Sexual abuse culture – The SAIS Observer editorial chat

Read Time:12 Minute, 49 Second

Welcome to The SAIS Observer Editorial Chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.



Lisa (Lisa Martine Jenkins, Editor-in-chief): So everyone, in light of the recent revelations about sexual harassment in industries such as media, entertainment and politics, there’s one big question on my mind: is this a tipping point?

T.J. (T.J. Sjostrom, deputy Editor-in-chief): I think this is a tipping point. With the scandals of Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey in Hollywood, and Roy Moore, Al Franken and John Conyers in Congress (not to mention the allegations lingering with the President), the topic has reached critical mass.

Issy (Issy Schmidt, D.C. Bureau Chief): I don’t think we should assume that this is going to change anything, honestly. I’m really heartened by the change in discourse around believing victims, but the U.S. elected Trump, despite the evidence that he’d done similar things. It seems to me that while we may have reached a point of swift justice in the private sector, this is not a tipping point for our elected leaders, arguably the more important group to be held to account.

And, all of that is leaving aside the fact that poor women, women in precarious jobs, and those without legal status, are being constantly harassed and exploited.

T.J.: There’s recent reporting that supports your point. I would posit that the conditions are different from a year ago – in large part because of Trump’s election. Because nobody took him seriously to win, he may have received a ‘pass’ for his transgressions toward women, but now in 2017, it’s a different story. I think the fact that these are in the news, and that there’s national conversation about this, it’s a huge step in the right direction, and perhaps even the agent of change.

Issy: I think that’s a really good point – I definitely think there’s more impetus from those in ‘liberal/Democrat’ circles to hold their own people accountable in order to strengthen their argument against Trump. Which is arguably just virtue signalling rather than a real desire to hold Democrats to a higher standard of behaviour, but either way it’s getting results.

Liz (Liz Witcher, Nanjing co-Bureau Chief): While I agree with TJ that this recent phenomenon is in direct response to the Trump election, I am skeptical that this is a tipping point. U.S. history is littered with moments that signal great change, but the change inevitably is delayed by one thing or another. To me, it seems that these actions will end in one of two ways. One way is that someone makes a false report and is exposed, thus promoting the idea that we should not afford potential victims a high degree of credence. In this scenario, there will be swift backlash, and an end to victims coming forward out of fear. The other option is exhaustion. I do not think that the American public will be content with dethroning many, if not most, of the powerful leaders of its own institutions. I fear, at some point, the American public will simply say “enough, we recognize we had a substantial problem and from here on out we will attempt to fix it, but for now we will grant temporary leniency to those that have acted inappropriately in the past in order to preserve our current institutions as they stand.”

Issy: 🙌🏼🙌🏼🙌🏼🙌🏼🙌🏼🙌🏼🙌🏼🙌🏼🙌🏼

T.J.: Not to stir the pot, but these numbers should matter in the context.  All these numbers (which I borrowed from FiveThirtyEight) are from October 5 to present (when the NY Times first broke the Weinstein story).

Trump’s Approval Rating:
October 5: Approval Rating 33.8%, Disapproval Rating 55.6%
Present: Approval Rating 33.2%, Disapproval Rating 55.6%

Roy Moore’s Polling Numbers:
Before Allegations: 48%
After Allegations: 43%

Al Franken’s Approval Rating:
Before Allegations: 55%
After Allegations: 36%

The needle has moved in the direction (to varying degrees) of job dissatisfaction for each person. The numbers show the leniency bias might be true of Trump, but not in the Senate cases.

Liz: In addressing these politicians, I think it’s important to make clear what each is accused of, as conflating sexual harassment with sexual abuse is a dangerous path that will most likely lead to the devaluation of serious crimes like sexual abuse and rape instead of elevating the less harmful, though still deeply problematic, societal issues to a more serious plane. Al Franken is accused of sexual harassment and groping, while Roy Moore is accused of pressuring girls as young as 14 into sexual relationships when he was already in his thirties.  Both Moore and Franken committed illegal acts and deserve to be punished, but these crimes are nowhere close to each other – one is clearly more egregious.  Looking at T.J.’s numbers, you can’t see that distinction.  So yes, I think the numbers matter, but I don’t think the picture they paint is any more than one of liberals leaping on a moment of anger, while conservatives continue to toe the party line that ultimately resulted in the election of Donald Trump—who is accused of not only sexual harassment but also rape.

