Sunday evening, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, and I saw the #MeToo campaign reigniting in live time. I saw a few friends post "MeToo" and was intrigued; then I saw a 4th post it with an explanation. I caught my breath. Would I participate? What would my mother say when she saw it (or my father, when he read my mother's feed?). Wait, Mom and Dad are on vacation. They likely won't see it. I released my breath, pushed the memory of a guy's face out of my mind, and copied and pasted.
EDITED TO ADD: in the hours since I hit "publish," I've been torn between wanting to add nuance, both to be sure I wasn't appropriating a different story that isn't mine and to assure loved ones that it wasn't that bad (looking for euphemism here), and not wanting to suggest that somehow failing to treat women as full human beings is ok just because only one line was crossed, not multiple lines... I'm still thinking about these conflicting impulses, and when I envision a more just world, it is one in which this debate becomes irrelevant.
I've spent a lot of years teaching students about ways that we learn masculinity and femininity. In westernized cultures, we prize and glorify a complementarian but not proportional understanding of gender that we learn through a wide array of lessons, spoken and unspoken: femininity comes from being attractive to men; masculinity comes from being attracted to women. These are two very different tasks.
How do you make yourself attractive to men? How do you prove you're attractive to men? Social cues guide us here: we learn from magazines, from the ways people respond to us, from TV and movies, from the people in positions of authority what is attractive to men; hence the reason for so many school dress codes, for example. We can count how many boys, and then men, ask a person out. We can measure (albeit imperfectly) how "attractive" a woman is.
How do you make yourself attracted to women? How do you prove you're attracted to women? In posing these questions identically except for gender, the difference in the tasks starts to emerge. First, you can't make yourself attracted to anyone. And second, since attraction is an emotional state, at best, you can only ever give cues (that is, perform it) that suggest you're feeling it; you cannot definitely prove you feel it. This is one of the triggers of toxic masculinity, as men work to prove the unproveable through their behavior. And from there follows a direct line to sexual assault and harassment.
As the posts proliferated, clarifying questions predictably followed: Can men post? (of course!) Does "women" include all people who identify as women? (of course!) What I haven't seen follow yet, though, are the introspective examinations that true transformation demands: the examinations of the ways that we, as individuals, contribute to the culture that renders so many people vulnerable to sexual assault and harassment. The kinds of introspection that will create space for healthier understandings of masculinity and femininity to flourish.
I think about this a lot now that I'm raising a daughter. We're driving up 29 and a song comes in the radio. I hear the lyrics. I cringe. Do I say something? Do I change the station? Do I ignore it? A voice croons, "I should have kissed you / I should have pushed you up against the wall." If I talk to her, am I planting ideas of inferiority? If I don't talk to her, am I leaving her vulnerable? Why do I have to make this calculus about my daughter's safety???
The theologian Tina Beattie offered a poignant reflection: "what stuns me as I look back on the memories it's bringing back to me is how a certain kind of sexual objectification - occasionally amounting to abuse - was a normal part of my growing up." The answer she gives when she questions her younger self about why she didn't tell her parents (who would have been supportive) reflects the socialization I described above: "I suppose I just thought they were things men did that girls had to be on the alert about. If things got out of hand or if a man was tempted, there was the implicit message that we were to blame." And her follow-up questions reveal the dichotomy in girls' and boys' lives: "I wonder how many other women also have such memories as part of what it means to grow up as a female in a "normal" world? I wonder how these experiences map onto men's experiences of growing up? I wonder if these memories feel different depending on whether one has been groomed to be feminine, nice, submissive and attractive, or whether one has been groomed to have masculine characteristics?"
So many of the pieces written about #MeToo in the past couple of days have tried to make sense of the flurry of posts and the experiences driving them. Commentators have argued that survivors shouldn't have to share painful details for people to believe them; that the #MeToo trend is triggering for survivors; that the problem of sexual assault and harassment is larger than any one industry or political party. Yes, to all of the above. And yes, too, to the call for a consensus of understanding. For me, it also opens up a moment for genuine solidarity: a friend (IRL and on FB) posted an observation that she was sad (though not surprised) at how many "MeToo"s were appearing on her feed.
It's not often that I catch social media campaigns as they unfold, so at first I didn't realize I was jumping in early. Unlike say, watching a football game "with" friends on FB, there aren't the same time markers to social media campaigns to clearly signal the beginning and the end. Sure, we can note events or posts that prompt people to begin: in this case, Alyssa Milano's tweet encouraged women to start posting on Sunday. Sunday doesn't mark the beginning: Tanara Burke launched a grassroots effort to demonstrate the extent of sexual assault and harassment in the MeToo movement a decade ago. Several days have passed and I still see occasional posts of "MeToo," and still get a couple of likes for my own each day. I don't want to try to predict when the last one will appear. I do know I felt a little less alone, witnessing my friends' stories.
I also know that this flurry of attention to the issue is an invitation to seriously engage in consent education, an idea that I'll return to in a future post.
About the Author
Exploring women's issues in search of a world that more equitable for everyone.
* frac·tal FRACTALS ARE USEFUL IN MODELING STRUCTURES (SUCH AS ERODED COASTLINES OR SNOWFLAKES) IN WHICH SIMILAR PATTERNS RECUR AT PROGRESSIVELY SMALLER SCALES (Google dictionary)