After a man opened fire in a bar last week in Thousand Oaks, California, killing 12 people, a woman came forward to tell her story.
It was one she had told before, but at the time, no one listened.
Dominique Colell was the shooter’s high school track coach. In his senior year, she recalled in interviews, he sexually assaulted her in a rage ― groping her stomach and buttocks ― because she was holding his cellphone. It was not the first time his behavior scared her, but it was the most serious, and she felt she had to act.
So she kicked him off the team. Soon, she said, colleagues at her school pressured her to change her mind. They said that his future was at stake, that he might not get into the Marines because of her. One administrator even told her that because she was young and attractive, it was no surprise that the incident happened. She should just let it go.
The message was clear: His unrealized potential was more important than her pain. And so she allowed him back on the team.
“I was pressured and guilted, and I gave in,” she said.
There is no more effective way to silence a woman than by telling her that she will ruin a man’s future with her words. It triggers a flurry of self-doubt: Maybe she is overreacting. Maybe she misunderstood. Maybe she shouldn’t make a fuss. It plays on women’s shame, often present after a sexual assault.
It’s no wonder Colell caved in to her co-workers.
“It is really easy to push women over the line of doubting themselves,” said Stefanie Johnson, a professor at the University of Colorado who has studied sexual harassment. “People often question themselves a little bit — ‘What did I do to bring this on?’”
For ages, women have been socialized to put others before themselves, said Tali Mendelberg, a Princeton political scientist who has written about women’s voices in society.
“We are taught that men’s careers take priority over women’s needs, because everyone’s welfare is best served when men achieve,” she said. “Women and children still tend to depend on men to be the main provider.”
Until recently, milder forms of sexual aggression have been seen as a natural prerogative of men ― “boys will be boys” ― and merely a minor inconvenience for women, Mendelberg added. When women decide to speak out about such behavior, they risk being seen as petty and vindictive.
Christine Blasey Ford, a professor of psychology at Palo Alto University in California, knew all this when she decided to go public during the confirmation process for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh with her allegation that he sexually assaulted her when they were teens.
The backlash was intense and immediate. Ford was accused of trying to ruin his life. Random people on the internet debated whether she was a liar or an attention whore or was simply crazy. President Donald Trump mocked her. At least one Republican senator said that even if she was telling the truth, her allegation shouldn’t derail Kavanaugh’s career at this stage in his life. Kavanaugh declared himself the victim, claiming that his family was “permanently destroyed” by the allegations against him.
The problem with doing something wrong and not getting in trouble for it is that you’ve been told that what you did was acceptable. Stefanie Johnson, professor at the University of Colorado
It has been a month and a half since Kavanaugh and Ford testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and their fortunes have significantly diverged. Kavanaugh is now a Supreme Court justice.
“My real reaction to all of these cases where people are worried about the men’s careers is that we don’t spend any time considering the women’s careers,” Johnson said. “Women are being driven out of their jobs.”
When men’s careers are valued over women’s lives, dangerous men are free to find even more people to prey on without consequence, as a recent long-form story on former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar from New York magazine’s The Cut so eloquently reveals.
One of Nassar’s first victims, Larissa Boyce, tried to sound the alarm about his behavior. She told her coach that Nassar was touching her inappropriately, under the guise of medical treatment. Her coach dismissed her concerns, telling her she just didn’t understand what he was doing. If she went forward with her allegations, she said, it would have serious consequences.
Not just for her but for Nassar.
The insinuation was obvious: Did she really want to be the one who derailed his career? Boyce, only 16 years old, let it go. Now more than 20 years later, nearly 500 women have come forward with similar stories.
It is chilling to imagine what might have happened if Boyce had been taken seriously back then, her teenage complaint deemed as important as Nassar’s reputation.
Or to imagine what might have happened if the Thousand Oaks shooter faced real consequences for sexually assaulting his coach. How would things have changed if his coach’s safety had been valued as highly as his potential future?
Maybe he wouldn’t have gotten into the military. Maybe he would have received help. Maybe that shooting wouldn’t have happened.
“The problem with doing something wrong and not getting in trouble for it is that you’ve been told that what you did was acceptable,” Johnson said. “You are told that you are the person who is most important. And whatever you did wasn’t that bad because people knew about it and they didn’t do anything.”