Issy: @Liz I think that’s a really good point, and one I’m struggling to see a solution to. I think it’s important for Democrats to hold their people to account to set an example and live by the principles they claim to espouse, but you’re right that Franken’s transgressions just aren’t as serious as Moore’s. I think the ethics investigation that Franken is submitting to is a good idea, because hopefully part of the outcome would be a clearly articulated differentiation of crimes.

Liz: Yes, and I certainly hope that the ethics investigation will lead to guidelines for future cases like this, because I do think that should we continue to dig into most politicians’ (or really most powerful people’s) past, this is merely the tip of the iceberg.

Lisa: To zoom out a little, apparently much of this comes down to education and our cultural understanding of what is or should be considered a crime—much of what is coming to light now would have been considered business-as-usual just a decade ago. We all went through a sexual assault training when we started our graduate education at SAIS—do you think this was beneficial? What can educational institutions do to further awareness of this sort?

Liz: Honestly, the training felt more like a box to check for the institution to say that they had a mandatory sexual harassment and assault training. While I’m not sure what the answer is, a PowerPoint probably does not go far enough to change a culture. More concerning, and telling of the era, is the Department of Education, under Betsy Devos, rolling back Obama era guidelines regarding campus sexual assault. Specifically, Devos’ revocation of these guidelines encourages universities to continue past practices of treating victims with skepticism, favoring those that stand accused of not only sexual harassment, but also sexual assault and rape.

Issy: I think there has to be a better way than how it’s done at SAIS. I think an engaging training session (in person) with a non-judgmental space in which to ask questions can really transform people’s perceptions of an issue. BUT, the major caveat is that there has to be some willingness from those being trained to take it seriously and some openness to behavioural change. I don’t think SAIS gets the training right, but I also wonder what it is we need to do to actually get the audience (students, lawmakers, managers) to truly buy in  to the learning process.

Lisa: So, does this moment mean that people (especially students and young people) may take the issue more seriously in the future? Is your sense that this is being considered a society-wide problem (rather than a “women’s issue”), where it might not have been previously?

T.J.: I’ve said this before, but will say it again here; this is a human issue that transcends gender. Men do have a role in accepting ownership of the situation, and listening to women’s voices as to how to fix systemic problems. I will say that the “boys will be boys” mantra is no longer acceptable.

So… Matt Lauer now?! WTF?

Issy: So @TJ I think my issue with when you define this as a ‘human issue’ is because we think that means different things. To me, when you say that, you erase the fact that this is very much an issue of patriarchy – of power and of lack of accountability and of rape culture that has primarily been wielded by men. I do agree with you though that men need to accept ownership of this situation (there especially needs to be a shift away from the ‘not all men’ narrative since it kind of looks like this is MOST men) and work with us to remedy the drastic dehumanisation of women that leads to this situation. I’ll say it a million times: patriarchy harms everyone, but it harms women and the LGBTQ+ community the most.

@Lisa to actually answer your question, I’m super hopeful about the change in attitudes I see in our generation and those younger than us. I’ve run a lot of educational sessions on feminism and gender and they’re receptive and thoughtful in a way that honestly surprised me. I don’t think this is an issue that just ‘dies out’ as the older generations retire, but we should be optimistic about the future.

T.J.: “Human issue” is in no way an attempt to mask the importance of women in the solution to the issue of gender inequality. Nor is it a way to mask that it’s still very much a male-dominated society. I guess what I’m driving toward is that men should not simply be on the sidelines, because educating young men as they grow into adulthood is how you affect positive change. As a dad to an eight-year-old boy, teaching him the little things now (like manners, respect and compassion) sets the foundation for the next generation – especially when it comes to treating women with dignity.

