When the MeToo movement exploded, there was an aspect of it which posed a particular dilemma: are we talking about criminal offenses, like rape and sexual abuse, or are we talking about ethical abuses, like sexual harassment? And if it’s the latter, then how do we define sexual harassment: by a power differential in a work environment only, or are we including street harassment? Ultimately, we ask, what scenarios are worthy of a #MeToo?
The lack of a clear definition is also the beauty of the MeToo movement. It provides a platform for women to share what it’s been like for us, and allows people who have been severely traumatized to also participate in the conversation — who would ever tweet, “I was brutally raped,” and what would the people do who read that?
The movement is about women coming together to support each other in sharing the female condition — what it’s actually like to be female, right now. And the ugliness of the movement is that people don’t want to hear messy, human experiences because they make them uncomfortable.
But whether you’ve embraced the MeToo movement or not, what it has done for women in the Hudson Valley this year is to liberate them from feeling alone. Friends are talking about things they never have before, and people are finally able to name what it’s like for them at work, at school, on dates, and on the street.
They’ve even been freed to name their own biases about sexual harassment and sexual abuse, as Holly Christiana did in her op-ed, #MeToo, responsibility and common sense, which reads like Christiana Googled “how to do victim-blaming” (criticize the actions and choices of the victim rather than the perpetrator) and then used all those terms, phrases and tactics in formulating her essay. Patriarchy is insidious and often best enforced by women.
This summer, people shared their experience in Jesse Smith’s Bad Moon Rising parts 1 and 2 to expose a whisper network so people could decide for themselves with whom they want to interact. As we judge people’s choices, we decide whether to perpetuate a culture which protects the accused and blames the victims, or work to create a more equitable community where people are heard.
The Hudson Valley women who spoke up did not troll. They did not spread rumors or a ruckus or hysteria or any other dog-whistle patriarchy terms being used about them. Words like that are historically loaded, particularly in reference to groups of women. And the beloved term for MeToo — witch hunt — should provoke especial outrage, considering it was women who were the hunted.
The experiences shared revealed what Susan Slotnick named “sexual opportunism” in her op-ed #MeToo Comes to Town: experiences where agreed-upon scenarios, sometimes financial interactions based in business, were flipped to make women vulnerable and to limit their options. In these instances, the women could neither consent nor say no.
Just because something’s not criminal, doesn’t mean it is ethical. The nature of sexual harassment is to walk right up to another’s boundaries and push. Sexual harassment is free; it has few consequences. And it involves a power differential that makes many feminists too uncomfortable to admit.
As we saw with Les Moonves, one story of harassment may hurt, but when it comes to women not being forcibly raped, it takes an army of them to hold anyone accountable. There is safety in numbers and in anonymity, because revealing systemic sexual harassment — and the ways women are threatened or dehumanized every day — is a dangerous thing for those most impacted by it to expose.
Back to the original question: if we were to take everything seriously, we would ultimately be considering our effect on others all the time. What a more respectful and humanitarian culture that would be. It would include due process, which is still an area of the MeToo discussion that needs development. But that development will not come from the comments section of an online article. It will come through an institutional response, where those in power make choices to protect the greater good and ultimately lead the conversation. We need to acknowledge that we have all been acting upon a skewed worldview, where women’s bodies are still in many ways considered to be property in the public sphere, and men’s sense of entitlement is first taught to boys and then reinforced. We are all being called to examine that paradigm and its impact on our communities.
On Sept. 25 at the LGBTQ Community Center in Uptown Kingston, we’ll explore the topic of sexual harassment: how do we consent; how do we offer justice; what are our expectations of masculinity; what’s the impact of sexual harassment when coupled with other biases and -isms; what is secondary harassment? The event is at capacity, so tune into the livestream on Facebook.
Let’s broaden the conversation with good information and a better sense of understanding. Because we are at a critical moment — do we want to be a culture that focuses on protecting power or do we want to be a community that respects and protects people?
For more information, go to “MeToo Kingston” on Facebook.