#ItsOnUS – Sexual Abuse on TV, Then and Now

 by Nicki Huggins
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Variety   Sept 23, 1992
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At this year’s Oscars, the issue of diversity in Hollywood was all but forgotten by the issue of sex abuse as presented by VP Joe Biden,  Lady Gaga and the best film nominee Spotlight.  And the award goes to…. Spotlight took the Best Picture trophy for the events behind the Boston Globe’s story of systemic abuse within the Catholic church.  Lady Gaga’s gut-wrenching performance of her Oscar nominated song, “Till It Happens To You” ended with sex abuse survivor’s, both men and women, holding hands triumphantly on stage. Gaga declared that 1 in 4 women would be assaulted by the time they were out of college and 1 in 20 men.  I was stunned and appalled.  The stats of sexual assault against women have not changed in the 23 years since I was Director of Marketing for “Scared Silent,” a documentary special on child abuse, specifically sex abuse, that became the most watched TV documentary in television history.

In 1992, Scared Silent became the first “event special” on TV with NBC, CBS and PBS broadcasting it  simultaneously.  And, just in case you missed it, the following weekend, ABC aired it again.  At that time, the abuse stats were this:   1-6 males and 1-4 females.  America was still a shame-based society.  Sexual perpetrators, like Cosby, or priests, or family members, could victimize repeatedly knowing that most victims would be too ashamed to admit it and if they did come forward, the burden of proof would fall on the victims themselves.  Victims did not want to be stigmatized and were not getting the help they needed.  Without that help, they were much more likely to become perpetrators themselves creating an endless cycle of abuse.  Without intervention, victims often turned to drugs or other forms of self-medication. The cost, both human and institutional, was too great.  Scared Silent was financed by USAA, the insurance giant, who realized this was an American issue that desperately needed addressing. It was hosted by Oprah, who had only recently revealed her incest, and it was “willed” into being by the perseverance of veteran producer Arnold Shapiro, known for the pivotal work, Scared Straight, the documentary that brought convicts talking about what prison life is really like to thousands of schools across America.  Scared Silent, shot reality-style, had victims and their perpetrators talking about their abuse, how it happened, how it affected them. All of us involved in making it hoped that victims and perpetrators would realize they could break free of the abuse entrapment by speaking up and getting the help they needed.  Hundreds of thousands of victims called the toll-free number and were funneled, that night, into local chapters of ChildHelp USA. With phone lines analog at the time, this was no small feat. The lines rang ’round the clock in states across the US for the next month.  Did it work; did we move the needle?  55 Million American’s watched the 2 hour special on the same labor day weekend across America. If you turned on the tube that night, unless you had cable and most Americans at that time did not understand why they should pay for media, you saw Scared Silent.When one quarter of any population takes in the same information at the same time, change can happen.  But, did it?
I believe Scared Silent in it’s decade and the Boston Globe story in the following one, did make a difference in stigmatization. Victims are much more likely to come forward now knowing that they are not at fault and, mostly, will not be ostracized.   And, if the stats are accurate, crimes against males have dropped substantially.  But, today, over two decades later, the assault rate against women is exactly the same.  Let’s attach some numbers to that.  If there are 160 million females living in the US, 40 million of them will be sexual assault victims by the time they are 21.  That means that all of us know not just one victim, but many, way too many.  Is this a hallmark of an enlightened society?
With so much “out in the open” today, how is it that women are still getting attacked in the same disturbing numbers?  And, now that we’re no longer an “analog” society, there are so many other ways women can be victimized.
This week, Erin Andrews testified in her 2009 civil stalking case. What many of us learned for the first time is that when the video of her naked in her hotel room went public on the internet, her then employer ESPN would not allow her back on the air till she did a damage control interview.  As the Washington Post reports “to dispel suspicions that she had staged the whole thing to gain greater publicity.”  Really? Why would an established, respected  journalist even consider potentially harming herself with a salacious stunt?  Just 7 years ago, ESPN did not believe their own talent and subjected her to further on air humiliation.  Every single day since then Erin receives a degrading tweet or message with a shot from the hotel room video, re-victimizing her over and over again.
In an interview about the Andrews case on NPR, writer Mary Elizabeth Williams, who often writes on women’s issues, said that she gets threatening tweets and messages every time she publishes a piece on women’s rights. Other female commentators on politics or women’s issues interviewed this week confirmed that this is also their reality. This is the hostile climate that American women live, breathe, raise children, work and, generally, survive in. It is not one that women can thrive in in the way that is their birthright. http://www.salon.com/2016/03/01/the_endless_shaming_of_erin_andrews_when_a_woman_is_sexually_victimized_online_the_damage_endures/
“The Hunting Ground,” the documentary about rape on college campuses that Lady Gaga’s song appeared in has received plenty of scrutiny and controversy since it was released. But, the sad truth is that college campuses are no longer safe havens of learning when students have to be on alert at all times.  Campus parking lots and parties may as well be south central LA. Twice I had to be escorted to my car when attending class at UCLA because of campus assaults. Sound like other places on the planet where women and education don’t peacefully co-exist that you may have heard about?

Vice President Joe Biden called the abuse problem in America “systemic” when he introduced the consciousness raising campaign #ITSONUS to 36 million Oscar viewers.  If we learned anything from “Scared Silent” it’s that it’s going to take more than a consciousness raising campaign to change behavior towards women. Hard fought and won women’s health issues have been under attack for over a decade by one major political party.  It’s no secret that equal pay for equal work is simply a slogan and not the current reality for American women. And, when one political candidate insults women on a regular basis and still gains significant support from everyday Americans, I believe we will continue on a downward spiral of respect and acknowledgment of women’s mutual rights.  Make America Great Again?  Was America Always Great?  If being great means that women are treated equally, respectfully, and that they are safe from violent acts, then the undeniable truth is that we haven’t gotten there yet. #ItsOnUs to get there by being the human beings we want to live with and modeling that to our children and others.