The theme of Time magazine’s Person of the Year issue was perhaps an unexpected choice, but most have lauded it as inspirational. Titled “The Silence Breakers,” this year’s issue spotlights women who have spoken out against sexual harassment. The cover features Taylor Swift, Ashley Judd, Susan Fowler, Adama Iwu and Isabel Pascual, as well as the arm of a young hospital worker who preferred to remain anonymous, symbolizing countless victims who aren’t able to speak out due to fears of retribution. But as the #MeToo phenomenon brings forward more victims with harrowing accounts of harassment, are we accidentally heralding a different message about what it means to be a woman?

Since news broke in early October about multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against Harvey Weinstein, the floodgates have been kicked open in a way no one could have predicted. There’s no foreseeable end in sight to the number of public figures accused of misconduct; at latest count, the list totals more than 100 names, including Gene Simmons, Geraldo Rivera and Bruce Weber.

This truly is a watershed moment and a long overdue reckoning. I don’t doubt that every woman on this planet has experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact at some point in her life. Women are fed up with suffering silently, feeling powerless and watching the guilty parties carry on unaffected.

It has always been an uphill battle for those who’ve had the nerve to call out their abusers. Historically, women have been shamed, scrutinized and discredited, not just by casual onlookers but also by those closest to them. Those who file complaints with the police, and those who eventually make it to criminal trial, face ugly cross-examinations. Even if a perpetrator is found to be guilty, the victim has to then contend with those who lament about how she’s ruined someone else’s life.

No victim should be castigated or made to feel as though an assault was her (or his) fault. But with the pendulum swinging so far in the opposite direction, do we risk glamorizing assault by celebrating its reveal? Sharing your story publicly means the media may pick up your name. People will hail you as a hero. One’s victimization can open a world of unexpected opportunities and potential social gains: a national platform, an increased Twitter following, a book deal, a magazine cover, an appearance on a nationally syndicated talk show.

As women, we need to define ourselves beyond our relationships with men and their behavior toward us.

We have learned in a few instances that not every allegation holds water. In June, Rolling Stone agreed to pay a University of Virginia fraternity $1.65 million after the magazine published a campus rape story that wrongly accused the student organization’s members. In May 2014, Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz reached national prominence when the New York Times reported her campus rape case against fellow student Paul Nungesser. Sulkowicz gained notoriety for walking around campus with a mattress strapped to her back and became a recognized activist—speaking to media on the topic as recent as summer 2017—even though Columbia’s Office of Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct cleared Nungesser of wrongdoing years ago. This summer, Nungesser settled a lawsuit against Columbia for an undisclosed sum over how the school treated him during its investigation.

We live in a time when statistics on sexual assault, including the widely parroted one-in-five statistic, conflate rape with unwanted touching, presumably for the purpose of inflating the numbers. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, its definition of sexual assault includes “verbal threats” alongside physical acts. The mainstream media too is using increasingly loose lexicon, such as phrases like “assault survivors”, to better corral victims under one umbrella.

But this only obfuscates the severity of each incident—whether it involves groping or forcible rape. Both are lacking in consent, but ultimately, treating the two as identical will not help us prevent sexual violence. Instead, it creates false narratives. For example, in promoting the idea that we are experiencing a rape epidemic, we’re fueling ideological agendas that imagine all men as potential sexual predators, and all women as constantly helpless victims powerless against male oppression.

In 2011, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued its “Dear Colleague” letter, which mandated a lower burden of proof in determining whether a student is responsible for committing sexual assault. (In September, Betsy DeVos announced she will be withdrawing these changes.) These policy guidelines were based on the findings of a study that, although hailed by media, didn’t have much to do with sexual assault on campus and would later instigate innocent young men.

As journalist Emily Yoffe wrote for Slate in 2014, “[B]y federal requirement, students can be found guilty under the lowest standard of proof: preponderance of the evidence, meaning just a 51 percent certainty is all that’s needed for a finding that can permanently alter the life of the accused…The higher education insurance group United Educators did a study of the 262 insurance claims it paid to students between 2006 and 2010 because of campus sexual assault, at a cost to the group of $36 million. The vast majority of the payouts, 72 percent, went to the accused—young men who protested their treatment by universities.”

Rather than perpetuating the narrative that every woman is a victim, we should be supporting the idea that women aren’t helpless. (To be fair, Time magazine’s “Silence Breakers” cover does both.) If a man makes you uncomfortable or acts inappropriately toward you, you are in a position to make a decision about how you respond. You can be assertive and make it clear you won’t tolerate indecent behavior without investing a great deal of your energy and identity into what happened. It doesn’t have to define you or taint how you interact with other men in your life. Of course, there are situations in which that level of autonomy is impossible, but there are others in which it is not. Distinguishing between the two is important.

As women, we need to define ourselves beyond our relationships with men and their behavior toward us. Discussions about females being on the receiving end of unwanted sexual attention are feeding the stereotype that every woman’s existence revolves around men. Even more worrisome, this sends the message to other women, and young girls, that their negative experiences with men lead to inner strength. It also adds to polarization between the sexes; instead of focusing on a solution, we are inadvertently praising the problem. Just as there is no “perfect victim” and no particular “right” way to respond to sexual assault, it is as important we recognize one doesn’t have to assert victimization in order to achieve courage and temerity.


Debra W. Soh writes about the science and politics of sex and holds a PhD in sexual neuroscience from York University. Her writing has appeared in Harper’s, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Globe and Mail and many others. Follow her and her writing: @DrDebraSoh.