Sexual Violence: It’s Everybody’s Problem – OpEd


By Tally Helfont and Samuel Helfont*

(FPRI) — Whether you get your news online, on the radio, on television, or in print, there is no way to escape the recent spate of revelations of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, and sexual assault that have taken place in every industry and at every echelon. Powerful politician, billionaire media mogul, tenured professor, it makes no difference; the Harvey Weinstein scandal (rather than the countless sexual disgraces associated with our Commander-in-Chief) provided the watershed moment that now has our country engaged, at least for the time being, in this important, albeit uncomfortable, conversation.

One can easily feel saturated by the flood of news and opinions on this topic. And one might ask why two foreign policy scholars at a think tank dedicated to international affairs feel the need to write this blog post. There are two answers to that question: First, everyone has a responsibility to speak up about this issue. Second, the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) approach toward global affairs is actually quite useful when discussing this issue as well. The FPRI outlook, as we understand it, tends to take a realistic (some might say pessimistic) view of the world and human nature. We are not afraid to expose our own or anyone else’s warts. But we believe that only after taking in the world as it is can we begin to ask what is to be done. This approach is as necessary as it is lacking in foreign policy analysis… as well as in much of the current dialog on sexual assault and sexual harassment.

Sexual assault was, and still is in many cases, synonymous with war—both as a tool wielded by the strong against the weak and as a spoil of war. There is a reason that the terms “rape and pillage” are habitually used in tandem. One can find instances of rape in almost every war in human history. The handful of examples provided by Anna Louie Sussman in her piece “Is Rape Inevitable in War?” from the Rape of Nanking to the rape camps of Bosnia and Herzegovina illustrate this gruesome reality.

Similarly, forced marriages and concubinage have existed from antiquity (including in the Bible) up through the modern era. The shocking tales of sex slavery practiced by ISIS are but the most recent manifestation of this age-old practice. The sad truth is that women have found themselves at the mercy of male sexual aggression for most of human history. Often, that situation was considered normal and accepted.

Workplace sexual assault and sexual harassment cannot be divorced from this history. Nevertheless, much of the discussion of sexual assault portrays it as an aberration, while at the same time portraying women’s rights as inherent in the state of nature. This is simply not true. Humanity has its darker sides. There is no tabula rasa. The idea that we have to be taught to hate, to discriminate, and to be violent has long been debunked. Human minds work to separate themselves from the other at an impossibly young age, as so much research has shown.[1] If anyone is looking for examples, Chapter Three of Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s book NurtureShock, titled “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race,” contains a number that are particularly poignant. Conversely, acceptance, tolerance, and equality for the other must be taught. And because we have failed to acknowledge the prominent place of sexual assault in human history, that simply hasn’t happened. So here we are.

Sexual innuendo and coercion in the modern workplace (be it Hollywood, the government, or think tanks) has its roots in this ugly past. Although the power dynamic inherent in the war context is much more extreme than in the workplace, the two are not unrelated. Those in power, and let’s be honest, there is overwhelming evidence that we are primarily talking about men here, have used sexual harassment and sexual assault to assert themselves over their subordinates. Psychotherapist Lyn Yonack explains, “Although the touch may be sexual, the words seductive or intimidating, and the violation physical, when someone rapes, assaults, or harasses, the motivation stems from the perpetrator’s need for dominance and control. In heterosexual and same-sex encounters, sex is the tool used to gain power over another person.”  Being in a position that determines the professional fate of others, where “no” is not an acceptable response, where growth and reward come from being close to those who possess power, is a heady position to be in and is often abused. And people seem to know that it is going on.

A new NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll shows that while “more than four of every five Americans believe that sexual harassment is taking place in the workplace,” “just 9 percent of those employed — believe that sexual harassment is a problem in their own office.” Well how can that be? One reason is that sexual harassment is largely under-reported. As Jane Coaston recounts, “though up to 75 percent of women surveyed in one study had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, just 29 percent reported it.” Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev link low reporting levels to fear of retribution. They report that “among people who file harassment complaints with the [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission], at least one-third say that after complaining to the company they were demoted, moved to lousy jobs or shifts, fired, raped, or further harassed.” Dobbin and Kalev point to several large-scale surveys that show, “people who file harassment complaints are much more likely to lose their jobs than those who experience similar levels of harassment and say nothing.”

There is a toll that these experiences exact on women’s careers as more and more of them simply opt out or change lanes. As Rosa Brooks wrote, in this case about the national security landscape, “at every point along that spectrum from merely offensive to actually criminal, crappy male behavior is part of what pushes women out of the national security workplace.” Brooks invoked what Dan Drezner’s called the hidden “tax” on women, which amounts to “an extra burden that makes it that much tougher for women to advance or even stay in the workplace at all.” Male-dominated industries like national security and foreign policy are rife with sexual harassment not only because of their sheer numbers or boy’s club culture, but also because of hierarchy and authority. Dobbin and Kalev point to a host of studies that show harassment “flourishes in workplaces where men dominate in management and women have little power,” and “in organizations where few women hold the ‘core’ jobs.” Similarly, Lyn Yonack notes that sexual assaults and sexual violence “typically arise within asymmetrical power dynamics, where the perpetrator occupies a more powerful or dominant position in relation to the victim.” This dearth of women at the top, more than sensitivity training or any of the other myriad of Band-Aids that have come into vogue over the years, is where the work needs to start.

If we accept that sexual assault and harassment are endemic in human history, and probably in human nature, we must also accept that they cannot be treated passively. Providing a sugar-coated rendition of human interactions that treat perpetrators of sexual assault as deviant misses the point. From a historical perspective, those of us who wish to ban sexual assault from human interactions are the outliers. If we truly wish to address this issue, we need to be proactive.

Fortunately, there are a number of things we can do, beginning with ensuring that more women are in leadership positions and occupying “core jobs.” This also has a strong bearing on the need to first acknowledge and then resolve gender wage inequality in the workplace—a touchy issue that is intimately tied to promotion. Another takeaway is that this is not something that should come only from women. Men need to step up. It’s time for a change—a meaningful cultural shift that begins at infancy and is reinforced until retirement by men and women alike, but particularly by men. That change can start now, while this issue still has our attention. It needs to happen on a national level, but it also needs to happen in every one of our workplaces by anyone and everyone who has the ability, the clout, or the platform to do so.

*About the author:
Tally Helfont
is the Director of FPRI’s Program on the Middle East. Her research focuses on regional balance of power, the Levant and the GCC, and U.S. policy therein. She is also a Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat’s Middle East Desk, a crowd-sourcing consultancy.

Samuel Helfont is a Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Program on the Middle East, and holds a post-doctoral lectureship in the University of Pennsylvania’s interdisciplinary International Relations Program. In May 2015, he completed a PhD in Princeton University’s Near Eastern Studies Department, where he wrote his dissertation on Saddam Hussein’s instrumentalization of religion as well as its legacy beyond 2003.

This article was published by FPRI.

[1] Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children (New York: Twelve, 2009), Chapter 3: Why White Parents don’t Talk about Race, pp. 45-70.

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

Founded in 1955, FPRI ( is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization devoted to bringing the insights of scholarship to bear on the development of policies that advance U.S. national interests and seeks to add perspective to events by fitting them into the larger historical and cultural context of international politics.

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