By Marissa Alexa McCool
Now that the virality of the #MeToo campaign has somewhat died down, I think it’s important to take a look at this moment in time and analyze both what has happened and what we’ve learned from the recent discussion about sexual harassment and assault. Once the campaign was reignited (not created) by Alyssa Milano, people everywhere began to respond to the hashtag in a variety of ways, and like anything women talk about on the Internet, it didn’t come without its consequences, both positive and negative. First, let’s take a look at some of the positive effects, despite this conversation surrounding an extremely negative topic in and of itself.
The movement quickly became inclusive of other identities, more or less.
Granted, this isn’t a blanket statement. The original post specified women, saying that if all the women who had ever experienced sexual harassment or assault posted the phrase or hashtag “me too” that perhaps people would get an idea of just how big of a problem this actually is. However, as with most posts that talk about the experience of women, almost immediately there was a “what about men?” response. Ari Stillman of the SJW Circle-Jerk podcast brought up a great point of people presenting femme, whether they be cis women, trans women, non-binary or gender-nonconforming people who expressed any kind of femininity, or cis men who dared do anything feminine always having a target on them for it, and therefore the term being changed from women to people was helpful in illuminating the constant indictment of femininity in this society.
I will state for the record that I had no problem with men using this hashtag to tell their stories too. My issues with how some men responded will be for a later portion of this article, but if we are to address these issues of assault and harassment, it is important to highlight that men are often ignored, laughed at, or bullied for even the thought of coming forward about their incidents of these experiences, and that’s part of the overall problem.
Overall though, I saw people of all genders, all ages, all identities, all races, all sexualities, and all economic classes either telling their stories in detail, or just responding that they too had experienced this trauma on some level. That is a unity that we don’t often see in societies and communities heavy on gatekeeping.
Some people (who weren’t assholes) were motivated to change their behavior, or at least become aware of the behavior of others, due to the sheer amount of people using this hashtag.
This also isn’t an indictment of straight cis white men, but it was alarming to see so many of them, many of whom are activists and/or public figures, respond with sheer surprise of how many posts they were seeing including this hashtag. On some level, I envy the idea that they could live in this world among this many women and not be aware of how many of their fellow community members had experienced harassment and assault. However, ignorance isn’t bliss, and not knowing there is a problem isn’t justification for a lack of action.
I don’t know and can’t say how many people will take actual action because of this hashtag, directly or indirectly, but I can say with some level of confidence that I think many more cis straight men gained a greater perspective on not just what people deal with, but how many of them have. We still do live in a world where women are seen as emotional, illogical, and irrational, and therefore it takes men vouching and speaking out about it as well before something is taken seriously.
A greater level of empathy and bonding took place between many people who thought they were alone.
One of the most terrifying aspects of experiencing harassment and assault (and by the way, #metoo), is the isolating feeling of having to prove yourself. Everyone around you seems ready to question anything, from if you were telling the truth at all to what you were wearing to what you did to cause it to why you didn’t avoid it to why you didn’t just leave. Whether it be friends, police officers, administrators, or otherwise, the burden of proof is often immediately placed on the person who experienced these traumas. It’s no wonder that people have such a hard time coming forward about what happened to them when they’re almost instantly disbelieved and/or blamed for something that wasn’t their fault.
If you ever want to gather an idea of how often this can happen, I recommend reading We Believe You: Survivors of Campus Sexual Assault Speak Out, by Annie E. Clark and Andrea L. Pino. It was shortly before the #MeToo campaign that I was reading this book, and saw a scenario that seemed really familiar. Like scarily familiar. The victim was a trans woman, like me. The victim went to school for their freshman year at Temple University in 2013; Temple being in Philadelphia, the same city that I transferred to for four-year when I went to UPenn. When I got to the end of the story, I went back and checked the name of the author of this particular piece, and realized not only was it someone I knew, but it was someone with whom I went to the same community college, worked on the student newspaper, and had at least one class. They knew me before I came out as trans, so it was difficult to immediately go to this person and say anything, but that’s how small these worlds can be. Imagine reading a book without realizing that someone telling the story about their trauma is someone you know, and that as much as this campaign made people realize how common and prevalent it is.
While the sage advice is often to never read the comments, I can say with at least a majority percentage of the ones I saw, it was other people either sharing their own story or expressing love and support for the person who posted it. Those are the feelings people desperately need when they experience trauma, and I was thrilled for those in my community who weren’t isolated and exiled for speaking out and were instead embraced.
Now that we’ve had three positive things to talk about, it’s time to talk about the negative consequences of this campaign, and of course I mean other than that so many people have been sexually harassed or assaulted.
The phrase was co-opted, mocked, refuted, or written off; either for reasons of disbelief, general shitholetry, changing the narrative, or victim blaming.
When some men decided that maybe the women were speaking about something that didn’t include them necessarily, some engaged in a particular behavior I like to call NotAlling; the reference being back a few years ago to when women were using the hashtag YesAllWomen, men responded with NotAllMen. The general problem with this behavior is that it changes a conversation to make it about yourself, and is often used not to continue or extend conversations, but to shut them down.
