Returning after a few months away from the blogosphere to write a piece about sexual assault is not exactly “easing” one’s way back into the public sphere. I had been preparing to write about my recent cross-country move, throwing me into chaos and another round of saying goodbyes to many lovely people I didn’t get to know long enough. My heart and mind, shoved yet again into vats of existential loneliness, drifted to strange spaces in an attempt to grasp the need to be seen while accepting the inevitability of being misunderstood. Yup, I was going to write about that sort of thing, scary, prickly, ivory-tower navel-gazing which would become a long-form approach to saying, “I miss my friends.”
And then Harvey Weinstein happened.
Well, he didn’t really “happen.” He had been happening, to be more accurate. This time he had been found out, and society has shifted just enough to say, “this is bullshit.” Oh sure, there have been a few to speak on his behalf, and I’m sure he has a story. But instead of resorting to the typical headline excuses of, “he’s a sex addict” or “he’s just one person” or even “some men can’t help themselves,” more people, more influential people, are calling this out as the abuse and harassment that it is, and are placing Weinstein in a larger context of sexism and misogyny that, frankly, a whole bunch of us are just fed up with. The Hollywood story is not news – the undercurrent of powerful people (yes, many of whom are and have been men) exploiting more vulnerable and less powerful newcomers (yes, many of whom are women) for their own personal gratification is unfortunately not a new story at all. It is old, tired, repetitive, and disgusting, so much so that many accept this story as a cold hard truth of life. “Boys will be boys” has two meanings: the first excuses men as base creatures who simply “can’t help themselves,” and the second tells society that no woman can expect to be safe.
It’s a bullshit message from a bullshit tagline stemming from a bullshit narrative. Who would ever want a definition of self to be so narrow, so ridiculously limiting, so utterly reductionistic as to put you on par with the emotional and intellectual level of say, a jellyfish? “Well, you can’t really blame Roger, after all, he only knows how to be a blob and sting things.” Why would anyone ever want to go along with such a description?
Because the Weinsteins of the world want the power that comes with such a position. And the rest of the world want to believe that Weinsteins are rare. And most of us don’t want to think we are capable of abusing another human being.
But we are capable, and every time we look the other way we make it more possible for abuse, assault, and exploitation to occur. We find ways to dehumanize each other, to justify why our worth becomes more important than another’s. And soon enough we come up with remarkably stupid sayings, like “boys will be boys” to justify aberrant, hurtful, unjust behavior while simultaneously rendering victims invisible.
That invisibility is why right now there are thousands of people taking to social media to say, #MeToo. People (women and men) who have taken up a call to show just how widespread the problem of sexual assault, abuse, and exploitation is. And spreading the message that this is not supposed to be a victim’s problem, but society and a perpetrator’s problem. You’re not supposed to stop abuse after it occurs – you’re supposed to create a new condition, a new social consciousness, that prevents people from buying into all those excuses that permit one to enact it. Questions like, “is ‘no’ ever a ‘yes'” get erased because society can recognize the absurdity of such a position, can recognize how our continued portrayal of sexual interaction as some perverted Tom and Jerry escapade resulting in Jerry adoring the fact that he’s been beheaded by the cat boxes everyone into inescapably demeaning corners.
I see something new in the current movement: more people, particularly men, who are also speaking up to say they do not support a discourse that promotes men’s superiority over women. Okay, on twitter that specific phrase hasn’t appeared but the message is there. Men expressing support for the many women who have shared #MeToo, men stating they don’t want men to be defined as overactive genitals, and men acknowledging the courage #MeToos’ have, which suggests an implicit understanding of just how unsupportive the culture is in accepting stories of abuse and assault.
And then there’s another piece, the one that rattles in me during all this…the idea that #MeToo can inadvertently have the effect of a double negative. Speaking up can be an act of freedom, of liberation; but for so many, not speaking up was also an act of courage, a path to survival that society tends to dismiss. Because we still place the responsibility on the victim to “prove” experiences of abuse, it is the victim who also becomes responsible to stop it. Thus someone who doesn’t “speak up” gets the added accusation of “going along,” or get their motives questioned for not coming forward sooner. These challenges support the misguided perception that rape and abuse are rare. Ironically though, if rape were truly rare, then shouldn’t just one occurrence of it be enough to set society into a rage, to get to the bottom of the problem and make sure it never happens again? Wouldn’t society ask the perpetrator, “why did you think this was ok?” “Why didn’t you stop?”
So – the movement also is becoming more mindful of how the pressure to speak up can actually put people back into a status of victimhood. “Speak up or you deserved it” can be the unintended push. Thus it is also a time to remember that the act of speaking up does not define one as a survivor. Surviving defines one as a survivor. Rape and abuse try to rob people of their personhood. The fact that one is here, that one has persisted beyond the experience of rape is enough. “Surviving” doesn’t mean merely existing; it means the person who was forced into this experience remembers they are a person worth holding on to. And that person does not have to be sacrificed just so some others can finally get enlightened to the realities of sexual assault. The story of rape or abuse belongs to the person who experienced it; thus they have all the right in the world to tell it or not, in whatever form of their choosing. Rape does not have the power to take that from us.
Bravo to those who are pressing home the point that society needs to change. The message of the current movement matters. But really, what #MeToo should mean is: “I will actively work against supporting a culture that normalizes rape.”