The Little Knife: Moving Beyond #MeToo

(Warning: discussion of harassment and sexual assault, and many grown-up words used.)

A line Virginie Despentes wrote about her rape still haunts me. “I am most of all utterly enraged that, faced with three men and a gun, trapped in a forest from which we could never have escaped on foot, I still feel guilty today for not having had the courage to defend us with a little knife” (King Kong Theory, p. 44).

Wondering whether you should’ve done more with your Swiss Army knife to prevent an assault pretty much encapsulates the experience of harassment. Many people who experience harassment or assault are reluctant to speak up about it because of this; they worry either that they will be belittled (“that’s not real rape”) or disbelieved (“if it did happen, why didn’t you report it?”). Equally toxic is the internal process one goes through after such an event, no matter how minor. Should I have used my little knife? What does it mean about me that I didn’t?

I went out on a second date once that seemed to be going well until the guy started choking me. Once I managed to push him away and could breathe again, I asked him some version of WTF, DUDE. He responded totally coolly, “Sorry, I thought you said you were into that.” (For the record: no.) He made no other apology. Nonetheless, I spent the rest of the evening wondering things like, Did I make a joke about that at some point? Why didn’t I notice he was such a shitty person on the first date? Had I somehow signaled in my body language that I was ready to move from kissing to choking? These are the sorts of insane things you think to yourself when you live in a culture that implies that it’s the victim’s fault. You can turn something as totally fucked up as being choked on a second date into a referendum on your own character.

For the past couple days, women (and some men and non-binary folks) have been posting on social media with the hashtag #metoo to signal that they’ve experienced harassment or assault. I think this is positive, in the general sense that it lets everyone know they’re not alone. But, as others have argued [1] [2] [3], women are not posting this just to go, “aww, we’re not alone!” People are posting this because they want men, who perpetrate the vast majority of harassment and rapes, to DO something.

To their credit, men are responding. Here are three ideas for how you might move beyond #metoo to action:

(1) Some male friends made posts saying “I believe you.” This is great, and has the potential to be revolutionary. Here’s why.

In the U.S., we structure our justice system around the idea of being innocent until proven guilty. This is a Very Good Idea, for a lot of historical reasons that aren’t worth going into here. But what it means is that when we think about harassment and rape, in many cases there’s an unconscious and huge burden of proof that’s put on victims, which I mean in an emotional rather than legal sense. Our tendency is to try and explain things away. When I told my friends about the choking incident, people — feminist friends, female friends, progressive friends — said things like, “wow, he has bad boundaries.” Well, sure. But he might also be a serial rapist in the making (or already), just looking to see what he can get away with. That’s why most of the people who go to jail for rape are the absolute worst of the worst: murderous serial rapists, pedophiles, and so on. We have to accrue that level of evidence before we’re like, “yeah, Gaston* is definitely not a good guy” (*not his real name).

The Brock Turner rape case last year was really clarifying for me because it made it so obvious what a huge burden of proof this is. The guy rapes this unconscious woman next to a dumpster and is caught in the act by two male eyewitnesses. It doesn’t get any clearer than that. He only served three months in jail. Women see that and think to themselves — if it’s only three months for a textbook case, what hope do I have? The reality is that most of us will never have this kind of evidence to make our claims. There will not be two hunky Swedish eyewitnesses who testify for us. In many cases, we will be alone, with our little knife, genuinely wondering whether we die today. To say that you believe us, before we accrue the kind of legal evidence necessary to convict someone in the U.S., before someone dies — yes, that matters.

(2) Some male friends have advocated for confronting men head-on when they catcall or harass women. This is important for a lot of reasons, but I’ll focus on just a couple here.

First, it is so critical to give the vulnerable person an ally in the moment. If you’re not the Teddy Roosevelt kind of dude (that’s okay, I’m not either), you can often give a potential victim space simply by stepping up and asking for the time or saying that you’re glad to see them. If you are a Teddy Roosevelt kind of dude, you’re probably not reading long posts on Medium about sexual harassment, but hey, if you’re here, welcome! Try physically escorting the offender off the bus or throwing him out of the meeting room or whatever. I can’t promise there won’t be consequences for that, but you’re a Roosevelt and can probably handle it.

Second, I think there’s an opportunity here for men to redefine what manhood is. For one man to say to another, “what kind of man does this?” is shaming and redefining in a way that women and non-binary folks can’t do. As a culture, we need a new definition of what it means to be a great man — one that doesn’t include taking what one wants by force or coercion. This is better than asking men “would you want your daughter/sister/mother/etc. that way?” for several reasons.

  • One issue is that many women’s experiences with harassment and assault are with people they know well, including family members. By extension, that means that a lot of perpetrators know the women they harass and assault well and still don’t see it as a problem. Saying “What kind of man does that?” might reach and shame men who are doing this to loved ones and vulnerable individuals — including their own daughters.
  • Another issue is that if the person being harassed is a man, gay, or non-binary, this kind of logic may break down quickly. “Would you want your trans son to be treated this way?” is an equally fair question, but it’s hard to imagine you’re going to get the same response from the perpetrator, right? Similarly, men are also victims of harassment and assault, and they are frequently belittled for not being “real men” who could defend themselves from said assault. Nobody deserves to be treated as fair game if they can’t defend themselves.
  • Men need to take proactive, not just reactive steps to define manliness and manhood. #notallmen is both absolutely true and absolutely silly as a motto. Imagine if we substituted #notallbananapeels. Yes, you see my point. As a society, we need something better than saying “I’m not one of the bad ones.” You can define what a good one is. Do it.

(3) Think hard about our culture’s assumptions about sex.

In my experience, a lot of what goes wrong with “gray area rape” or “grape” (to use Amy Schumer’s memorable nomenclature) is that we make assumptions about what bundle of sexual acts we consent to when we consent to one. For instance, it’s really common for attorneys to point out that victims consented to one sex act (e.g., fellatio) as “proof” that the victim consented to vaginal intercourse.

This is a weird idea. If you’re not sure if it’s weird, think about whether you assume that you can have anal sex with someone if they give you a blowjob. Probably not, right? You would think to yourself, “I should definitely double-check that one” before making any moves. You don’t think of it as being part of the same consent package, right? You know it requires its own separate permission slip. But the same is true of vaginas. That someone is willing to put your P in their mouth does not mean that you get to put the P in the V without checking. Same goes for fingers, objects, etc. These items are not interchangeable. (For a good discussion of this part of consent, see the ‘Tea Video’). Women (or anyone), can consent to one act with you and not another, even if those acts seem quite logically connected.

This is important to remember, and good to discuss with friends. Pretty much you can’t go wrong by discussing these things with your friends. At worst you’ll discover one of your friends is a douchebag and doesn’t get it (at which point, you’ll know who to keep an eye on), and at best your friends will go “yes of course, I saw the tea video months ago back when it was cool” (at which point, you’ll know your friends and my friends are probably the same group of people). Win-win.

I’m really glad you care about preventing harassment and assault. There is certainly more to say on this subject (and I’m likely to say some of it!), but I hope this offers some ideas for what you can do today to improve everyone’s lives. If you want to do more, you could also check out RAINN or similar orgs that do crisis counseling for sexual assault.

Til then…

Nailed it.