Does #MeToo have any real impact?
One in six girls and women are at risk of being sexually assaulted in their lifetime. And so I write: #MeToo. #MeToo, like every woman I know, every woman she knows, and every women they know, and on and on. Take that in for just a minute. How many of you as you're reading this are nodding your heads and thinking, "Yes, me too," all while coming up with names; countless names of friends, family and acquaintances, who could also nod their heads in recognition of this awful experience.
Ten years ago, activist Tarana Burke began using and promoting #MeToo as a way to lift the silence, stigma and shame; to offer a voice to women, especially women of color, who are too often pushed into the background on this and countless other matters. I'm right there with all these women who are bravely stepping forward to say #MeToo.
But something is missing. These questions buzz in my mind: Does #MeToo have any real impact? Is it useful or just a flash in the pan? Is there substance to declaring it on social media or might we all just be a bunch of uptight women raising a ruckus over something that we need to just get over? The questions feel difficult enough. The potential answers are even more challenging.
I keep coming back to the unsettling "revelation" of Harvey Weinstein's behaviors as a gatekeeper of the Hollywood scene. His actions toward women and girls that crossed his gaze; Imagine their hopes of being noticed only to find themselves obliged to take a role on his casting couch to even gain consideration. As this story comes to light, we learn that countless prominent men in Hollywood knew this was going on. And further, they ignored it because for them it was "normal." The missing piece that the now public disclosure of Harvey Weinstein's acts and #MeToo make clear is that we name the victims, we name the acts, but we NEVER name the perpetrators.
Many of these types of awareness campaigns use that familiar passive voice. "One in every six girls and women are at risk of being sexually assaulted." Reads good right? How about this? "One in six women and girls are at risk of being sexual assaulted by men." A little stronger. We get the sense of who else might be involved. But like the first quote, who's the subject? Who's problem is it? "Men will sexually assault one of every six girls and women." Now that's a very different declaration.
It still states the truth of what is happening to women. It puts the action, the doing with those responsible for the act. As women, we've been strongly socialized to take care of other's feelings. I think this is what the passive voice used in consciousness-raising campaigns like #MeToo helps continue. Many of us don't wish to risk offending men by naming them as the catcallers, stalkers, batterers, rapists, traffickers, pimps and johns. They, too, have been socialized to be in positions of power and for most of their lives, men do have more power and privilege. Even if poor and disenfranchised, they can still have power over women. This social order adds to the difficulty of addressing harassment and sexual assault, resigning women to shoulder the problem.
#MeToo is having impact. It is pulling back the veil of an age-old issue. Women are struggling to move forward on so many levels. We've created space for dialogue, but now we need men to join in talking. I've recently seen men, who are allies, discuss their role in this problem and what they can do about it. So here are some direct and real suggestions men can use to not only support the women and girls they care about, but support the boys and men they care about, too:
- Almost all your female friends have been sexually harassed or assaulted. The harassment started when they were children. The catcalling, the groping in a crowded place, the pressure to be good looking and thin for the eyes and hands of other men. As men, you've moved about your life with relative ease and security of your personal being. What does it mean to harass women? Believe it or not, it can be as simple as asking strangers to smile. And, of course, catcalling and making unwanted sexualized comments, raging at your female friends who "friend zone" you. Not taking "no" for an answer.
- When it comes to conversations about harassment and assault, it's more helpful if you listen, witnessing our pain without having to fix it. Interrupting and pointing out that not all men are harassers only shuts us down. It's true not all men are harassers, but enough are doing this and enough are also looking the other way.
- Victim blaming. We need to move the conversation away from what the victim could have done to prevent it. Stop asking, what were they wearing, why they were traveling alone, whether they fought back, why they didn't come forward sooner? This isn't a problem that victims need to solve.
- If you have a personal story, share it. Men are harassed and assaulted, such occurrences are unfortunately rampant in the gay community. Some have said to treat this as a separate issue, but part of this is about teaching men not to abuse regardless of their subject.
- Shut it down when you see it. Call out harassment when you see your friends do it. Maybe they'll change, maybe they'll stop being your friend, either way you will be creating the world you wish to live in. This is where you are most powerful.
Fathers, uncles, older brothers: if you have young men in your lives, teach them early about respect and consent. The adage "boys will be boys" isn't OK. Make this behavior extinct.
Kim Rivers has been an activist for girls and women's rights for more than 34 years. She is currently an adjunct faculty at Berkshire Community College and a board member of the Elizabeth Freeman Center. She is member of the National Women's Martial Art Federation and Association of Women Martial Arts Instructors.
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