstanding and well-known within the film industry, yet he was allowed to continue his abuse with impunity – until women began speaking up.
Likewise, Fox News renewed Bill O’Reilly’s contract even after he and the company had made at least six multi-million-dollar settlements with women who filed sexual harassment claims against him. Awareness of a problem is one thing; taking action is quite another.
Men with lower educational levels, or who have been exposed to maltreatment or family violence as children, are more likely to commit sexual violence themselves.
That’s because violence begets violence, a relationship that’s abundantly clear in the kinds of conflict zones where we work. Mass rape has long been used as a weapon of war, and has been well-documented during conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Colombia and South Sudan.
Among the most salient cases are the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides. According to the U.N.‘s High Commissioner for Refugees, up to 500,000 Rwandan women were systematically raped in 1994 as part of an ethnic cleansing strategy, while tens of thousands of Bosnian women and girls were systematically raped between 1992 and 1995.
Wherever and however it happens, violence against women and girls poses a major public health problem for women and their communities.
Some 42 percent of women who experience intimate partner violence reported an injury
– including bruises, abrasions, cuts, punctures, broken bones and injuries to the ears and eyes – as a consequence of that abuse. Women who suffer violence are also 1.5 times more likely to have sexually transmitted diseases like HIV, syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhea, twice as likely to experience depression and drinking problems and twice as likely to have an abortion.
Violence against women is also closely associated with suicide and self-harm.
If there’s any silver lining to the Weinstein and O’Reilly scandals, it’s that in coming out against these high-profile men, dozens of women have helped to highlight not just the prevalence of sexual violence in the United States but also the societal norms that silence women and allow abusers to go unchecked.
Humanitarian organizations from the World Health Organization to the U.N. to the U.S. Agency for International Development have recognized that gender-based violence is not just a women’s issue. Addressing it requires working with men and boys, too, to counter the cultures of toxic masculinity that encourage or tolerate sexual violence.
After all, women’s rights are human rights, so sexual violence is everyone’s problem to solve.
The fact is, societies with high rates of sexual violence are also more likely to be violent and unstable. Research shows that the best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is how well its women are treated.
Valerie Dobiesz, Emergency Physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Director of External Programs STRATUS Center for Medical Simulation, Core Faculty Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, Harvard University and Julia Brooks, Researcher in international law and humanitarian response, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), Harvard University
I’ve belabored the idea of writing this post because, honestly, I’ve been trying to figure out for myself exactly where I fall on the issue of Nate Parker. To be more specific, I’d been waiting to see if he’d ever issue a fuller apology after the various non-apologies he gave after the news of his 1999 rape case blew up in the media (a part of his past he’s apparently always kept in the limelight, although, if you ask many Twitter denizens including myself, we didn’t know about it). Thankfully(?) he did. But the question mark I write here is for a reason: does the apology actually help matters, or does it just make us more jaded about him? Also, does the apology help the case for whether or not we individually decide to see what has been called the most important film of 2016, his passion project The Birth of a Nation?
Parker has been on radio silence for a while since his Facebook admission a few weeks ago, once he found out the woman who accused him of rape and lived with her own trauma from that day (and the subsequent harassment by Parker and his friend/co-writer and the other half of the 1999 rape case Jean Celestin) killed herself. This seemed to be when Parker’s eyes were finally opened to the fact that yes, someone other than him had feelings associated with the case. Somehow, it took this woman’s death for Parker to actually realize that maybe he should have considered this woman as a human being, not as an object out to target him. If anyone was playing target practice, it was Parker himself.
To Parker’s credit, he owns up to this in his most recent and most candid interview with Ebony‘s Britni Danielle.
“I called a couple of sisters that [I] know are in the space that talk about the feminist movement and toxic masculinity, and just asked questions. What did I do wrong? Because I was thinking of myself. And what I realized is that I never took a moment to think about the woman. I didn’t think about her then, and I didn’t think about her when I was saying those statements, which was wrong and insensitive.”
