Letter: Perpetrators of harassment should not be painted as victims

Published 6:32 pm Thursday, December 12, 2019

From Austin Anderson, Danville —

The Wednesday, Dec. 11, front-page article entitled “Cullen apologizes to Sammons for ‘all you’re going through’” describes a misguided attempt to resolve this fall’s incident and Magistrate Phil Sammons’ alleged history of similar behavior. Urging us to “forget about it,” the article impedes the county’s ability to move forward.

We have to be careful about the stories we tell ourselves. Comments in the article paint Sammons and other men on the fiscal court as victims. Magistrate Jason Cullen says to Sammons, “We’re having to suffer a lot; you’re having to suffer a lot. And I really am sorry for all you’re going through.” I understand that being held accountable is a challenging experience, but focusing on the victimhood of perpetrators held accountable erases the fact that they caused the problem and decenters the experiences of women affected. Workplace misogyny harms women, not men who get caught enacting it. Accountability is a good thing. It keeps men from causing further harm and helps to create navigable workplaces for all.

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Incidents of men objectifying and harassing women are not isolated or ahistorical. The urgency with which we must respond to the recent moments in our county is heightened by broader context. We live in a society that has been imbued with sexism for centuries. Context helps us understand why it could be true that a man sexually harasses colleagues without having the conscious intention to cause problems: Misogynistic actions and systems are so ingrained in our culture that they are often perceived as normal, especially by those who are not directly harmed. Caring about the people around us means working to learn genuinely how to respect them.

Cullen complains that “PC culture” changes constantly and is difficult to keep up with. The rate at which “PC culture” changes is the rate at which mainstream society begins to realize the harm in what has been normalized. Those who experience the harm directly have often been aware and speaking out for centuries.

The county must address the issue institutionally, as well as with Sammons specifically, because this story is about more than one moment.

Heeding Jennifer Kirchner’s call for the creation of a policy for handling future harassment complaints is an essential step. I hope the county moves forward by learning as much as we can from this fall’s events so that one day they may cease to be repeated.