The #MeToo debate bothers me.
I don’t think you can take every injustice, every instance of harassment, meted out to women by men and group them under one hashtag, without diminishing certain issues and making glaring the omissions. My concern about drawing such broad lines is that we are all in danger of finding ourselves the wrong side of that line. The discussion about changing every day cultural norms should be a separate discussion to sexual assaults and discrimination which are against the law.
And sure, me too, by the way. Like a lot of women, listing out every instance of sexual harassment I have experienced would be an extraordinary feat of memory and make for depressing reading. I left two jobs due to sexual discrimination and bullying. I have lost count of the business meetings where comments have been made about my breasts, or the various levels of sexual attraction of other female colleagues. I have been groped a billion times in various situations. I have had men take advantage of my drunken state or attempt to convince me of their entitlement to sex. I have been verbally abused and physically assaulted by men. I have not always given consent (in the way we now define consent).
But also, me too, vice versa: I have been pushy about sex, sometimes when the other party was drunk. I have felt entitled to sexual gratification in relationships. I have never acted inappropriately as a manager (as far as I’m aware) and I wouldn’t consider myself a bully, but there have been times when I have spoken unkindly about men and women based on their gender. I have at times positively discriminated to the advantage of women – not in big or illegal ways – but to the extent that my personal power allowed me to do so. Even if this is just my choice of vote for Sportsperson of the Year, it’s wrong.
While women don’t tend to be gropers as often as men, and “study after study shows that men’s sex drives are not only stronger than women’s, but much more straightforward” (wedmd.com), I have heard plenty of women complain bitterly about their partners not being in the mood. This sense of entitlement is not exclusive to men and that we cast men as being grateful for our interest in them is, well, fairly sexist.
I am not seeking to conflate sexual desire with sexual assault but it seems to me that #MeToo has resulted in this convergence. I am not comparing myself to Harvey Weinstein. But I am not comparing most men to him either. Do I think a lot of men would go in for a kiss, or touch a woman’s knee, if they thought she was interested? Well, duh. Do I think there’s a good percentage of men who would do the same even if they thought the woman probably wasn’t interested? Yes, I do. But the number of men (or women) who would push it further after the first rejection is small, in my opinion.
To call out sexual harrassment of women as a special case because so many more women are sexually harrassed is not sound. Men and boys are bullied just as often, if not more often. This bullying may not be sexual in as many cases, but it is just as damaging, just as life limiting, just as upsetting. And before we start condemning male “locker-room” culture, women need to recognise that the way we talk about men is damaging. It is perfectly acceptable to laugh at a man and ridicule his appearance, when he has the audacity to approach a woman. In the same way, the sisters have been known to tear a woman apart for putting on weight or wearing a top that the hive mind considers “too slutty”.
What is more interesting to me is why some women don’t reject men when they want to, and they could without fear of recrimination or violence. Why do we accept advances that we don’t want? Why do we put up with bullying when we could defend ourselves, or simply leave?
#MeToo is based on the idea that only men have power, and women say nothing because they do not have power. In most Western countries, this is not the root cause. In some situations it is true but it is not the panacea. These days women’s magazines and reality shows do more to further the cause of misogynistic abuse than historical institutions. Young women who consider themselves outspoken feminists, still think they are supposed to dress up and put out. They are conforming to a social norm, not being disenfranchised by the ancient patriarchy. Feminism gave choice to women – but what choices are we making?
What is interesting to me is that the abused party often does have power, and may be successful and forthright in every other element of their lives. Why then are we waiting to hide behind a hashtag?
For me, I have not spoken up because I felt embarrassed or thought it was less hassle to accept it or ignore it. At times, speaking out seemed to make too much of an issue. You don’t want to demonise your family, friends or co-workers, or to be judged as hysterical or a liar. At other times, I simply liked the guy. It was not because I felt I didn’t have a choice. I chose not to deal with the consequences of speaking up.
And then there’s the shame. When someone bullies you, when someone uses you, hits you or sexually abuses you, often you don’t want people to know. We have created a world where the victims of abuse feel complicit and responsible for that abuse. Did I misunderstand? Did I send out the wrong signals? Am I just being too sensitive? Did I ask for it? Did I deserve it? How is this my fault? Do other people just put up with this? Is it just banter? Shouldn’t I have stood up to them? Why I am so weak? Why was I picked on? Instinctively we are drawn to the strong members of the pack, the weak are left behind. There is a huge fear in drawing attention to what we perceive as weakness, as a defect.
Men do not have a monopoly on abuse or bullying. Men do not hold the sole sway over our culture. We cannot continue to ascribe virtues or failings based on gender. Describing men wholesale as the perpetrators is no different to describing women as weaker or fair game. I worry that the dynamic defined by #MeToo supports that dynamic rather than undermining it.
Aren’t we really talking about treating people with decency – whatever gender we are, whatever gender they are?
Shouldn’t we also being talking about not feeling ashamed by the actions of others?
Rather than tweeting out hashtags, and assuring ourselves that this sprawling collective action will affect change somehow, we must attack these ordinary everyday moments of abuse and inequity with ordinary everyday acts of openness and kindness. #MeToo will not topple some secret Masonic organisation and release a nuclear cloud of equality into the atmosphere. But I hope #MeToo has encouraged people to examine their own behaviour – as perpetrators and victims of this culture.
Going forward, I will consider more how my words, actions, sexual choices and behaviours may affect others. And when I am the victim, I will not be ashamed. I will not feel responsible.
And here are a few of my suggestions on how to smash the patriarchy in your own home, and help your kids deal with the Weinsteins of their futures:
- Share household tasks equally with your partner so children don’t get the impression that women on any level are inferior to men. Women performing the majority of domestic tasks screams out that women exist to serve men.
- Don’t tell your children to stop complaining when they are unhappy about something. We tell children to respect authority and put up with situations they don’t like – especially in school. Let them know they should always express their views and feelings. Model the reaction you would want them to get if they complained to someone else.
- Talk about bullying and harassment, and the consequences, in the same way you would talk about a burglary or drink-driving, where there is no shame associated with the victim. The emphasis should be on the perpetrator. We should feel as un-embarrassed discussing a sexual consent violation as we do discussing a car accident. Remove the power from the perpetrator and the need to justify from the victim.
To conclude, in case it wasn’t clear: bullying, harassment, sexual assault, rape, abuse of power, are always wrong (I can’t think of any exceptions). I support the aims of #MeToo. I am just asking what you going to do about it?