By: Ekram Ibrahim (Mason MC/MPA Fellow)
Sexual predators, pedophiles, and abusers are people who used to scare me until I met Marc.
Last summer, I was sitting in a meditation circle in upstate New York where we were talking about sexual traumas. I was describing what it means to be a “sexually abused child,” and how healing has been my way out. When it was his turn, Marc said that he used to sexually assault women and force them into “non-consensual sex.” I felt like someone stabbed my stomach.
Marc is a handsome man in his late thirties. He went on to describe how he hates powerful men and how disgusted he is with himself. I felt angry. My heart started racing. But I forced myself to listen.
“Every time I close my eyes, I see snakes coming to get me,” Marc said.
I learned that both the “abuser” and the “abused” carry pain, shame, and guilt. People do not run away free from their misdeeds. The circle dispersed, Marc and I stayed. He needed my acceptance and I needed to hear more about his suffering. After two hours and lots of tears, I was grateful that I didn’t carry his guilt. We exchanged phone numbers.
The #MeToo movement’s online campaign has been one of the highlights of year 2017. Since it started in October, the hashtage was used 4.3 million times around the world. Hundreds of thousands of women shared stories of abuse, harassment, and pain. Now we are left with one half of the world victimized and the second half watching. Men, the second half, are feeling defensive, guilty, or confused. As a collective we need to realize that we are only scratching the surface. Men and women need to have a conversation, where men take responsibilty and women listen, and ‘when possible’ forgive.
For healing to take place the two halves need to have a conversation. Men who are involved in any of these activities need to speak up—explain how they arrived at their behavior, what their childhood was like, and what their feelings are. Women have been abused, shamed, and mistreated. Since the day we are born, we fight for our existence. Healing starts by speaking up and acknowledging the problem, which many of us did. Now it is time to take the next step and listen to “the predator.”
Shame is not the answer. According to Dr. Brene Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, “shame corrodes the parts of us that believe we can be better.” In the long term, it will only leave men defensive and shut down. We need to understand the root causes. It is the first step to prevent coming generations from falling in the same trap.
Listening is the initial point to find understanding and empathy. According to Dr. Brown, “empathy moves us to a place of courage and compassion. Through it, we come to realize that our perspective is not the perspective.” You don’t have to agree, only recognize their existence. My conversation with Marc was a turning point in my healing journey. As I listened to his struggles, I saw justice. I am not the only one struggling.
On the collective scale, the #MeToo movement online campaign can play a powerful role in reconciliation. Professor Fuyuki Kurasawa, sociologist at York University proposed three steps to reach reconciliation: remembrance (women telling their stories), acceptance and assuming responsibility (men speaking up), and justice (through a dialogue and legal process as some losing their jobs). With the exception of a few top notch, we still have steps two and three to go.
We should distinguish between those who are systematically assaulting women and the apologetic ones. Having high-profile men lose their jobs after a history of misogyny provides justice, hope, and safety. On the other hand, there is Marc and others who are apologetic. For them this marks a shameful point. They are struggling to be better partners, fathers, and colleagues. Those are the ones who deserve an ear.
This is not an invitation to stay in a relationship with an abuser. As Doctor of Psycholoy Perpetua Neo puts it “predators learn very quickly how to tug at the heartstrings of their victims.” They are skillful in coming up with excuses as; “I can’t help it” or “you need to help me out of this.” Unfortunately, women who are attracted to predators are more vulnerable to them. They tend to prize another’s feelings and wellbeing above their own. According to Dr. Neo, as long as women are aware of such people’s machinations, they can still have conversations on both sides of the story.
Are we as a collective ready to listen to this? More women than you think are. The fact that #MeToo online campaign had steered more than four million engagements suggests that many women are ready. It takes a rigorous path of inner work for a woman to share her story and stand up to the abuser. It took me seven years of healing to be able to listen to Marc and write this piece. I was engaged at the time. I was depressed. I decided to see a psychologist to talk about it. This took me on an irreversible path of healing. However, I never had a conversation with the person who violated my innocence when I was three years old. Maybe I never will.
There could, of course, be legal consequences from those conversations. In most countries those who commit sexual assaults are considered criminals. In therapy, we create small safe groups where we don’t judge one another and we agree on confidentiality. The goal is to grow and heal.
I invite men to start speaking about it. Seek therapy. Talk to a close female friend. Stop using locker room talk as your avenue for such conversations. Women in response, after taking a deep breath, listen. Ask for explanation. Don’t react. Say thank you for sharing. Create safe spaces in private and online. It will be uncomfortable and painful on both ends. Remember, this is what we as a collective need to do to break free from this cycle of trauma.