Does it bother anyone that there are women who remain in the shadows and have not told their story of sexual harassment or assault?
Why won’t these women come forth, unburden themselves and identify their harasser? Why would a woman take a hellish experience like sexual assault and cram it into six characters of #MeToo?
I’ll tell you why — because there is a regular cynical chorus around the silence-breakers of: “What took them so long to speak up?”
And as Oprah Winfrey said in her now-famous Golden Globes speech about Recy Taylor, the African-American woman raped by white men as she made her way to church: “She lived as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men. For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men.”
Doubters subject women to additional offenses by questioning the length of their silence. Just because someone took two years or 40 years to come forth does not mean that the pain is not raw or that they are less credible.
It does not mean the injury is not throbbing beneath the scar. The very remembrance of an assault can bring up emotions and reactions. Who are we to judge when people should come forward? Who are we to determine the statute of limitations on healing?
Women remain in the shadows of the silence-breakers because they are still afraid to speak, ashamed to come forward and ill-prepared to deal with the backlash. They don’t have the capacity to fight because they were humiliated, stripped of their dignity, emotionally bullied, financially threatened and spiritually broken. They have weighed the pros and cons and decided the risks are too great. So they seethe, sulk and suffer in silence.
Sexual harassment and assault are akin to death by a thousand cuts. The lingering impact is torturous, and it eats away at a woman. The effects of it are slow and unnoticeable but deadly.
In coming forward, silence-breakers have to become the pathologists who would forensically examine when their internal death occurred. They would become authors of the eulogy over parts of themselves that had ceased to exist. The sexual offense time-stamped that moment when things began to slowly die. It was the moment when pride, strength, confidence, worth, value, joy, peaceful nights of sleep and humanity began to succumb to the constant reminders of the offense and the unending messages of self-doubt.
The worst part of this kind of slow death is that these precious qualities needed to navigate life don’t immediately disappear. There is a subtle erosion, a gradual decomposition of the woman’s former self. This is when her outspokenness becomes a whisper, her strength becomes fragility, and her ability to confront becomes cowardice. The internal rot of her values and voice make her unrecognizable to herself. This loss propels her into shame. It’s not a pretty picture and it’s an uglier feeling — when you don’t like yourself because of what someone did to you.
The good news is that anytime something dies, the void makes room for life. When death and time conspire, they give life to healing and courage. The Bible says in James 3:5: “So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!”
One woman’s truth was a spark. Another woman’s hashtag was a flare that pointed to the smoke. The silence-breakers were the collective voice that ignited a movement that, like fire, consumed what was draining them. They set fire to the rain that attempted to drown their voices and extinguish their passion. It is unclear whether the silence-breakers intended to burn anyone, but what is clear is that America’s consciousness has been seared about what women will not tolerate. The scorching truth and the heat of justice remain ablaze to cleanse platforms and places where secrets, man code, spin doctors, hush money and seals can no longer abide. Winfrey said it best of those who have inflicted such pain: “Their time is up.”
From Eve, to Sarah and Mary — women were not silent in the Bible. In the face of misogyny, marginality and misery, women took a lot and eventually spoke up. Some of us have a higher pain threshold, but we will speak up.
May the tongues of silence-breakers continue to warm the embers of truth. May they also boast of great things like legislation and policy changes because we need these for our daughters, granddaughters and those women who cannot step out of the shadows.
Theresa Dear is an ordained elder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and currently serves as pastoral support minister at the DuPage AME Church in Lisle. “Just Relations” is a new Chicago Sun-Times column series focused on social justice issues.