Billy Bush, Bystanders and #MeToo
by Tabby Biddle
One by one they are dropping. Matt Lauer. Charlie Rose. Harvey Weinstein. Roy Price. Garrison Keillor. Louis C.K., Mark Halperin. Russell Simmons. Men in power. Men with a mic. Men who’ve been shaping the cultural conversation. Men who have sexually harassed and assaulted not only women’s bodies, but also our psyches and souls.
When I was 15, my high school friend was raped. She wasn’t raped by a random man. (This is often less the case). She was raped by our high school classmate, also 15. This was a boy she considered a friend. There were other boys involved too, also friends. The details are gruesome.
The day after this horrific occurrence, I sat at breakfast in our school dining hall with my friend. Everyone was staring at our table. At the time, I didn’t know yet know what had happened the night before, and apparently my friend, I’ll call her Kate, didn’t either. Kate uncomfortably asked our small group of girlfriends eating at the table: Why is everyone staring at me?
That breakfast was the last time I saw Kate. Once news broke of what happened, mostly through the bragging of the boys, administrators contacted Kate’s parents and they picked her up from our “quaint” New England boarding school. This is when I began to hear the stories of what happened.
There was alcohol involved. (Yes, drinking was against school rules.) Kate and a boy from our class snuck out to the nearby woods and consumed a bottle of vodka. Kate drank more than her body could handle, and instead of getting help for her, the boy snuck her back into her dorm and raped her.
It didn’t stop there.
After evening check-in at 10:20pm, the boy snuck back into her dorm, which was also my dorm, and carried her out wearing only a shirt. He landed her in his room, and shared his “accomplishments” with his roommate. Instead of getting Kate help, the roommate summoned other boys from the dorm to have a look at Kate and drum up grotesque ideas and suggestions of what else they could do to her. Kate, to my understanding, was unconscious.
There were other boys in on this too. The boys in the dorm who were told what was going on, but they kept their heads down, decidedly not wanting to get involved.
The next morning, Kate was whisked away from school after breakfast. We were all in shock. What just happened? How could this have happened? What will happen to our friend Kate? And why are those boys still here?
I remember these questions being up for debate amongst our student body and then later by the school’s disciplinary committee, which conducted an investigation into the case. In the meantime, we were asked to have no contact with Kate.
The result: Seven boys involved were expelled, including the rapist and his roommate.
But the question remained what should be done with the boys who knew what was going on, but didn’t do anything to stop it? How would they be held accountable? They could have gone to a teacher in the dorm for help. But no one did.
Billy Bush’s op-ed in the New York Times earlier this week touches upon this dilemma. That group of seven men on the Access Hollywood bus were akin to the group of boys in the dorm in my high school. While they were not present at a rape, they were participants in or bystanders to a conversation that makes rape and sexual assault okay. Some of them participated by egging on the “chief” criminal, and some of them stayed silent.
I know Billy to be someone who has a reverence for women. I went to college with Billy. He dated my college roommate, and we share some common friends. I have not, however, been in touch with him in years. While my experience of Billy is as a man with reverence for women, at the same time, I know him to be someone who falls prey to the “locker room” puffery and bro conversations that plague many all-male conversations and create a culture of acceptance of sexual assault, harassment and objectification of women. This is not okay.
I applaud Billy for speaking out, calling out the lies of number 45 and bringing attention to Natasha Stoynoff, Rachel Crooks, Jessica Leeds, Jill Harth, and Kristin Anderson, who had come forward in the past with their stories of being harassed and assaulted by our President.
I’d like to see more men taking the lead in being an “upstander,” like Billy in this case (admittedly, later than we would have hoped) and call out other men in their language and actions.
In his New York Times op-ed, Billy quotes the activist and gender-relations expert Jackson Katz, who, among others, has said that sexual harassment and assault is not a women’s issue — it’s a men’s issue. “That’s a great place to start, and something I have real thoughts about — but it is a story for another day,” wrote Billy.
I’d like to hear those thoughts sooner than later. How about now? Appearing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert was a start.
Men in the media, like Billy, among many others, have a responsibility and an outstanding opportunity to change the cultural conversation around sexual harassment and assault.
To do this, we need to engage in a co-ed conversation to define the terms of what’s okay and what’s not. And most definitely, we need to change the culture of the media and entertainment industry. Whoever tells our stories, shapes our culture.
In October, right after the Weinstein story broke, I co-hosted an event in Hollywood to introduce a new initiative to support women in media and entertainment to redefine power, advance in their careers and create a new blueprint for the industry. Research shows that harassment is reduced in workplaces when there are more women in leadership.
The story of my high school friend and classmate has haunted me. I often wonder about Kate and how she is doing today, and how the #MeToo campaign has affected her. Has it helped her feel less alone? Has it made her revisit painful aspects of her story that she would rather forget? Where is she now?
Those eight male students who knew about the rape and the sexual harassment of Kate, but kept their heads down and did nothing to resolve the situation, remained at the school with some “light” punishment.
As for Kate, she was not to be heard from again. We were told that her parents didn’t want her to have contact with kids from the school. It felt like she vanished.
At 15, I didn’t really know how to process what happened. Although the assault did not happen to me, it shaped how I felt about my own sexuality, and shaped how I felt about boys and men for years. Unsafe, untrusting and angry. Really, really angry.
Women are often questioned about why they would bring forth their stories of harassment and assault years later, or even decades later. By now, I hope that men can understand that women can never forget. That experience lives in them. The body remembers, and it affects our psyche and soul.
So men, when you see (or hear about) a woman being raped, do something about it. When you see a woman being abused, harassed or mistreated, do something about it. When you hear other guys trash-talking a woman, tell them it’s not okay. Speak up. Use your voice. Disrupt the status quo of male culture. We’ll all be better for it.
Tabby Biddle, M.S. Ed., is a Leadership Ambassador with Take The Lead, a non-profit organization committed to preparing, developing, inspiring and propelling women to take their fair and equal share of leadership by 2025. She is currently the Co-Project Director for 50 Women Can Change The World in Media & Entertainment. Learn more here.
This article first appeared in The Huffington Post.