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Ashley Judd: How Can We—As A Society—Heal From Sexual Violence?

Feb 1, 2019
Originally published on February 1, 2019 11:52 am

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Gender, Power And Fairness.

About Ashley Judd's TED Talk

Ashley Judd has experienced many forms of gendered discrimination, from intense online harassment to assault. Despite her experiences, she says she's optimistic about a future without sexual violence.

About Ashley Judd

Ashley Judd is an American actor and political activist.

For more than a decade, Judd's humanitarian work has focused on gender equality and the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls.

In 2016, she was appointed a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations reproductive health and rights agency. Judd has spoken out about her own experiences of sexual violence and empowered many other women to come forward with their stories as well.

Her viral essay "Forget Your Team: Your Online Violence Towards Girls And Women Is What Can Kiss My Ass" was published in 2015.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about the new conversation we're having around Gender, Power and Fairness. And just a warning, some of the stories and language in this segment may be hard to hear.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ASHLEY JUDD: Hello, this is Ashley.

RAZ: Ashley, good morning. This is Guy Raz. I'm the host of the program. How are you?

JUDD: I know your voice well, Guy.

RAZ: I know yours, too.

This is Ashley Judd.

JUDD: And I am a writer, a humanitarian and an actor.

RAZ: Ashley was one of the first women to speak on the record about being sexually harassed by Harvey Weinstein. But she's actually been speaking out about gender violence for much longer. For years, she's been on the receiving end of intense online harassment, harassment that is routine for so many women.

JUDD: I would venture to say that I began receiving gendered hate speech and misogynistic messages on social media from the very moment that I joined.

RAZ: Like in one instance at a basketball game in 2015, when Ashley tweeted a complaint about the refs.

JUDD: The response to that was a huge sexist pile-on, where it really started with, you know, the outrageousness of my thinking that as a female basketball fan I was entitled to have an opinion about officiating, to just a generalized, you should die; I want to rape you; I want to ejaculate on your face; you shouldn't be taking up oxygen; there was a picture of you, I wish it was a picture of your deathbed. You know, all of this stuff that I got.

RAZ: Ashley Judd picks up her story from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

JUDD: It is routine for me to be treated in the ways I've already described to you. It happens to me every single day on social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook. And I have responded to this with various strategies. I've tried to rise above it. I've tried to get in the trenches. But mostly, I would scroll through these social media platforms with one eye partially closed, trying not to see it, but you can't make a cucumber out of a pickle. What is seen, goes in. It's traumatic. And I was always secretly hoping, in some part of me, that what was being said to me and about me wasn't true.

Because even I, an avowed, self-declared feminist who worships at the altar of Gloria, internalized the patriarchy. Patriarchy is not boys and men. It is a system in which we all participate, including me. On that particular day, for some reason, that particular tweet after the basketball game, when I was sitting at home alone in my nightgown, I got a phone call, and it was my beloved former husband. And he said on a voicemail, Loved One, what is happening to you is not OK. And there was something about him taking a stand for me that night that allowed me to take a stand for myself.

And I started to write, sharing the fact that I'm a survivor of all forms of sexual abuse, including three rapes. So I wrote this feminist op-ed. It is entitled, "Forget Your Team: It Is Your Online Gendered Violence Toward Girls And Women That Can Kiss My Righteous Ass."

(APPLAUSE)

JUDD: And I did that alone, and I published it alone, because my chief adviser said, please don't. The reign of retaliatory garbage that is inevitable, I fear for you. But I trust girls, and I trust women, and I trust our allies. It was published. It went viral.

It proves that every single day online misogyny is a phenomenon endured by us all, all over the world, and when it is intersectional, it is worse. Sexual orientation, gender identity, race, ethnicity, religion - you name it, it is worse. Online misogyny is a global, gender rights tragedy, and it is imperative that it ends.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: I mean, the digital space has opened up a whole new world that was almost unanticipated, right? When this technology came out, I think most of us thought, well, this is going to bring the world together. It's going to democratize the ability to amplify and share messages and views. But I don't think anybody anticipated that it would become this repository for violence.

