Friedberg JCC hosts talk on sexual violence, harassment

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Editor’s note: This article contains descriptions of sexual violence that may be upsetting to some readers.

“Why now?” asked Liz Osowiecki at a May 1 forum at the Barry and Florence Friedberg Jewish Community Center in Oceanside. Why was it, she wondered, that women (and some men) had waited until late 2017 to begin revealing, en masse, the sexual abuse that they had suffered at the hands of others? Media attention was one answer she floated.

By the end of the hour-long talk, though, Mitzie Berger, of Long Beach, had drawn a different conclusion after hearing the discussion on the ongoing #MeToo movement, with topics ranging from systemic sexism to sexual harassment.

“Why now?” Berger said. “Because we’re ready for it. We’ve got our dukes up.”

Osowiecki, 23, of Franklin Square, who is an education coordinator at the Safe Center LI, a Bethpage-based not-for-profit that provides counseling and assistance to victims of domestic and sexual abuse, spoke to a crowd of roughly 50 in what was intended as a educational conversation on the movement that in recent months has roiled American society.

Organized by the JCC and the National Council of Jewish Women Peninsula Section, the presentation was, according to NCJW Peninsula Section President Judi Braverman, “hopefully the first of many” on the topic.

Coined amid a number of high-profile revelations of sexual abuse perpetrated by men in power, #MeToo, in its present form, began last October, according to Osowiecki, when actress Alyssa Milano took to the social media platform Twitter asking others to share their experiences of sexual violence and harassment. Within hours, ten of thousands of people had responded with their own revelations.  

But Osowiecki argued that #MeToo had been created long before by a woman named Tarana Burke, who in 1997 was confronted by a 13-year-old girl who said she had been sexually abused. “She wished that she could say, me too,” Osowiecki explained. “And that’s where the me too campaign was formed.”

Now that so many disclosures have been made, Osowiecki maintained, “We need to know what’s next.” Making every effort to believe the accusers, she said, is one step.

Before that, however, she and her colleague Diane Harvey, 58, an associate director of education at the Safe Center, outlined how women in the modern era became so consistently vulnerable to the predations of men.

A slide of Rosie the Riveter popped onto the projection screen as Harvey began her talk. As a symbol of feminine strength created to encourage women to enter the workforce to address a labor shortage during World War II, it helped prove, Harvey said, that women “wanted to work.”

Not long after, attitudes regarding female empowerment suffered, according to Harvey, “a little slide back.” The speakers cited “The Good Wife’s Guide,” a magazine article rumored to  have been published in 1955, which Harvey said she found “a little offensive, honestly,” exhibiting a hint of sarcasm in her voice, adding that after she recently reread it, “I think I crumpled it up and threw it in the garbage can.”

The guide had recommendations for women, which it claimed were essential to the maintenance of a proper household, such as ensuring dinner was ready by the time their husbands came home from work, or that they looked as good as possible for them upon their arrival.

The article demanded that women play a subservient role to men, creating a systematically unequal power dynamic between the genders that allowed sexual violence to go unaddressed and underreported, Osowiecki said. That dynamic persists today in many corners of society.

Broaching the topic of Brock Turner, the 19-year-old Stanford University student who in 2016 was convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious 22-year-old woman behind a dumpster on campus, Osowiecki said a lack of education on affirmative sexual consent led Turner to be able to say, “I didn’t know.”

There has been progress, however, Osowiecki and Harvey said, at least in regards to the law. Since 1979, the concept of marital rape, which is forced sex between married partners, has made it onto the legal ledgers, according to Harvey. But many law enforcement practices surrounding sexual violence still lag behind reality. For example, Osowiecki said, police and prosecutors are far more likely to prosecute a case that involves rape between strangers, which they define as “real rape,” and produces “actual victims,” than other forms of sexual violence. The reality, however, Osowiecki said, is that overwhelmingly instances of sexual violence against both adults and children occur in cases in which the two know each other.

When it came to the concepts of “real rape” and “actual victims,” Osowiecki said, “these are terms that we obviously want to stay away from because we don’t use these terms in any other kind of crime.” As an example, she added, if someone were robbed, but not at gunpoint, it would legally still be considered a robbery.

Beyond lobbying law enforcement agencies to adopt more realistic conceptions on crimes of sexual violence, the question remained how one would break the longstanding power imbalances between the genders as outlined in “The Good Wife’s Guide.”

These imbalances, Osowiecki and Harvey said, would be much more difficult to overcome, and demand that men be held accountable for actions that in the past would have been viewed as permissible. As a start, the two suggested that parents refrain from conveying attitudes to their daughters, such as the commonly held belief that if a bully targets them at school, then it must be a sign that they are liked, and in an adult setting, parents should push back against gender-focused jokes.

Such attitudes perpetuate what Osowiecki referred to as “rape culture,” which assumes that rape is an inevitable event. Focusing education on what women can do to protect themselves, she said, avoids addressing what really must be done, which involves changing the attitudes of men and holding them accountable for unwanted sexual advances.

Eileen Mitchnick, of Oceanside, who was present for talk, agreed, saying, “I think it’s important for males and females to be made aware that behavior that was taken for granted should be brought to their attention.”

Additionally, Osowiecki and Harvey described the pushback against the current #MeToo movement, not just by men, but also by older women who have experienced harassment their entire lives. Too many of them believe women should “just deal with it.”

However, allowing conduct such as harassment perpetuates the rape culture, which is reinforced by a spectrum of behavior, and is not limited to direct acts of sexual violence, Osowiecki said. Change, she suggested, begins with one’s language in everyday conversations. For example, she suggested avoiding using the word “rape” in casual, everyday speech.

It will be hard, and take years of fighting, the speakers agreed, but such cultural shifts as called for by the #MeToo movement are not impossible. Citing the influence of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in the 1990s, which led to a much heavier enforcement of drunken-driving laws, Harvey illustrated that such sea changes are possible — even if they are slow to come.