Me, too. I was drugged at a fraternity party my sophomore year of college. I was in denial for a long time, because I remembered so little. But I knew the perpetrator, someone the frat brothers called “cowboy,” and I know how and when I was drugged. I know enough to know what happened.
I think about it so infrequently. But fourteen years later, mother to a young daughter (and pregnant with my second) in a country where sexual violence, a form of gender-based violence, is condoned and endemic, I find myself actively searching for ways to empower her and protect her from it. I teach my daughter the scientifically accurate names of her body parts, and only talk about her body if discussing all of the amazing things it can do. We talk about how to set boundaries and how to say “no” if she doesn’t like something. I never insinuate that she is a little boy’s girlfriend or talk about a kiss between toddlers as if it’s a sexual act. As she gets older, there will be so much more sharing and teaching and learning. My partner and I are committed to instilling her with confidence and a strong sense of self-worth.
The harrowing stories of sexual violence that have surfaced in the last week are deeply disturbing, but hardly surprising. The accounts of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s repeated sexual assaults of women in the industry spanned decades, as did the network of people who enabled and abetted his predatory acts by protecting him or looking away. Woody Allen’s unacceptable reaction gives us such clear insight into the mentality of those who allowed this to happen. (But this response is so, so good!)
The hashtag #MeToo went viral Monday as a demonstration of solidarity with others who have survived sexual violence and to show the prevalence of this violence. I stand in absolute solidarity with those who have posted their stories, and I have chosen to share my own.
But while I’ve participated in it, the viral campaign also misses some really important points. First, gender-based violence is about power and is part and parcel of other systems of violence and oppression, namely, white supremacy. As a white woman, dismantling gender-based violence means also addressing my white privilege and working to challenge the power structures that support all forms of oppression. This piece says it well and lists many questions we should be asking men and ourselves. Second, #MeToo as a viral campaign risks fading as quickly as it began if it is left to be simply a viral campaign without appreciation for the long-time work that has gone into building a thoughtful movement that supports survivors and challenges the systems that allow for gender-based violence.
Both the first and second points are illustrated by the way this viral campaign began: with a white female actor encouraging others to write “me too” as a status if they had been sexually harassed or assaulted to show the magnitude of the problem. But the campaign didn’t appreciate that, in fact, black activist Tarana Burke founded the “Me Too” movement over ten years ago to empower women of color to tell their stories of survival and find solidarity. She is the director of Girls for Gender Equity and has been doing the work and building a movement of those who face intersectional oppression. “Me Too” must be much, much more than a hashtag to have real social impact, and white women need to check our privilege and use it to make space for those most impacted by gender-based violence.
And remedying sexual violence must be about more than empowering those who have or who are likely to be subjected to sexual violence, because sexual violence will continue without a major cultural shift in the expectations we set for our boys and men. I can teach my daughter every defense mechanism available to her, but ultimately equipping girls and others who face sexual violence with these tools will do little if men don’t change the way they think about women, the female body, and their own power.
If men take anything from the #MeToo campaign, it should not be shock at the prevalence of sexual violence. Instead, ask yourselves what you, personally, will do about it. One of my white male college friends who is a strong ally to women politically and personally posted his support of those who had endured sexual violence. He then went a step further to acknowledge ways he might have been complicit in allowing this to happen. He then linked to a blog post written by a woman entitled, “The Opposite of Rape Culture is Nurturance Culture.” Indeed, often men are introduced to sexist ideas and encouraged to be hyper-masculine from a very early age. (Parents who talk about their toddler’s “way with the ladies”: looking at you.) What if parents, teachers, and peers encouraged and rewarded nurturance instead? Listen to the women in your lives, believe them when they report sexual violence, and challenge yourselves and your male peers to talk and think about women as equals deserving of your respect.
Lots of women I know have posted the words “of course” when they added their voice to the #MeToo conversation. One in four girls experience sexual assault before they are 18. One in four. We have a president who bragged about sexually assaulting women, and a nation willing to vote for him despite knowing this. Pornography and its glorification of rape culture has become so mainstream, and viewing it so accepted as a rite of passage for young men. Instead of implementing inclusive sex education into school curricula, we favor abstinence-only education and place the burden on young girls to adhere to this, because, as many say (and need to stop saying), “boys will be boys.” Instead of recognizing reproductive freedom as a human right that women have to control what happens to our own bodies, we are still fighting for basic access to birth control. We have a long way to go.
Let’s keep up our strength, support survivors, use white privilege to elevate the voices of women of color and celebrate their leadership in the movement against sexual violence, and educate our men and sons to respect women.