I keep finding myself writing some version of this post in my head, so I’m going to try and put down some thoughts on (virtual) paper. I know no one asked, so rather than posting some long thing to Facebook I’m making this a blog post, even though it’s not about cancer. Am I allowed write about something other than cancer on a cancer blog? I don’t know, but I’m sure cancer is informing the way I’m viewing everything else, so fuck it, here goes.
I’m glad people are talking about sexual harassment and assault. But I am deeply skeptical about the motivations for and efficacy of the #MeToo “movement.” Maybe it’s because #MeToo is all online, and I grew up going to real life anti-nuke/ant-war protests with my mom in that unimaginable era before the Internet; maybe it’s because I’m just generally skeptical; maybe it’s because, frankly, I have bigger fish to fry, like cancer and mortality and all that. Nonetheless, it’s actually nice to think about something other than cancer, and I have been thinking about all this quite a bit.
Like nearly every other woman I know, I have experienced sexual harassment and assault. One friend wrote “Dealing with sexual harassment is a pre-requisite for being a female jazz musician,” but really, she could have stopped at “female.” According to numerous news sources, while African American activist Tarana Burke started the “Me Too” campaign ten years ago as a way of advocating for victims of childhood sexual abuse (more on this in a moment), this current social media iteration was instigated by Alyssa Milano, who tweeted, “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me Too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” Here is my first concern: If you were unaware of the magnitude of the problem before the Harvey Weinstein scandal or #MeToo, then you are a) willfully ignorant or b) stupid. Seriously. Here’s a thought experiment: imagine, say, a nice, liberal-leaning guy, not willfully ignorant or stupid, seeing all these MeToo’s on his newsfeed, thinking to himself, “OH MY GOD, I had NO IDEA of the rampant, systemic nature of sexual violence against women and misogyny more broadly!” It’s hard to picture, right? Does this liberal-leaning guy (I’m leaving out the right-leaning ones, since as far as I’m concerned they by definition fall into one or both of my previously noted categories), live under a rock? Has he ever had a female friend? A sister maybe?
Have you met this guy?
I’m guessing no, because I don’t think he exists. Which makes me wonder more about why so many women are driven to not only tweet or post “me too,” but also to tell their stories, and why so many men feel compelled to proclaim their solidarity. For survivors, speaking our truths in a public forum can generate a sense of community, but that doesn’t feel like the reason for this tidal wave of revelations, especially given that so many of the events described are almost everyday occurrences. I don’t at all mean to minimize the ways that catcalls, unsolicited dick-picks, unwanted comments about body parts, public transportation butt grabs, random park masturbators and the rest grind away at our minds and souls, or how sexism in the workplace imperils and destroys our careers and dreams. I recognize that all forms of misogyny are violent and damaging, and that they all grow from the same poisonous roots. But, concern number two: despite all that, sexual harassment and sexual assault are not the same, and our experiences vary tremendously. There is strength in numbers, but in the clamor to show our allegiance, we risk eliding difference, complexity, nuance. So I can say that nearly all the women I know have been harassed or assaulted, but each of their stories is different, and each belongs only to them. The narratives of harassment that have dominated my feed are awful, but unsurprising. Stories of sexual violence, however, are harder to tell: they cut more deeply and undo us more convolutedly, often provoking searing feelings of confusion and shame and altering our lives in ways that don’t lend themselves to 140 characters.
As River Donaghey notes in an excellent Vice piece, “The fact that Tarana Burke's creation of the movement was ignored, that it is credited to a famous white actress, is not irrelevant here. It's a good place to begin, when interrogating its use, to acknowledge the many kinds of people who will be unable to speak out, or who will not be respected if they do.” I suspect that many of the men understandably un-shocked by the ubiquity of sexism and sexual harassment would be agape if they knew how many of their female friends and relatives had survived sexual abuse, assault, rape, or incest. But creating that awareness is not a project for tweets and hashtags, not least because so often the act of telling can endanger survivors whose perpetrators are still in their lives, as boyfriends, husbands, fathers, brothers, uncles, teachers, coaches, or family friends.
There is something about all this that reminds me of other moments of big bad news. We all want to feel connected to such events and to show where we stand—thus the ubiquitous “ally” and “I stand with” memes. Burke herself said her movement “wasn’t built to be a viral campaign or a hashtag that is here today and forgotten tomorrow. It was a catchphrase to be used from survivor to survivor to let folks know that they were not alone and that a movement for radical healing was happening and possible.” Social media has inculcated a powerful urge toward “clicktivism” and virtue signaling, and offered incredibly convenient means to do so: filters for your profile picture that indicate that, for instance, you’re thinking about victims of the latest terrorist attack, or swiftly shareable images that pre-package outrage at Trump’s latest unfortunately-not-at-all-unbelievable activity, or re-tweetable hashtags that, while they may make us feel better and more connected, ultimately do not engender the kinds of structural changes we claim to seek.
So my final concern: what on earth would instigate those kinds of changes?
Much smarter and more pragmatic people than myself will undoubtedly have more and better answers to that question than I do, but I feel pretty confident that simply deciding not to work with a predatory producer is not among them. If speaking out puts you in danger physically or emotionally, don’t. But many of the celebrities now revealing their experiences with Weinstein have been in a position to call him out without harming their careers for a decade or more. Many of the men who protected his “secret” had nothing to lose but another Oscar. And the terrible anxiety that apparently now afflicts all men in the wake of these stories—Cosby, Trump, Gomeshi, O’Reilly, Weinstein, et al—that any one-on-one interaction with a woman might be construed as harassment? FUCK THAT NOISE. Don’t want to be accused of harassment? Easy! Treat women like people, and you have nothing to worry about.
It shouldn’t be women’s job to educate men, but for the moment I don’t see a lot of other options. And not just online, but IRL. Teach your sons to respect (or, if you like, revere) women and to speak out when they see sexism. (NB: sometimes this can be tricky—my own two sons currently can’t distinguish between actual sexist comments and sarcastic retorts to sexist comments, but we’re working on it). Model anti-sexist behavior in your home: if you’re in a heterosexual relationship, for instance, make sure both of you share housework and childcare, fairly if not equally. If your male partner says something sexist, tell him. If your boss grabs your ass, and you feel safe doing so, tell him to stop, and tell HR. We need to be strong, to think about ourselves as survivors rather than victims, to support each other, and sometimes to take risks—not dangerous risks, but risks like being laughed at, or called a prude, or even, sometimes, losing a job or a part in a film.
As a woman with a female cancer that is woefully neglected and underfunded, I always go to AIDS activists as role models: the axiom silence=death continues to motivate and inspire many social and political movements, and bears repeating in this discussion. During this “Pinktober,” Metastatic Breast Cancer advocates have to speak loudly—sometimes rudely— about the nearness of our deaths to be heard amidst the pretty narratives of survivorship; amidst the exciting whirl of #MeToo, women and men need to tell complicated, devastating stories of sexual violence in ways that are political rather than just personal. Instead of looking to celebrity culture for guidance, let’s recall the wisdom of activists who were fighting this fight before some of us were born-- here is some from Audre Lorde, one of my personal lodestars:
“And when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive.”