Seeking Clarity Amid An Avalanche Of Sexual Misconduct Revelations
What started off as an "open secret" in Hollywood quickly became central to the national conversation as dozens of men in positions of power were alleged to have engaged in sexual assault and harassment at remarkable levels. Sexual misconduct has long-plagued workplaces across the nation, and overwhelming silence on the issue has stymied attempts to shed light on a difficult subject.
The list of men in power everywhere from the media industry to the federal government accused of sexual misconduct is vast and is growing nearly every week. Many people who seek to reduce the prevalence of these actions see the rise in on-the-record allegations and social media campaigns like the #MeToo movement as a turning point.
In a Nov. 24, 2017 interview with Wisconsin Public Television's Here & Now, Erin Thornley Parisi said the outpour of sexual misconduct allegations has inspired a sort of ripple effect on society. As executive director of the Dane County Rape Crisis Center, Parisi explained she believes women coming forward to publically tell their stories of sexual harassment and assault has and will continue to inspire more to come forward.
"I think that it's just going to be kind of an avalanche," she said.
On average, there are 321,500 victims of rape and sexual assault each year in the United States, reports the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, sourcing U.S. Department of Justice figures. In the Madison area, Parisi said the Dane County Rape Crisis Center gets between 2,500-3,000 calls to its helpline annually. While noting this is a small number, Parisi said she hopes the growing prominence of this issue will result more people seeking help.
"I always wish that more people would call," she said. "Now I’m really hoping this results in more people calling and saying I just need to talk and find out what my options are if I want to pursue this legally."
Social media movements like the #MeToo campaign can also help raise awareness about sexual assault, Parisi said, noting that generally only one out of 10 people report their sexual assault. This is largely due to a lack of support for victims, she said.
"The first reactions that people often have is disbelief and victim-blaming," she said.
Defining sexual assault
In Wisconsin, there are four degrees of sexual assault as defined by law (940.225), the first three of which are classified as felonies.
First and second degree assault include sexual contact or intercourse without consent accompanied by circumstances that include the use or threatened use of a weapon or other means of violence, aid by multiple perpetrators, as well as whether the victim is unconscious or mentally ill or deficient, as well as whether the act results in pregnancy, disease, bodily harm or mental anguish, among other factors. Third degree sexual assault includes sexual intercourse with a person without the consent of that person. And fourth degree sexual assault, which is classified as a misdemeanor, includes sexual contact with a person without the consent of that person.
The state of Wisconsin defines "consent" as "words or overt actions by a person who is competent to give informed consent indicating a freely given agreement to have sexual intercourse or sexual contact." A person is incapable of giving consent if they have a mental illness or defect that impairs their personal reasoning, or if they are unconscious or in any way physically incapable of communicating unwillingness to an act.
For decades, rape has been a misunderstood term in the eyes of the law and the public. According to multiple studies by law enforcement and academic researchers, many people believe that rape only occurs when a stranger forcibly attacks a woman. This assumption, however, is far from contemporary reality. Though, it is also not unfounded considering it was the general definition of rape since 1927.
In 2013, the federal legal definition of rape was significantly changed. The current definition — which reads "The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim." — is gender neutral in regard to both the victim and the perpetrator. This definition also emphasizes the role of consent, noting that a victim can be incapacitated by drugs or alcohol and therefore, unable to provide it.
Speaking with Here & Now, Parisi noted that it can be common practice to excuse an act of rape because of the involvement of drugs or alcohol and completely disregard the victim’s claims. For instance, if a woman claimed her boyfriend raped her, many are quick to jump to his defense.
"We just immediately start trying to excuse his behavior," she said. "Well, maybe he was drunk. Well, maybe, you know, and we completely dismiss the effect that that had on her."
Sexual assault in Wisconsin
Because sexual assault is a crime that is so often misunderstood, it is very difficult to paint a comprehensive picture of its prevalence. As detailed in a 2010 report from the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault, sexual violence has affected nearly 1 million Wisconsinites.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, 4,960 cases of sexual assault were reported to law enforcement between 2006 and 2010. Two-thirds of the victims in reported sexual assault cases were younger than 15 years old. Overall, the department estimates that one in seven Wisconsin women are raped during their lives.
University campuses serve as one hotbed for sexual assault. A 2015 survey from the Association of American Universities found that one in four women will face sexual assault during their time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 2016, UW-Madison received 325 reports of sexual assault, an increase from 217 in 2015, reported Wisconsin Public Radio. UW-Green Bay received 44 reports of sexual assault in 2016, which is equal to the previous three years combined, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin reported. While these increases in assaults seem shocking, some Officials from UW schools say it’s a result of increased awareness of resources and what actions constitute sexual assault.
Parisi emphasized the role that bystanders, particularly men, can play when it comes to stopping sexual assault and harassment. She said they have the power to step up and put a stop to misconduct when they see it.
"They do need to stop it right there, because sexual harassment is a form of sexual assault," she said. "And it is something that is bad in and of itself, but it can also lead to more advanced sexually abusive behavior."
Parisi explained that sexual harassment is extremely common and has become "a way of life" for many women. While she said she was shocked by people who were surprised at the number of sexual misconduct allegations coming to the forefront of the news cycle, building awareness is one of the first steps of illustrating its prevalence throughout society.
"Men are finally able to see what we've been living with our entire lives," she noted.