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'Is This Our Watershed Moment?'

As the sexual misconduct allegations against high profile men—from Kevin Spacey to Louis C.K. to Harvey Weinstein—continue to mount, advocates for survivors ask if this snowballing momentum of accusations will finally create a cultural shift.

Kimberly Lawson

Kimberly Lawson

All photos via Wikipedia creative commons. 

Today, the New York Times unveiled another investigative story—a little more than a month since its bombshell report on Harvey Weinstein—outlining accusations of sexual misconduct from five women against comedian Louis C.K. Two of the accusers, Dana Min Goodman and Julia Wolov, told the Times that the comedian took off all his clothes and masturbated in front of them.

“We were paralyzed,” Goodman recalled. Afterward, “He was like, ‘Which one is Dana and which one is Julia?’”

In the last few weeks, the sheer number of sexual harassment and assault allegations in Hollywood and beyond has been dizzying. Earlier this week, two women posted on social media that they’d been sexually assaulted by former Gossip Girl actor Ed Westwick in 2014. A Washington, DC-based woman came forward to share her experience of Entourage star Jeremy Piven allegedly rubbing his genitals on her and ejaculating “all over my white turtleneck.” (She’s the third woman to claim being assaulted by Piven.) A former Boston TV news anchor yesterday accused Kevin Spacey of groping her 18-year-old son in 2016. (At least 14 people have alleged the actor behaved inappropriately toward them.) Also yesterday, actress Portia de Rossi tweeted her own #metoo story of sexual harassment, alleging that during her last audition for a Steven Segal movie, the actor “sat me down and unzipped his leather pants. I ran out and called my agent. Unfazed, she replied, ‘well, I didn’t know if he was your type.’”

The outpouring of survivor stories and allegations goes well beyond these high-profile accounts. According to RAINN, the country’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, victims of sexual assault and harassment have been reaching out in record numbers. More than 19,000 people—an increase of 21 percent—contacted RAINN for support in October.

"Coming forward about sexual harassment or assault is a personal and difficult choice,” Sara McGovern, press secretary for RAINN, tells Broadly. “For many survivors who stayed silent about their assault, seeing others come forward helps them speak out as well. When victims are able to see that the community is on their side and is willing to believe them, it can encourage more people to come forward. When so many share their stories, it highlights the scale of these crimes and how widespread sexual assault and harassment are.”

Read more: How Tig Notaro and Her All-Women Writers Room Are Tackling Sexual Assault

Monika Johnson Hostler is the president of the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence. She tells Broadly she thinks there are a number of factors contributing to the timing of this snowball effect of survivors coming forward and sharing their accounts. Social media, she explains, has played a huge role in all this. “I think we’re in a moment of hashtags, social media, and people feeling like a part of their healing is by being public [online]. And the fact that women can now feel united without even knowing each other, whereas before when there were perpetrators who had multiple victims, the [victims] had to find out through the [traditional] news media.”

As more survivors have gone public, Hostler says, their stories have given language to situations people have historically struggled to talk about: “For the first time in elections, we’re talking about sexual assault in a very clear manner.” While the phrase “war on women” was popularized years ago, she explains, “we weren’t really using the words ‘sexual assault,’ ‘sexual violence,’ or anything on the sexual acts that are without a person’s consent. For survivors who’ve been talking about their assault for years, we couldn’t even get people to publicly talk about what this would mean and how we could change the culture.”

Read more: Two-Thirds of Young Women Are Sexually Harassed at Work

“We’re in a place right now where I believe we can actually talk about shifting culture,” Hostler continues. “I think now that women are talking about it, I see men asking what they can do, what their role in this is. That was unheard of just 24 months ago.”

The goal now, she says, is to move the narrative from “Why are there so many victims?” to “How do we prevent this from happening?”

“I’ve actually been saying to people, ‘Is this our watershed moment? Is this the time in which we’ve spent 40 years trying to navigate and create a narrative around the prevalence but also the long-lasting impact of sexual violence?’” Hostler says. “Perhaps it’s not our watershed moment, but that’s what it feels like.”