An Interview With Author and Filmmaker Raquel Cepeda
Before we can take steps in the U.S. to eliminate sexual harassment, it is important to understand why it’s so common in the first place. To me, the “boys will be boys” attitude begins to set in during childhood and sometimes extends to the courtroom when female attorneys are often second chair to a man despite doing the bulk of the prep work or disrespected by their male peers. The same damaging attitudes can been seen among women too, leading some harassers to exploit a perceived or real lack of gender solidarity. Could the rising awareness of sexual harassment and assault via the #metoo and #timesup movements encourage women and girls to question these types of attitudes toward women and what they’ve learned regarding women’s roles and places in history? I turned to Raquel Cepeda, to talk about these issues and get the viewpoint of someone with experience in cultural detective work. Ms. Cepeda is the author of Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina and a documentary filmmaker, whose film Some Girls (now available at somegirlsdoc.com), follows a group of troubled Latina teens from a Bronx-based suicide prevention program who are transformed by an exploration of their roots.
The connection between women’s self-esteem, toxic masculinity, and sexual harassment
In Ms. Cepeda’s latest documentary, Some Girls, the teen girls re-learn their history in a way that Ms. Cepeda says gets glossed over in the traditional American education system. I asked Ms. Cepeda about whether she thinks there might be some motivation to find a way to intersect a re-learning of women’s history with #metoo and #timesup. Ms. Cepeda believes that in the future, the #metoo and #timesup movements might intersect with how girls are educated, but for now sees them as “two separate things but equally important parts of the same issue.” The teens in Some Girls learned to see themselves and their bodies “as walking, breathing, living embodiments of history.” She hopes that learning your ancestors’ history, especially the roles of powerful women, will inspire women and girls to treat themselves better, see beauty in themselves, and demand better treatment. Ms. Cepeda says “[s]elf-esteem is connected not just with patriarchy, but also how we as women treat ourselves and each other. And that is connected to not knowing your history.”
Ms. Cepeda agrees that the “boys will be boys” attitude absolutely contributes to the pervasiveness of sexual assault and harassment of women and girls, partly because “[o]ur world revolves around toxic masculinity.” One of the girls in her film was sexually assaulted and abused at the hands of another student shortly after she attempted suicide. The school’s female principal shrugged off the allegations as “boys will be boys.” Ms. Cepeda says the principal’s response highlights the “misogyny within our own gender.”
So you see this woman who should have been protecting the young lady who was sexually assaulted tell the mother ‘you’re just spoiling her,’ ‘she needs to toughen up’ and ‘boys will be boys.’”
Ms. Cepeda further explains that “sexual assault is something that kids don’t even see as predatory. They just see it as part of their culture because they learn it at home. And when confronted with these issues in their own lives and those of their elders, it’s too often met with indifference.” Ms. Cepeda believes that part of the solution is for men and boys “to listen to the girls around you and listen to the young women around you. If something makes [the girls] feel uncomfortable, you have to respect that and listen. Become an active part of the solution” Ms. Cepeda believes that it’s time to get organizations like A Call to Men more involved to “work to re-educate young men to give men the tools that they need to be an active participant and to protect and honor the women around them.”
Going forward, Ms. Cepeda believes men need to be included in the #metoo and #timesup conversations. “They need to talk about what it is about society and the male gender that makes them stay quiet and think that it’s good enough to not step up. You can’t be indifferent to these things just because you happen to be a nice guy.”
In Ms. Cepeda’s experience, male allies in the workplace can make all the difference. As the Editor-in-Chief at Russell Simmons’ Oneworld Magazine, working in the hip-hop community meant dealing with misogyny. While Ms. Cepeda is tough, she felt lucky to have an ally in her publisher, John Pasmore. “Just listening to the frustrations that my staff, both male and female, were dealing with and being an ally helped me feel like I could take chances and do what I had to do. He went through a lot of stuff to keep the tone that way. I was lucky.”
How can cultural attitudes impact a sexual harassment case?
Ms. Cepeda’s analysis pins down the positions and viewpoints that many harassers, attorneys, and jurors may hold subconsciously and impact how a sexual harassment case is litigated. Many victims are hesitant to speak up about sexual harassment because they fear being blamed by both men and women. The #metoo and #timesup movements, however, have revealed that sexual harassment is more pervasive than many of us believed and the tide is shifting so that victims are more readily believed. If you have experienced sexual harassment at work, your attorney can be your strongest ally. Your conversations with your attorney are confidential. As always, it is important to consult an attorney about your legal rights if you have experienced sexual harassment at work.