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editorial

Many people are no doubt happy to see the backside of the year that ended on Sunday. Dominated as it was by the problematic personality of the American President, by the North Korean nuclear gambit, and by threats to trade partnerships that are central to Canada's economy, 2017 was an edgy 365 days.

As disruptive as it was, though, there was one development that was as equally challenging to our cozier assumptions, but which was welcome and needed.

We're talking about the demolition of the wall of silence that has forever allowed men in powerful positions to prey in a sexual fashion on women, and sometimes on other men, with impunity.

The fall of Harvey Weinstein was the spark. Everyone in Hollywood knew Mr. Weinstein, a successful film producer, used his position to force women into compromising sexual situations, and that he was a perverse predator who got away with acts that could have led to criminal charges. Everyone knew, but no one said anything. His victims stayed silent out of fear, while his enablers did the same out of a self-serving delusion about that sort of thing being part of the business.

Mr. Weinstein's outing in October ended the lies. It was a rare week in the last quarter of 2017 that another male Hollywood star or American business personality wasn't accused of sexual misconduct, and it was almost as rare that the men in question didn't admit that the allegations were true in whole or in part. This was a dam waiting to burst.

In a similar vein, The Globe and Mail's Unfounded series in 2017 exposed a disturbing weakness in Canadian law enforcement, whereby at least one in five sexual-assault cases was being abandoned by police without proper investigation. Women who went to the police too often found themselves on the defensive, their lived experiences brusquely discounted by a legal system that many of them have since came to believe is unworthy of their trust.

In 2017, the convenient social norms and tired excuses that have protected sexual predators for centuries were no longer valid.

Police in Canada consequently vowed to do better; in many cases they are reopening sexual-assault investigations that they may have been too quick to close.

Meanwhile, powerful men in the U.S. and Canada who once relied on the silence of the women they groped, assaulted, exploited or exposed themselves to can no longer assume that their victims will be cowed – especially with media so willing to report any celebrity-tinged accusations that they can corroborate, and even those they can't.

The question is, what happens next? Will this phenomenon remain a media sensation generated by extreme cases involving serial predators with famous names? Or is there a way it can expand and engulf the predators in everyday life – unfamous men who commit acts of sexual misconduct or violence against victims whose accusations are unlikely to garner attention?

How, in short, does this help women who face the leers, lewd suggestions, inappropriate touching and sexual predation of exploitative bosses or crass co-workers every day, but who can't turn to the public for help?

A group of powerful women working in Hollywood announced Monday they are setting up a fund to help ordinary women in the U.S. take on abusive employers. They are also calling for legislation to punish companies that tolerate harassment, and they intend to keep talking about the issue.

That's all helpful. But it remains up to employers to reinforce their guidelines on sexual harassment, and to make it easy for employees to come forward and be heard. It is still the job of governments to ensure rules are implemented and enforced. And it still falls to the police to be better at investigating cases, and at making women feel comfortable going to them in the first place.

Sexual assault, harassment and exploitation cases can be tricky. Accusations often involve he-said, she-said testimony; the accused person's right to a fair hearing – both in court and in private settlements – mustn't be compromised.

But let's be frank: 2017 should have disabused every last reasonable person of the belief that sexual creeps aren't protected by outdated social codes. The year that just ended exposed the failings in our culture and in our legal system that have hurt women for too long. There is positive momentum toward change now. Let's not lose it.