For a while toward the end of 2017, it seemed like every morning, we'd wake up to an alert about another powerful man accused of a sex crime. If it seemed like a sudden onslaught that came out of nowhere, it's not because it's a new pattern — it's because until recently, people weren't willing to listen. This culture of systemic harassment and abuse was something that as women we were expected to deal with, even if no one said so out loud — and it was definitely not considered news.
This is exactly the attitude that award-winning filmmaker Amy Ziering was up against when she first attempted to make her documentary, The Invisible War, about sexual assault in the military in 2006. She was repeatedly told that people weren't interested in the subject, and it took years to secure funding. Undeterred, Ziering began traveling the country, speaking to survivors of sexual assault — both military and civilian — and recording their stories.
When the film was finally screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012, Ziering's publicists wished her "good luck with the rape film." Not expecting a warm reception, Ziering was checking her phone when it was announced that she had won the audience award.
But Ziering isn't here for accolades; she's here to tell stories that empower others and prompt change. "Every day in our U.S. military, according to Department of Defense estimates, 49 women and men are sexually assaulted… right here on American soil in the line of duty by other American soldiers," Ziering said at the BlogHer18 Health conference hosted by SheKnows Media in New York on Wednesday, Jan. 31.
But their stories were not being told, and where there's silence, there's disbelief. Now, as made evident by the prevalence of the #MeToo movement, people are realizing the power that comes with sharing your own experiences.
“All this is because a handful of women agreed to speak up," Ziering said. "Not for self-aggrandizement or acclaim, but simply for the purpose of preventing another woman from being harmed.” This is a topic Ziering addressed again in another documentary called The Hunting Ground, which focused on sexual assault on college campuses and was released in 2015.
While speaking at the conference, Ziering teared up as she recounted meeting a college sophomore who had been sexually assaulted but had not yet told her parents. The young woman sat there during the interview clutching a teddy bear, which she then offered to Ziering when she became visibly upset after hearing about her experience. It was hard to hear and retell, but Ziering said that's why it's so important to have these conversations.
“Women’s stories matter, and it’s our obligation, our duty and responsibility, to tell them and to listen — even when listening is painful and unpleasant, and to speak up, even when that speaking up requires courage. Even when it’s easier to turn away," she said.
And while we still have a long way to go in terms of seeing major shifts in rape culture, we are now finally having discussions that make people — men in particular — question and reflect on their own behavior and existing power structures. We've also made progress in terms of how we view survivors of sex crimes. “For the first time in our lifetimes, the blame for rapes in our culture is being placed on perpetrators and not victims," Ziering said.
Now that she has tackled sexual assault in the military and on college campuses, Ziering plans to turn her focus to patriarchal imbalances in the health care sphere. Ziering describes it as "an exposé on the medical industry" and says that one of her key takeaways while making the film was this: "Not only do we women doubt ourselves, but doctors doubt us." Like her previous project, it's another topic that will greatly benefit us by amplifying women's voices.
“We are each other’s stories," Ziering added. "We have a responsibility to share them if we can.”
If you have experienced sexual abuse or assault, call the free, confidential National Sexual Assault hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), or access the 24-7 help online by visiting online.rainn.org.
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