For instance, NotAlling with both campaigns often brought up “what about men who deal with it?” “What about prison?” “What about…?” etc, and while these are all legitimate issues, it becomes questionable when the only time someone mentions these things is when they see women speaking about their own experience. If you only use those examples to stop conversations and shut women up, you don’t actually care about them. It’s like responding with “what about homeless veterans?” in response to taking in refugees, but then never actually doing anything to help homeless veterans. Only using a stance of self-righteousness to stop people from trying to speak out or help others isn’t helpful and is only designed to relieve you of any guilt from action you may have participated in to contribute to this problem, and it’s a helluva lot easier to assume that everyone else is lying and it’s not your fault at all while at the same time getting to sit on your moral pedestal than to listen to people, learn something, and consider your own potential involvement in this behavior.
Sometimes it was using the laughter reaction when people said it, or placing it on a pair of socks. Or, some people of all genders responded with a modified tag of #NotMeEither or some variant of that, because of course the anecdotal experience is always congruent with reality. “I didn’t experience this, therefore it doesn’t happen.” I don’t quite know where people using #IHave fit in to this analysis, but to once again refer to Ari’s episode of SJWCJ, it does in some ways change the narrative, make the conversation about you, and expect getting a pat on the back for knowing that you’ve participated in this behavior and were public about it. If you’re only owning up to problematic things you’ve done to be commended for your honesty and never actually change anything, that’s worthy of distrust and wariness.
The worst co-opting I saw, however, came in the form of some men using the hashtag to correct the conversation. I saw it shared in both post and meme form where it said something along the lines of “financial abuse and sexual neglect” were the real problems, thus both putting the onus back on women and claiming victimhood for putting nice coins in a woman and sex not falling out was equal to or the superior problem to women talking about abuse, harassment, and assault. This mentality is often seen in the “But I’m a nice guy/friendzone” aspect of relationships where someone feels entitled to sex for paying attention to them, buying them things so they’ll get laid, or believing that they’ve been friendzoned. Not only are these mentalities celebrated, but they’re defended when someone goes on a shooting rampage killing women for not accepting his advances.
So while it was no surprise to see this campaign being co-opted in the ways it did, it doesn’t make it any less harmful.
Some people still believe that victims of harassment and assault deserve it.
“What were you wearing?”
“Why were you out so late?”
“How much did you have to drink?”
“Did you lead him on?”
“Boys will be boys.”
“Why weren’t you at home making dinner for your husband?” (That particular one was thrown at a woman who had to respond with “I was eight.”) Nevermind the gender roles and implication of fault on the woman for not behaving as that man believed she should, but it highlights the idea of “if this happened, she must’ve caused it or it was otherwise her fault.”
Once again, it is a helluva lot easier to assume the victim did something to deserve it and wipe it from your mind than to have a level of empathy for another human being. It’s easier to think they must’ve lied about it than to listen to a traumatic recounting of events. It’s also easier to commit such actions and say that they deserved it rather than check your behavior. I think of the men who put up such a fuss about behavior policies being put into place at conventions, and thinking that not harassing or assaulting people meant nobody could flirt or have sex anymore. The same ideas are perpetuated when finding out that there are secret networks of women who discuss assaults that have happened to them from leaders in their communities and are afraid to come out about it, lest they be exiled, blamed, doxxed, harassed, bullied, trolled, and/or sued for speaking out.
If the idea of women talking about the behavior of men to each other bothers you, maybe you’re worried about them talking about your behavior. That should tell you something. Of course you can flirt with people at a convention. But if they say no, it stops there. Of course you can have sex with someone at a convention (preferably in the hotel room and not on the conference floor.) But if they don’t consent to this, that’s where it becomes not okay. Consent is mandatory, and ignoring that is what leads to many of the stories seen represented by this hashtag and campaign.
It still takes dozens of people speaking out for people to take allegations seriously.
One of the biggest reasons that sex crimes go unreported, in addition to all the gatekeeping and questioning mentioned earlier, is simply because they don’t think they’ll be believed. Think of how many celebrities or public figures in the last few years have been accused of behavior, and the hero worship brigades ride forth in defense. Whether it be a football coach, family comedian, movie producer, or candidate for President of the United States, the behavior is defended or dismissed as “locker room talk,” “boys being boys,” “it was a different time,” or anything in between. And when someone who openly brags about sexual assault gets elected to the highest office in the land, it’s not exactly a sign of progress of moving forward on this issue.
Overall though, it does seem that more people of all genders felt empowered to speak out about their experiences, and a lot more people listened, perhaps for the first time. If there’s a first step in turning this behavior from being something celebrated or disbelieved into something that has effects that make people steer away from it, it’s more people speaking up, speaking out, and simply saying the phrase “I believe you.” Never underestimate the power of believing someone who tells you what they’ve experienced. It can save someone’s life.