He admits that he never grew up with a clear outline of what consent actually consisted of: according to him, all he knew of consent was if a woman said no, that meant no. But in his mind as a 19-year-old, according to him, if there was no verbal consent given, then he figured it was then all about seeing how far he could go.
“Put it this way, when you’re 19, a threesome is normal. It’s fun. When you’re 19, getting a girl to say yes, or being a dog, or being a player, cheating. Consent is all about—for me, back then—if you can get a girl to say yes, you win. …I can’t remember ever having a conversation about the definition of consent when I was a kid. I knew that no meant no, but that’s it. But if she’s down, if she’s not saying no, if she’s engaged–and I’m not talking about, just being clear, any specific situation, I’m just talking about in general.”
Throughout the interview, he discusses how he’s just now waking up to toxic masculinity culture and how he’s profited from it. He even apologized to the women who have felt offended and hurt by his remarks, and he went one step further and apologized for homophobic remarks he made years earlier. But while he’s realized how much he needs to grow, there’s still the question of if we should actually go see The Birth of a Nation and put money in his pocket. He’s still the face of the film, so should the movie and its message get stuck in the crosshairs or is the message now invalid because of the messenger? (Related: If we’re rightly holding Parker’s feet to the fire, when will Hollywood do the same for other so-called “imperfect messengers” like Roman Polanski and Woody Allen? They are also happy recipients of toxic masculinity as well as white male privilege. When will people rise up and declare they won’t see their films? I know I’m not the only one who is filled with disgust whenever a new Woody Allen project is all the buzz, with stars tripping over themselves to be in it.)
Parker wants us to believe he’s turning a new page in his life. There’s ample reason in his statements for those inclined to believe him to do so. There’s also ample reason for those who don’t believe him to not trust a single thing he said.
Parker is asked to address the idea that many folks will have, which is that he’s suddenly come to this fantastic realization about toxic male privilege now that 1) his movie’s success hangs in the balance (he’s already had one screening/Q&A session cancelled) and most importantly 2) he’s realized the woman he wronged died because of her trauma. On one hand, it’s a sad state of affairs when someone else’s death has to be a wake-up call that you royally messed up. The fact that he couldn’t even think outside of himself when it came to the victim’s feelings is, to be blunt, disturbing. Just because he felt like he didn’t do anything wrong because of his poor definition of consent clearly doesn’t mean he was right. He states in the interview that it was wrong of him to think of himself as the victim because to do so, after you’ve severely damaged someone else because of your actions, takes a lot of ignorance, ego, and a lack of self-awareness.
On the other hand, if Parker really has seen the light, so to speak, then doesn’t he deserve a chance to grow into his newfound awareness?
Parker says he wants to be a leader. I think “leader” is a bridge too far; you can’t lead when you don’t know what you’re talking about, and Parker clearly still needs help not centering the act and its aftermath around him and his feelings. Parker says he’s taking this all with humility, and I suggest he take even higher doses of humility because it shouldn’t take having a wife and daughter yourself to realize that women deserve respect whether they say yes, no, or nothing at all. No one is supposed to take what isn’t given, and Parker still seems to rest his conscience on the idea that because he didn’t know what true consent meant as a 19-year-old, everyone must have thought the same thing. Parker’s going to have a rude awakening when he realizes that no, not every teenager grows up thinking threesomes are cool, or that being a dog is awesome, or that a girl not giving a clear yes means that consent is there. Somewhere along the way, Parker missed some key life lessons, and masculinity culture allowed him to believe that he’d never need those lessons.
What I do think, though, is that perhaps Parker could try to parlay his newfound awakening into becoming a self-appointed example of What Not To Do. When it comes to being a leader in the battle against gender discrimination, he’s going to have to tell boys and men like him to change. Those are the only people can he speak to on that front.
His very first lesson to that select group should be to become aware of what traumas and experiences the women in their lives have had to deal with. Keep in mind, he states in the interview that h didn’t even know that some of the women who worked on The Birth of a Nation were rape survivors. I can only assume he’s referencing Gabrielle Union in that group, who has spoken about her trauma before. If he didn’t know that, especially since she plays a sexual assault victim in the movie, then that speaks volumes to the lack of awareness he had about how deeply rooted women’s pain is tied to violent masculinity.
