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What We Can Learn from Anita Hill About Putting a Stop to Sexual Violence

Photo Credit nita Hill spoke at a discussion about sexual harassment in December 2017. (WILLY SANJUAN/INVISION/AP/FILE)

On October 11th 1991 a 35-year old Anita Hill forever became a household name when she testified that the now Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her during the time she worked with him ten years prior at the age of 25. During the hearing Hill was asked several questions, some leading, and some outright offensive; however, she remained steadfast in the face of the highest court of the United States and shared her truth. Today, Hill is still fighting for the right for people to live a life free of sexual harassment and violence through her work as a professor, researcher, and writer. 

Conversations about the prevalence and devastating emotional, physical, and economic effects that sexual violence and reporting sexual violence can have on a person — and how these effects disproportionately devastate lower wage working women of color — have reached a national level in the United States. 

The #MeToo movement started by Tarana Burke in 2006 has become a somber rallying cry for people that have experience sexual violence. These two simple words have an impactful multi meaning message, “‘on one side, it’s a bold declarative statement that ‘I’m not ashamed’ and ‘I’m not alone.’ On the other side, it’s a statement from survivor to survivor that says ‘I see you, I hear you, I understand you and I’m here for you or I get it,'” Burke told CNN during an interview. 

Additionally, the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh despite numerous testimonies from former peers and colleagues opposing his appointment because of a history of sexual aggression and violence against women has really brought the American public to a point of having to face the sexual violence issue that has plagued it’s society.  

It’s good that these public conversations are taking place and that some people are starting to see consequences for their abhorrent acts of sexual violence, and people like Harvey Weinstein are going on trial, having to pay a combined settlement of $44 Million to the people he allegedly assaulted, and losing his standing in the company he founded and used to victimize women. Matt Lauer being fired from The Today Show after a sexual misconduct review and Bill Cosby being sentenced to three to ten years of prison after being found guilty of sexual assault the cultural and structural ways in which sexual violence persist is still troubling. 

In a new op-ed in The New York Times Anita Hill explains how this national conversation moment could have happened decades ago if her testimony was taken seriously. 

Imagine if people in positions of structural power at the time had believed her, the other women who had their own testimonies to share but were not allowed to, and the unnecessary polygraph she agreed to take which corroborated her statements; we would be much further along in the fight for a place free of sexual violence. 

A 1991 Los Angeles Times article states that a meeting which resulted in a deal between Senate Republicans and now Democratic Presidential Candidate hopeful Joe Biden made it possible for Thomas to be appointed to the Supreme Court and the other three women willing to testify against Thomas to be silenced. The article goes on to state that not only did Biden help broker the deal which led to silencing these women and the appointment of Thomas he also did not use tough questions that Democrats had prepared for Thomas during the hearing and instead seemed to treat Hill in an abrasive manner. 

Hill’s experience has taught us that when women report they often have to do so several times before they are heard and even when they are heard that doesn’t mean that people are necessarily listening to them. By the age of 35, Hill’s Federal professional law career was brought to a halt because of the sexual violence she encountered, the fact that she spoke up, and the fact that she remained steadfast in her truth. For women, speaking up isn’t an easy decision to make especially when your safety is under uncertainty. 

When Christine Blasey Ford came forward with her allegations against Brett Kavanaugh she knew she was risking a lot. By September 2018, she was testifying in front of a Senate Judiciary Committee and had to move out of her home because of an onslaught of death threats against her and her family. In addition to moving she had to hire security detail. Her neighbors and friends concerned for her safety started a GoFundMe page with a goal of $150,000 to cover housing costs, security detail, and a security system. $150,000 is a lot of money to try to ensure your safety after speaking out about a crime that was committed against you. Not only did Ford have to deal with the emotional and highly public testimony of a traumatic experience in her life she also had to deal with lost wages as a result of her needing to leave her home and job because of Kavanaugh’s alleged actions. 

We saw this with Hill. 

Women who experience sexual assault have to deal compounded repercussions for being victims of a crime. When they speak out publicly they stand the chance of their careers being upended, being blacklisted in their professional fields, and having to deal with unexpected economic hardships. 

Thankfully Hill and Dr. Ford both have professional degrees that they can use to shield them in a sense however, whereas women who work in the service industry do not have this privilege. 

An interview with a young Mexican immigrant Farm Worker Patricia truly illustrates how lower wage jobs and immigration status keep women in impossible situations. During her interview Patricia said, “She could not leave the job because there was no other work available. The abuse continued. ‘He kept raping me and I let him because I didn’t want him to hit me. I didn’t want to feel pain.’” She also states that the child she gave birth to who is a result of the rape is so beautiful but that she is, “worried because, ‘I don’t know what to tell my daughter when she gets older.’’’

In her op-ed, Hill lays out political, structural, and cultural ways that we can end sexual assault. At the very least, “In the long term, our leaders need to address the larger inequalities that enable sexual misconduct to flourish.” 

Anita Hill CNN
Photo Credit CNN.com

Hill showed us that believing survivors is only part of the process to ending sexually based violence. We need a multi-step approach that includes passing policies, having conversations with people, and creating environments and a culture were being a perpetrator of a sexually based crime is more shameful than being a victim of a sexually based crime. 

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