JUDD: I think it's a concentrated space in which violence against girls and women happen. Just like #MeToo and Time's Up pulled the curtain back from the everyday sexual aggression with which hundreds of millions of us live, the Internet, I think, simply exposed some of the patterns of thinking that boys and men hold about girls and women, specifically the sexual objectification and commodification of our bodies.

And you know, I think that all gender and sexual violence is on a continuum. One end is nuanced and subtle. It's unspoken, but it's thought. And then it's the microaggressions, and of course, it goes all the way to the other end of the spectrum with homicide. And the Internet is a place where all of that can flourish. And I do believe that the Internet itself is neutral and it's a tool and it can be used for good or it can be used for ill. When it's in the hands of misogynists, it's a powerfully destructive force.

RAZ: You know, I think they're stories we tell ourselves, right? Like you look at black-and-white films of angry mobs protesting against civil rights. And most of us will see those and think, who are those people, how could they behave that way, right?

JUDD: Right.

RAZ: And we think, well, we've progressed, you know. And I think there's a similar story we've told ourselves about gender equity, you know. But I wonder whether - do you think that social media has fueled a regression? Or do you think that that's just the way we have always been as a society and social media just allows it to be amplified?

JUDD: I absolutely believe that social media just exposes the thinking that was already there. And an example is I was the speaker at Nashville Sexual Assault Center's recent annual fundraiser. And a man said something to me that was - he made a reference to my pubic hair - so outrageous, so inappropriate. But that's what was on his mind. And he just said it. And the Internet has simply facilitated and exposed what is already on people's minds.

And in that sense, it's a helpful tool because it shows us that our thinking needs to heal and to change and that so much of what #MeToo is really about - it's about centering survivors. And it's about radical community healing. And what's, you know, ultimately helpful about that remark that was made to me is I talked about it from the podium that night when I spoke. I said, look, I'm here for an event about sexual assault and this remark was made to me by someone who's a good person with good intentions and puts their money where their aspirational, at least, values are.

And, of course, he knew I was talking about him. And he's reached out to me. And I've offered to have coffee with him so that we can hash this out. And when I can sit down with this guy and say, look, this is how it made me feel and this is why I hope if that thought ever occurs to you again that you have the integrity to examine your own thinking and change it and certainly not let it pass out of the gate of your mouth, that is so important. You know, we have to get together to do our radical community healing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

JUDD: There are a lot of solutions - thank goodness. I'm going to offer just a few. And, of course, I challenge you to create and contribute your own. No. 1, we have to start with digital media literacy, and clearly it must have a gendered lens. Kids, schools, caregivers, parents - it's essential. Two, let's talk about our friends. Men, you have a role to play and a choice to make. You can do something or you can do nothing.

Online violence is an extension of in-person violence. In 2015, 72,828 women used intimate partner violence services in this country. That is not counting the girls and women and boys who needed them. We need to grow support lines and help groups so victims can help each other when their lives and finances have been derailed. We must as individuals disrupt gender violence as it is unfolding. And lastly, believe her. Believe her.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: So, Ashley, you gave this TED Talk in 2016, and what was remarkable was that just a year later when stories about Harvey Weinstein came out, you spoke publicly about what happened to you. I mean, you were - you knew all these things. And you couldn't talk about them onstage because of, I guess, the fear and the whole infrastructure of Hollywood that prevented people like you from talking about this for so long. I mean, you gave this talk, and yet there was so much more that you couldn't say or, I guess, didn't feel safe saying.

JUDD: Well, the good news is I'm a teller. And when I was molested for the first time when I was 7 years old, the first thing I did was run to two adults and express exactly what had just happened to me. Now, they were neither equipped nor prepared to respond to me in an appropriate way because they said, he's a nice, old man. That's not what he meant.

And when, you know, I was harassed in that Peninsula hotel room in the summer of 1997 when I was making "Kiss the Girls," my dad was visiting me from Kentucky. And he was downstairs in the lobby. I came straight down. And he could tell by the look on my face that something devastating had just happened to me. And I told him right away. But we didn't know what to do with the information except to try to, you know, steer clear of Harvey Weinstein, which was a really difficult thing to do at the Peninsula hotel. He loomed ominously large at that place.

And then Variety was doing one of their Women In Film issues, and I was speaking with them. And they asked me - and this was in 2015 - whether or not I'd ever experienced sexual harassment. And I told them the entire Harvey story in even greater detail than is included in the New York Times piece that Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor wrote. But the difference is the world wasn't ready to hear it yet, no one was paying attention.