If he plans on doing some good and make a difference, he must speak to the young Nate Parkers of America and tell them to become acquainted with their own role in toxic masculinity, just as he had to. He must tell them to learn the histories of their mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, cousins and friends. He must tell them to know of the smallest slight a woman can face to the greatest injustice they have to silently bear. In short, he must tell them to quit thinking of women as conquests, objects and toys, and to them of them as human beings worthy of respect, both in words and actions.
All of this goes back to the central question: Should we forgive Parker and see The Birth of a Nation, a film we were all pumped for before this news broke? I can’t answer that for you. It will have to be a personal decision you make for yourself.
As for me: I originally stated at the start of this scandal that I couldn’t see myself going to the film. My thought now though is that I’m conflicted, quite honestly. The Birth of a Nation is a film we probably won’t get to see again for some time, sadly. The story of Nat Turner is one too important to American history, and it’s truly a shame it hasn’t been made into a film until now. But what happens if we miss The Birth of a Nation and are never presented with another opportunity to see Nat Turner’s story on screen until another 100 years from now? What also happens to honoring the work made by Union and Aja Naomi King, who both star in this film? Should their contributions to the film be ignored because Parker is at the helm? It is easy to dismiss Parker, but unfortunately, is dismissing the film also forcing us to dismiss Union and King?
I’ve asked myself these questions, and I still don’t have an answer as to what I’m going to do once the film opens in theaters. We’ll see when the time comes. Now I turn it over to you: What are you going to do? Let me know in the comments section!
EDIT: One of the comments got me to thinking about my own answer to my own question: would I go see this movie? And the answer has to be no. A woman did die, after all.
As the commenter intimated, the hangup over the film shouldn’t really exist, so I had been thinking about why the hangup was there to begin with. I had attempted to address that in this article the first time around, but I think Elahe Izadi sums up what I was trying to get at even better with her Washington Post article about the situation. She writes, in part:
For other artists embroiled in controversy, it can be easier for audiences to dismiss their work if it’s more trivial in nature. Take Woody Allen, who was investigated years ago amid accusations that he molested the daughter he adopted with Mia Farrow. He hasn’t faced criminal charges and has denied the allegations, while many prominent Hollywood figures, as well as the daughter, have said they believe he’s guilty. Allen’s films may be creatively groundbreaking, funny or critically acclaimed, but he’s not telling a story Hollywood has never told before or paving the way for a much needed national conversation.
Then there’s R. Kelly, who was acquitted of child pornography charges and has faced numerous allegations of sexually assaulting underage girls. People like R. Kelly’s music simply because it’s entertaining, aesthetically good or ironically funny — not because it’s profound. But the content of his work can make it difficult to ignore the allegations — his music is about sex. Some refuse to listen to it because they think he’s guilty.
Interacting with “The Birth of a Nation” feels different. Parker has called the project “a healing mechanism for America.” That’s a tall order.
Maybe if there were more films like it out there already, the stakes wouldn’t seem so high.
I’ve bolded the last sentence since that’s really the part I’d been struggling with and annoyed by, to understate it; because of Hollywood’s initial lack of interest in these stories, it’s left the moviegoing public and Oscar voters tho choose between a film in which the stakes are very high for itself (and others like it) and their own morality, to be blunt. However, a film shouldn’t have to have such high stakes, and this film wouldn’t if there were other films of its kind out there. If Hollywood had always invested in diverse and inclusive filmmaking, the choice to see or not see this film would be easier for some. However, I personally shouldn’t have to seriously weigh my conscience before seeing a film. So the final answer is no, I can’t see this film and think I could live in alignment with myself.
This has been a post that has been months in the making, mostly because I had to go through a period of reflection and, in a way, mourning, for the entity that is (or was) Bill Cosby’s Career.