This is one of the stickiest questions going around my circles right now. Let’s explore it.
Yesterday, when I posted what would be the first of several things talking about the trending #MeToo hashtag, in which survivors of sexual harassment, abuse, and/or assault stood up to be counted among that difficult number, I already knew I wasn’t about to be sharing any cut-and-paste sentence. Nope, the only way I’d be getting on this bandwagon, as any of my friends or colleagues would have told you, would be using my own words.
So, when I wrote my first little manifesto, I said the following:
That’s just the start, but you’ll probably notice it’s different from the boilerplate copypasta to be shared, which read:
“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.”
I’m gonna admit the wording kinda got my back up, for several reasons. First: “if all the women” set against “might give people a sense.” So — wait, aren’t women people? Don’t we, in fact, already know it’s basically all of us? Who are these people who don’t get the magnitude of the problem, as implied by this sentence? Men? But still, here we are, back on this thing where “women” are in one category and “people” are in another. Just, you know, speaking of “the magnitude of the problem.”
Second, I know lots of people who’ve been sexually harassed, assaulted, or abused, and who do not identify as women. The feminism in which I was born and raised has always striven to make space for nuance on the gender front and I’m really not prepared to stop doing that.
So as I saw it, if only women spoke up saying “Me Too,” then we would not, in fact, be getting “a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” I mean, unless I was misunderstanding what “the problem” meant in this case. But, for my part, I found that as a survivor of sexual harassment and sexual assault, I can’t say “the problem” is exclusively a women’s problem.
So, I opened with a gender-inclusive statement about who I know to be among this difficult number of people who might say “Me Too.”
I got a little bit of pushback, and there was lots of discussion in private chats, groups, and mailing lists, questioning why we were letting men jump on this bandwagon with us. I said that a little snarkily just now, and… I mean it that way. It’s a bandwagon. It may be one that feels really personal and deep, but it’s a bandwagon.
Anyway, I digress. When a group of my most thoughtful, most socially observant friends got together to discuss the question of whether #MeToo is for women only, I’d have to say we concluded there’s really no straightforward answer and every single one of us found our positions shaped by personal experience.
Several friends who identify as women said — and I mostly agree with them — that the thing is, while survivors could, indeed, fit pretty much any description, “the problem” whose scope needs to be seen isn’t that sexual harrassment and assault happen — but that The System, including our body of laws, is set up to pretty much guarantee that girls and women will be sexually harassed, abused, or assaulted. In other words, for women it’s systemic, while, for men, it isn’t — it’s a bad thing that happened to them, it’s unacceptable, certainly, but it’s not systemic; every single man doesn’t have to expect that this is something he’ll face in his life as a victim or survivor.
One friend who identifies non-binary asked simply if their sexual assault should count — should entitle them to say “Me Too” if they chose. And pretty much everyone agreed: absolutely. This friend also raised the point that for many LGBTQ folks, their gender and/or sexuality are motivators in why they’re assaulted in the first place.
Another friend who identifies as a gay man pointed out that, in his sphere of experience in the gay community, there were, indeed, some systemic and stereotypical dynamics in play when it came to assault and even longer-term abusive situations. And we listened, and we thought about that, and for the most part, we all kinda went, “Well, dang, that all counts, too.”
So then someone said, “Maybe the thing is just that it’s men who do all of this assaulting and harrassing. Maybe it’s just a toxic masculinity thing.”
I found myself pointing out that in the field where I work — recreational fiber arts instruction — I have personally witnessed incidents I would absolutely characterize as sexual harrassment, perpetrated by middle-aged and older white women. For example, one time a male colleague wore a kilt — and I saw women flip up his kilt and reach beneath it, commenting that he surely expected that, or why did he wear the kilt? When I said “Whoa, that’s not okay,” what did I hear back from other witnesses? “Oh c’mon — it’s a joke. Lighten up.”
Yeah, um… no. Seriously, no; you can miss me with the suggestion that someone’s attire proves they consented to have strangers get underneath their clothing. And you can super miss me with rationalizing it as a joke. We played that game when I was a kid in the 1970s, and even back then we knew the answer was “that’s not funny.” In fact, we knew that so concretely that it was a joke people made about feminists — how many of us to screw in a lightbulb? Oh, that’s not funny.
My circle of thoughtful, analytical, and engaged people agreed: yup, being a man in a kilt who has strangers lift it and go for a grope? That counts.
So here we all were, at this point where really, none of us could rationalize telling individual survivors that their stories don’t count. And yet, there was still something that left lots of women feeling discomfited by the sea change towards this not being about women.
When we really got busy unpacking that, here are some of the things we found.
- women had experienced making a “me too” post, and having a man show up in the comments saying things like “But what about the men who are raped by women and you feminist hypocrites don’t care?”
