Monday morning was an outpouring of news — Harvey Weinstein backlash, persistent natural disasters spanning continents, the intent of the president to violate the terms of the Iran nuclear deal. Social media erupted with a fury of Pompeii-like proportions, spewing the lava that spelled out “Me Too” in hashtag form. It was the Weinstein affair which had captured the attention of seemingly everyone regardless of age, socioeconomic status, or geographic location. I say “seemingly” because, on average, the individuals I’ve chosen to befriend and remain friends with in my social media network are of the “older” millennial, educated, east coast or mountain liberal set.
Me Toos felt like they were coming from everywhere — both from those I had expected them and from those I had assumed long ago given up their platforms, the women from my youth who I’d always seen as shy, or, dare I say, innocent. Me Toos were plastered alongside dark personal anecdotes, alongside urgings for all women to speak up, alongside counterfactuals as to the number of sexual assaults that could have been prevented had we understood the pervasive nature of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape.
Disclaimer: what I am about to assert will certainly cause me to be vilified by any number of individuals who bother to read this, but I do believe that what I am about to say is important — and for a number of reasons. That being said, if you wish to maintain a friendship with me, it may be best for you to refrain from reading further.
When the trend first surfaced, my initial reaction was of pride for many of those female friends I cherish so dearly having spoken up for themselves. Some of their stories I knew, and I was happy to see that the tragedy of the Weinstein affair had given a voice to the nasty results of the miseducation of the American boy — that having and taking whatever one pleases, whenever one pleases, although not an explicit right, is implicit and results from the way that boys are reared. And in this sense, I felt solidarity with the women who spoke up.
But the more Me Toos, the more I felt compelled to post about something more all-encompassing, a story or an issue which extended beyond the bounds of domestic gender politics and affected people everywhere — not just in our PC-obsessed, relentlessly individuating, all talk, but little action kind of way. I told people to write to their congressperson, and I myself, due to an inability to be consciously hypocritical (even when no one is watching), wrote a letter to my congresswoman. I thought I’d be satiated, but the Me Toos kept coming. From women I respected, from women I didn’t much respect.
A brief diversion. In the household of my upbringing, there was no such thing as a “victim.” Victimization of oneself was a character flaw rather than a temporary state with an objectively valid and empirically detectable causal agent. There was little to no tolerance for tears, and the storyline that suggested that we could have whatever it was that we wanted was spread evenly across the siblings of different genders. In this sense, my sister and I were raised much more like boys than like girls. This is not to say that my parents eschewed gender norms, that feminine and masculine archetypes were not encouraged and reinforced. It is rather to say that, in my family, felt pain or suffering was invalidated in many instances. To coddle was to rob us of our potential to be responsible for ourselves. By and large, I believe that this has served my siblings and me extremely well in our dealings with the world. However, in instances like the social media frenzy of the week, its effects have left me reeling in a sea of gray.
“I should know if I’ve been sexually assaulted, shouldn’t I?”, I continued to say to myself as more and more Me Toos proliferated. The expected internal slut-shame monologue ensued. In my line of work, especially in previous employment, harassment (not assault) wasn’t even a question, and brownie points are awarded for keeping your mouth shut. I had always fallen prey to the notion that my short-term pride is worth much less than my long-term success, so sexually inappropriate comments by coworkers get shrugged off in the knowledge that standing up for myself in the present won’t grant me the long-term dividends required to advance women in the future. Many women hate this argument, and many of those women will not be in future positions to do anything about it — at least I have a fighting chance even if I’m perpetuating a despicable paradigm I have always thought. Now I’m not so sure.
There are women in my life who, though in many ways I respect, I nevertheless find myself feeling uncomfortable and actively choosing not to empathize with or sympathize for because of the immediate assumption that their victimization of themselves does not likely have a basis in reality, but rather serves some additional yet unrelated purpose in their life (e.g., excuses for bad behavior, attention seeking). And I have done this too. I have blamed harsh and inconsistent parenting on my own bad behavior. Nevertheless, I have, for some women, had difficulty engendering in myself a sense of empathy.
