Augustana professor Roxanne Harde responds to the #MeToo movement
On Sunday Oct. 15, in the wake of the dozens of women coming forward to accuse producer Harvey Weinstein, actress Alyssa Milano suggested that women who have been sexually assaulted or harassed should post #MeToo on social media. Milano was reigniting a movement begun ten years earlier by activist Tarana Burke, who started it when she was a youth camp counsellor and found that disclosing that she, too, had been assaulted was the most effective way to stand in solidarity with the sexually abused girls she counselled. Noting that she wanted to people to understand the “magnitude of the problem,” Milano’s hashtag is approaching a million tweets and has come up over six million times on Facebook. Hundreds of thousands of women have told their stories on social media, and mainstream media has reacted with a ridiculous amount of surprise at just how widespread is “this problem,” which they rarely refer to as the endemic sexism, the rape culture, that it is. Popular culture, however, has come to accurately reflect the extent of sexual assault; in the past seven years alone, more than one hundred popular young adult novels about acquaintance rape have been published, and they comprise one of my ongoing research projects.
On Monday morning, I posted #MeToo as my Facebook status and, understanding that most of my female friends have had experiences like mine, fully expected that I’d be seeing a lot of similar posts. And I did. And I had friends who didn’t post #MeToo. I understand that they had their reasons, but I also understand that there’s not much chance that they haven’t been assaulted in some way. If not raped, I’m sure they have been sexually harassed, touched or kissed against their will, catcalled or wolf whistled, made to feel unsafe or made to feel that if they didn’t smile or “be nice,” their jobs were threatened, or their work couldn’t be done as effectively. But all of these things are part of “the problem.” And that problem hasn’t changed much: twenty years ago, my seventeen-year-old daughter wanted to attend a New Year’s Eve co-ed sleepover party. I knew her friends; I was their high school librarian. I also knew that the combination of alcohol and teenagers easily leads to sexual assault, that we have built a culture in which our boys feel entitled to the bodies of our girls. My daughter insisted that she and her girlfriends would be safe. And then I told her that almost every woman I knew had been interfered with sexually. I mused that the rest simply hadn’t told me their stories yet, but I fully believed they had a story. After she heard some of those stories, (only one of which involved a stranger), she decided that the girls would sleep at our house, and I was responsible for driving and making them brunch.
And now? Now it feels like, what’s the point? Posting #MeToo tells no woman anything new. Reactions on my Facebook feed ranged from anger that treating women in this way continues unabated to profound weariness that campaigns like this one continue to prove that the overwhelming majority of women are sexually victimized. We can post all the hashtags we want, we can relive our traumas, and we can keep increasing visibility of the rampant sexism in our culture, the sexism that teaches every boy that every girl isn’t quite human, that she doesn’t have a personhood that needs to be respected, that she’s only a sexual object. Do we really need to keep telling these stories? Haven’t we established that most women (and many men) have experienced sexual assault and harassment? Do we have to keep publicly performing our pain just to have the existence of rape culture acknowledged? Can’t we just come to some agreement that this is a male problem and it’s time men did something about it? It was good to see my male Facebook friends try to stand in solidarity with me and their other women friends. But it’s been better to see men like Keith Edwards, on a recent visit to Augustana, stand up and explain to our students how and why sexual violence is a male problem and men must deal with it.
By the end of the week, posts with hashtags like #ItWasMe or #IWasThatGuy or #IHave started to appear. Some of these men acknowledge that they have enabled destructive gendered power relations, that they have been silent when they should have spoken up, and that they’ve doubted women’s stories. Others have admitted to sexual assault, to ignoring women’s objections, to not hearing “no,” to objectifying women, to being part of the problem. These posts amount to little more than generalized confessions, the public stroking of guilty consciences without any danger that these perpetrators will be brought to justice or even apologize to the people they’ve harmed. Asking the world to bear witness to your story to raise awareness that rape culture is real is one thing; asking the world to bear witness to your vague regrets over the crime you committed against another human being only trivializes the damage you’ve done. Last week, Rebecca Solnit wrote in the Guardian that we might work toward a society less hostile to women through “small acts that accrete into a different world view and different values.” The #ItWasMe hashtags might be those small acts, but I don’t think so. Nowhere in them do I see the understanding that women are just as important as men in every capacity; that we deserve to be heard; that we are autonomous humans; and that our bodies are only, always, and finally our own.
This is a guest opinion piece by Augustana English professor, Roxanne Harde.