- women had made “me too” posts, and suddenly a man showed up and said “me too,” and then the whole conversation became about him, and he didn’t seem to hear it when people said “okay dude, you’ve been holding the talking stick for kind of a while, maybe take a turn listening for a minute.”
- men had shown up to explain that women had brought it on themselves, of course.
- women felt like, in some cases, it didn’t matter how many times women say “Yup, it’s a systemic thing, we’ve all been through some form or another of this,” but then, lo and behold, a man shows up and says “Me too,” and the very people who were dismissive of or utterly ignored the women were like “OMG this is a serious thing if even MEN face it!”
I suggested that perhaps many men were, as survivors, very new to the concept of speaking up in groups of sexual assault survivors — very new to even thinking of themselves in that way. Perhaps, I suggested, they simply lack the tools to participate in these conversations constructively, and we should be working on trying to teach them.
Some of my friends countered, reasonably I thought, by asking why it should fall to women to do the emotional labor and heavy lifting of teaching these men to do that — to interact constructively on this topic. And that’s an excellent question without a simple answer. For my part, in all things, I generally tend to come down on the side that says if someone’s coming correct — if they’re coming in good faith, engaging for real, then it’s always worth the extra legwork to help them learn to be a functional part of the community or group in question.
Where that gets problematic is: how can you tell if someone’s showing up to the table in good faith? That’s perhaps especially hard when the topic is truly emotionally fraught as well as potentially actually dangerous to engage in.
Here’s the rub: sometimes, you can’t. Sometimes, it’s a total crapshoot and you may honestly never know, even long after the fact.
One thing I try to remember, in all those situations: if this is a public discussion, something like posting memes and stories on a hashtag, you’ve got to figure there are plenty of folks who aren’t speaking up — but they’re reading everything you say, and what you say is going to affect their willingness to speak up. I know, I know — the lurkers support me in email, and all, but I’m serious. Sometimes you’re not talking to the person you’re engaged with in an online discourse — you’re talking to everyone who’s reading it.
So, where do we go with this? What do we do? Should we be accepting men (or other genders) in our midst as survivors of sexual harassment, assault, or abuse?
For me the answer is a definite yes. And I don’t believe that’s in conflict with being able to say, “Hey, listen, I have an issue with what you just said, can we talk about it?” or “You know, John, you’ve been talking about your experience kind of a lot in this thread, and we haven’t heard much from Susan, Carol, Jane, Tamika, and Guadalupe, so I’m gonna ask you to have a seat for a few.”
But let’s also talk about the whole question of why women should do this heavy lifting, yet again. I’ve got an answer to that one too, and I’m afraid it’s not really all that satisfactory. But here it goes:
Because we can.
But also, because if we don’t, then who will? Nobody? Or people who are absolutely certain to sideline us and our voices?
We can’t expect that men will break from toxic masculinity, from rape culture, from all of those social constructs we’re always discussing, and which really are to blame for the problem of sexual assault, harassment, and abuse being widespread and accepted, if when they try to do so, we tell ’em they’re not allowed. I mean we can want that to happen — but I have to tell you, I’ve never seen it happen.
This doesn’t mean we can’t push back and challenge the derailers and mansplainers and co-opters and whatnot. This doesn’t mean we can’t ever say “Shut up, George, repeating your statement doesn’t make it more true than it was five minutes ago” or “Okay, I hear you, Paul, but have you considered that what happened to you is still rooted in toxic masculinity and rape culture?”
All it means is: we’re never, ever going to “win” this by treating sexual harassment, assault, and abuse as problems belonging to those who are most systemically subjected to them. And a lot of our efforts to do that, unfortunately, result in movements which should be super powerful instead being marginalized and derided as fluff.
That’s why I think it’s time — no, it’s past time — for us to really be inclusive and intersectional on the hard topics like this one. When we don’t, mostly what we’re doing is giving ammunition to those very people who are doing things like showing up in the comments to say “Oh yeah, but nobody cares about the teenage boys molested by female schoolteachers.”
Whether from a personal and emotional perspective (like when I can’t see a way to tell my non-binary friend that their sexual assault doesn’t count or doesn’t matter) or from a purely pragmatic and political one (like being able to tell Mr. What About The Men that, in fact, we discussed the men five minutes ago and maybe you should try to keep up), I just can’t see a down side to treating #MeToo with radical inclusiveness.
How about you? If you’ve got counterpoints on this, I’d love to hear them — sincerely. I believe the most important and hopeful thing about this moment we’re in is that we’re really having these hard conversations.
Abby Franquemont is a writer and speaker with a long list of jokes about being raised by anthropologists and doing things with yarn.