Is it wrong to suggest that when everyone is a victim, no one is a victim? Is it wrong for me to think that crying wolf detracts from the “real” victims of sexual abuse and sexual assault? Is it wrong for me to admit that I don’t know how to accept that what sexual assault or harassment feels like to another woman feels like flattery or kink to me? Or that I take responsibility for the number of times I’ve not been conscious enough, through the use of drugs or alcohol, to make a clear yes/no consent distinction? Or that I’ve felt pressured by someone so much that after hours of saying no, they actually convinced me that I’d wanted it all along? Or that I don’t want someone to ask for my explicit consent because I already have a tough enough time being present in sexual experiences, and an explicit question would make me feel more uncomfortable than I already do? Is it wrong to suggest that I feel like I’ve been around the block too many times to feel like I have a place to say “Me Too”? Is it wrong to have so many intense feelings around the topic of sex, for those feelings to change over time, across and within relationships? That what I didn’t really want at the time, I didn’t know how to say no to?
What I came to grips with a couple of years ago is that my desperation to be loved and my unwillingness to victimize myself led me to be with men I didn’t really want to be with. That I was “manipulative” to flirt with a man and then not go home with him was a common storyline. That I couldn’t change my mind about someone after I’d taken it so far was another. I wanted to be a person, not just a woman, but a person, who made choices consciously, stuck with those choices, and took responsibility for them. Perhaps that was merely the story I told myself so as not to feel any iota of weakness or failure in the service of men, without whose approval I would be a spinster or a whore. I myself need a reeducation and redemption of my own personal myths — ones I’m certain many women share.
Now, what if I have sexually harassed men? (Spoiler alert — I have) Where does that leave this problem? I do not understand how “Me Too” doesn’t become arbitrary when taking into account the myriad nuances of human relationships unless defined clearly and objectively in a way that allows for mutual understanding and mutually-defined boundaries. What I want to assert is not that women have it coming to them, but rather, that the complexities of life and human relationships are such that, when a microphone is handed to all women of my generation to speak up about their past sexual harassment, assault, or rape, that some will inevitably make an incorrect subjective assessment about the nature of an interaction they had, which will necessarily result in the identification of a perpetrator, who may or may not be blameless in a particular scenario. I do know that human interaction, especially romantic and sexual human interaction, is a two-way street, and often presents two different sides to the same story.
Extra disclaimer: I do not intend the following paragraphs to be confused with situations in which the scenario I propose is not possible. Those situations are ones which I admittedly am NOT qualified to speak to. I am not a survivor of sexual trauma, and I will never pretend to be one. I hope that those reading this do not misconstrue me for an individual who thinks that women “ask for it” via display or failure to display certain behaviors. Again, no qualification, and I would not even dare to try.
I had lunch with a friend earlier today, and she was able to clearly elicit for me what I’d had trouble articulating this entire week — that many women feel victimized because many women do not, whether through confusion about the situation at hand, lack of confidence or training, or culturally ingrained passivity, speak up for themselves in those moments when they experience harassment. She and I both felt uncomfortable with the “Me Too” narrative because it was mostly foreign to us that women wouldn’t have the cajones to voice discomfort in a situation with a man (I say “mostly” because I have kept my mouth shut in favor of a longer term strategy for professional success as I described above, which, as conceded, perpetuates the issue). I do, however, recognize that my personal narrative is not the narrative of the majority of women. That being said…
There is a difference between trauma and discomfort — and to diminish the gap between those two experiences by the utterance of a phrase to encompass them all is utter bullshit. Subjective experience be damned, rape and an unwanted advance in a bar, the grope of a breast, the conference room flirtation are not the same thing, nor should they be treated that way.
It is, of course, incumbent upon men to treat women with respect, backing off when a woman says no, speech being the clearest barometer to what a women desires — regardless of the imagined cues the other party may pick up on, regardless of the charming persistence a man may think he can utilize to morph that no into a yes; it is also incumbent upon women to speak up for themselves, to draw a line when their boundaries — which vary greatly from woman to woman — are crossed. Extricate yourself from the situation when possible, explain why the advance of someone who you felt approached you inappropriately was not okay, do whatever you wish to create a clear boundary. I will take it as my charge to do the same — whether in the workplace, the bar, or the subway — anywhere I may find myself in a situation I don’t like.
Certainly — men disrespect women in this country, and the myth that boys are taught which permits them to take what they believe to be theirs without right and without permission is false and should be done away with. But it is up to women to change the storyline too. It is up to us to measure our words and to ask for consent from our partners — something we’re rarely, if ever, implored to do. Likewise, we must be role models for other women in our lives by voicing our concerns, setting boundaries clearly, and moving on.
TL;DR: Men’s power over us is but a figment of their imaginations — let us not substantiate that figment any longer.