Since #MeToo burst onto the stage this past fall, sexual violence against women has finally achieved the public recognition long overdue a crippling problem, one that has plagued women and girls for decades—maybe centuries. And it's not going away.
But perpetrators are beginning to be held accountable. In May, Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein turned himself into police in New York for sex crimes. Bill Cosby, similarly accused of molesting dozens of women, faces 30 years in prison after his conviction. Still, the National Crime Victimization Survey shows that 99 percent of perpetrators walk free.
"The more high-profile these situations are, the more people will have to open their eyes and ask why this is happening," says Yesenia Gorbea of Futures Without Violence in San Francisco. "Survivors are able to step forward because they feel they can be heard. It's a cultural shift we're seeing. Finally, issues are being talked about, informed by the survivors themselves."
"#MeToo is fantastic, a huge breakthrough," says Jan Blalock, chair of the Sonoma County Commission on the Status of Women. "It does bring to light what has been going on. But are people safer? No, but it's safer to talk about things.
"We're in a very dangerous time," Blalock continues, "with the internet and easy access to pornography—especially for boys who think this is normal or what girls want. You can order a child to have sex with as easily as ordering a pizza." But even more dangerous are the trafficking networks that use social media to trap young girls into forced sex work.
Sexual abuse is about power, says Caitlin Quinn, communications coordinator at Verity (formerly Women Against Rape), a social service nonprofit in Santa Rosa. "Abusers prey upon people that they perceive as weak in some form or another, with more marginalized identities or with disabilities," Quinn says. According to a yearlong study by National Public Radio, people with mental or physical disabilities are five to six times more likely to be abused. "It's an epidemic no one talks about."
The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports that one in four girls will experience sexual violence before the age of 18. If it's about power, will empowering girls help keep them safe?
G3: Gather, Grow and Go is a Sonoma-based nonprofit for women that "creates experiences to help you leverage your best." It offers programs for teen girls, and recently has developed programs for mothers with their daughters. The group holds daylong and weekend workshops aimed at "empowering girls to leave with a heightened awareness of who they are and who they want to become," says co-founder Michelle Dale.
But Dale is clear that G3's programs, which pre-date #MeToo, have not been adapted in response to that movement.
Dale is a bright, beaming single mother of two teen girls. She says the workshops take a holistic approach "to reignite the magic inside us that sometimes grows dim," and encourage wellness to support self-confidence, as well as recognizing "the power of no."
"We believe the work changes how people look at themselves," she says.
Workshops for teens are designed to address the many challenges girls face. "First and foremost is technology and social media," says Dale. "It makes girls feel left out, not good enough. Everyone else is doing everything they want to be doing. . . . It also limits your basic face-to-face social skills."
And it also exposes them to the creeping tentacles of traffickers.
Dale favors limiting a child's time on social media, and not only for girls. Perhaps most damaging is "the epidemic of young boys thinking it's OK to play video games eight hours a day, winning the game by killing each other." What about their social skills, their ability to feel empathy, she asks.
- ALL TOGETHER NOW Sonoma’s G3: Gather, Grow and Go offers programs to build self-confidenceand wellness in women and girls.
G3 workshops provide "opportunities for girls to feel empowered to stand up and give voice to what they will accept or not." But they do not address the issue of sexual assault directly. "We build voice and confidence and sisterhood, and those things work to allow women and girls the courage and support to live strong, live brave and speak their truth and help others to do the same," Dale writes in an email.
Bringing mothers and daughters together for quality time is key. "It allows everybody to slow down to find the connection that brings them closer together.
"Your relationship with your mother is very important, maybe the most important one you have."
Quinn seconds that. "Mothers need to do everything they can to talk to their daughters. Sometimes that means being vulnerable. A lot of mothers don't want to share what violence has happened to them, but that can help a daughter understand her point of view. Lots of women are still blaming themselves for what happened to them."
But for Dmitra Smith, vice chair of the Sonoma County Commission on Human Rights, it's not possible to look at this issue without considering intersectionality, the interplay of race, class and gender.