Issy: 🙌🙌🙌🙌

Lisa: Ok, final, big question: for those of you who aren’t American or are studying outside the U.S., are you seeing the ripples of this moment abroad, or, does it seem confined to the U.S., at least for the time being?

Issy: There is definitely a similar (although perhaps not as wide-reaching) cultural moment happening in the U.K. right now. Just tuning in to BBC Parliament on a normal day demonstrates how much of a rich boys’ club Parliament is, so it doesn’t surprise me at all that politicians are facing accusations of misconduct and abuse. Michael Fallon just stepped down from his position as Secretary of Defense, which I think was actually a really positive moment of accountability. But, the other side of the coin is that at least one man accused of misconduct has committed suicide – I can’t speculate on why, but I do worry that it means that a backlash against this culture of calling out bad behaviour might happen sooner in the U.K. than in the U.S. (not that it should happen at all).

I think it’s also relevant that in the past decade we’ve been dealing with a series of scandals similar to Cosby, Charlie Rose etc., and seeking justice for systematic cover-ups within the BBC and other major organisations (e.g. Jimmy Savile). This moment is just one in a series of moments for the U.K. – I have a surprising amount of faith that we’ll continue to try to excise our societal demons once the #metoo moment calms down a bit.

T.J.: Following up @Issy is an insurmountable obstacle…it’s a palpable feeling over here in Bologna, even (and, in some cases, especially) by non-U.S. students.

Issy: @TJ Why do you say especially for non-U.S. students?

T.J.: Anecdotal – perhaps the strongest responses against the Trump administration are from foreign students in Bologna.

Lisa: Ok everyone, any final thoughts?

T.J.: Final thoughts… I want to just underscore why this conversation is so important – not just among the leadership team here, but nationally – in your homes, with your friends, classmates and families.

Those of us involved in this conversation are mostly like-minded. Despite that, we have clear divergence of thoughts, even if in the nuances of male/female power structures. I am fortunate to have such patient and brilliant women in a position of power, and men who “get it” to help create the dialogue necessary. Special thanks to the Global Women in Leadership team in Bologna, and to close female friends who have educated me enough on this topic to not sound like a clown.

It’s important that gender inequity is no longer kept silent. If you’re a man, it’s time to end complicity – it can’t always be someone else that steps up. Sometimes, it has to be you.

Issy: Yeah, I think it’s just important to underscore that regardless how this pans out politically, whether we are truly changing the makeup of power and removing men who abuse that power, this is an amazing moment to have important conversations with the people in your lives.

Men, this is your chance to be true allies – to listen to the experiences of your female friends, almost all of whom will have had brushes with harassment or outright assault, to call out the behaviour of your friends and colleagues, and to interrogate your own behaviour and attitudes.

But, this is also a moment to prioritise self-care and mental health – the events of recent weeks have been triggering for many victims/survivors of abuse and I think it’s important to emphasise that no one is obligated to speak out unless they feel comfortable, safe and supported doing so.

Rebecca (Rebecca John, Bologna co-Bureau Chief): Hey everyone, I have some personal experiences/strong feelings on this issue so I was hesitant to contribute without having the time to give it proper thought. I’ve had similar conversations with women here in Bologna and they’re keen to have a panel event, hopefully led by a professor, so perhaps that could be a good follow-up. Good work, though; it’s been great to see everyone’s thoughts and contributions.

T.J.: That’s a good point – I didn’t consider the mental health aspect or self-care.

Lisa: To wrap up, I think the most important thing about today’s conversation around sexual assault is just that: we’re FINALLY having a conversation about it. It’s something that American culture (and many others, evidently) has pushed under the rug for a long time, and the fact that people seem prepared to discuss it is a major deal. I’m really pleased that the Observer has an editorial staff ready to model these kinds of conversations, and really hope that it prompts further opinion pieces from the SAIS community.

I strongly encourage feedback on our stories. Letters to the editor can be sent directly to my e-mail ( or to T.J. Sjostrom (

Thank you, Everyone!




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