You know, and when I made the decision to be the named source in The New York Times, I went on a run on my favorite little country road near where I live in rural Tennessee. And I thought, you know, I've made tougher decisions. This is not a significant decision. It's simply my truth. And I am entitled to share my truth and to be autonomous and dignified and hold my head high in my lived reality.

RAZ: What is it that - in your experience, what is it that you think many men and some women don't understand about the conversations we are having around gender now?

JUDD: I think that one of the difficulties for boys and men is to accept that this really is the water in which we swim and the air that we breathe, and that these microaggressions and more overt, explicit aggressions occur on a routine basis. And so it takes courage on my part - and my stomach even feels funny when I say that - to be really honest about my lived experience as a woman.

You know, the invitation hopefully is that men can have the stamina to listen to our experiences in equal measure to the way that we have endured those experiences. And when I talk with men who are honest and vulnerable enough to express their discomfort, it's not a competition to say, oh, good, you're uncomfortable. Well, I've been uncomfortable for a long time. It's about empathy and shared understanding.

I recently spoke at the International School in Leipzig, Germany, and it was very interesting that the girls were crying because of the street harassment they experienced. This young woman shared that she saw a woman being harassed at a tram stop, and all these people stood there and watched, and she was the one who walked over and disrupted it. And when she did, the perpetrator then followed her from car to car in the tram and then followed her home. And so the girls are already experiencing gendered violence.

And interestingly, the boys asked more questions than girls, which is consistent with the data, when kids get to high school. And so I said, hey, I want to be conscious and intentional here. I've called on about five or six boys in a row. I'd like to call on a girl. And this boy shouted at me, that's sexist. And I said, well, let's talk about that.

And it was interesting to experience a little microcosm of what we might call the backlash. But as long as we stay in dialogue with each other, and we have the spaciousness to hold complexity and to hold paradox and to allow for everyone to be exactly where they are in their evolution of this journey, then we're going to get there together.

RAZ: Ashley, there must be people who say, OK, I hear you. You know, you're having these empathetic conversations with people, but, like, why should they get our empathy?

JUDD: Systems of power don't change easily, and those with power are generally reluctant to let it go. But I can sit with those with whom I differ with dignity and respect, even as I oppose everything about the way they're thinking. And I don't know that I can explain that. It's just the way that I'm walking in my life right now. You know, someone asked me how I could forgive Harvey Weinstein, and I said, because I do it for myself. It's no favor to him. I do it for my own peace of mind, to cut the string of resentment.

RAZ: You can forgive Harvey Weinstein?

JUDD: Of course. Of course. I don't - you know, he's a sexual predator, he's done reprehensible things that hurt hundreds of women, and, you know, my career is very different, my pocket book is very different because of him. But I don't like to drink poison hoping someone else is going to die.

RAZ: Do you think things are getting better, that this conversation is slowly starting to change things?

JUDD: We are making strides. We are living in an age that is probably revolutionary. I think we'll look back and go, wow, you know, it was all happening. It was messy and imperfect and joyful and difficult and exciting and radical. I mean, I go to bed with hope, and I wake up with hope. I've done a lot of work on that. I've been to treatment for sexual trauma. I regard my recovery as the most important thing in my life. I have a place to go and people to talk to and folks who understand.

And the creation of egalitarian systems like Time's Up, you know, social movements like #MeToo that allow me to have the dignity of my experience with my truth and my integrity without it being minimized the way it was when I was 7 years old, and I went to those adults and said, oh, no, no, no he is a nice old man. That's not what he meant. No, it is what he meant. It is what Harvey Weinstein meant. And it's not OK anymore. And that's - that is a day that will come.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: That's Ashley Judd. She's an activist and actor. You can find her full talk at ted.com.

Hey, thanks for listening to our episode on Gender, Power and Fairness this week. If you want to find out more about who was on it, go to ted.npr.org. And to see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app.

Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Jinae West, Neva Grant, Casey Herman, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye and J.C. Howard, with help from Daniel Shukin and Daryth Gayles. Our intern is Katie Monteleone. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Janet Lee. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to Ideas Worth Spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.