What Does it Mean to Break Silence?

Read the original article at Feministing.

After the Trump — and the Cosby — and the Weinstein — and the Toback — revelations, we heard the same question asked over and over again: How can everyone know that sexual harassment and assault are happening, and still not admit that it is happening? Why are sexual assault and harassment so often “open secrets”? 

When we say that rape culture is a structure that silences victims, we’re not just talking about individual acts of violence kept as individual secrets. We don’t mean that instances of gendered violence are literally unheard. Instead, as we saw pouring out during the #MeToo campaign, gendered violence is a collective problem enabled by systemic sexism. It is sustained sometimes by literal silence, but also by our systemic and willful inability to hear women’s words.

The signs of gender violence are often all around us. An entire community may know that a particular man is abusive — but we do not know know, or we do not admit to knowing, or our knowledge does not become actionable, official, public. Women are taught to obscure the signs of our abuse, and our communities are taught to pretend they don’t know what’s really going on. Lie about our bruises. Claim we missed work because we had a cold. That we did poorly on an exam because we didn’t study. Whether by pressuring women not to speak up in the first place or dismissing them when they do, the system insists that reports of gendered violence remain private rumor rather than public record.

This is partly due to an underlying notion that the body and sexuality are private and shameful, and that therefore sexual trauma is not a public and political issue. Of course, the cumulative effect of gendered violence — the collective threat to women’s life and thriving; the stifling of women as a class — is quite public indeed. This was the original intervention of the slogan “the personal is political.” And this is why making one’s story public is, as we have seen in recent weeks, a political act.

I want to tell a story. I have told this story many times, including on this very site, but I will tell it again — because like a mystery novel without any ending, each time I revisit it, the story has a different meaning.

Once when I was nineteen I interviewed an extremely wealthy Harvard donor for the student newspaper, The Crimson. During the course of the interview, the donor asked me if I had a date to the formal dance that was happening that night, and when I said I did not, he remarked that any woman whose bra matches her laptop deserved a date (both my bra and laptop cover were pink). He then advised me not to publish this comment because his daughter was also an undergraduate. 

I did not print the comment.

The comment was gross and sexualizing, and yet it was the kind of comment women are subject to all the time. As Laura Bassett writes in her piece in the Huffington Post, these kinds of sexist, sexualizing remarks, especially from powerful men, especially in professional situations, have seriously destabilizing cumulative effects. They can cause serious anxiety which prevents us from doing our jobs, from feeling safe, from doing what we need to or want to, and generally from flourishing.

And they are normalized: While the comment stuck out in my head as not quite right,  at 19, I didn’t even consider publishing it. I did not know that such comments could be published. I assumed men making comments about your undergarments in professional situations was what being a woman meant, that it was unremarkable, daily, a matter with no place in the public record.

Which is not to say I maintained literal silence about the incident. While I did not publish it, I told my editor about the comment; she seemed to find it uncomfortable, but nothing came of it. Three years later, I mentioned the comment in passing to someone who was affiliated with the campus Title IX Office; she lodged a complaint, but there was nothing to be done about it. Later I mentioned the comment to a dean of the college whose professed commitment to gender justice didn’t lead him to do more than express vague sympathy. Wondering whether other women had similar experiences with the donor, I began asking around, trying tap into the network of gossip which is often the only way we can hear such information — with our ear to the ground. Nothing concrete came of any of this.

How can a powerful man make a sexually harassing comment on the recordto a journalist and still expect that it will not enter the public domain? Even despite the circuitous path of that one comment over several years — through multiple layers of official bodies, even multiple publications — this is how we emerged from the encounter: I spent years mulling over the impunity of powerful men’s sexism.

And he listed my article, published absent any comments about undergarments, on his website as a bit of positive press coverage.

Looking at it in light of recent events, this story seems to me to reveal a particular structure of impunity. While it was a relatively small incident, the pathways through which sexism stubbornly did not become public reveals how powerful men’s sexism — the sexism and sexual violence of people like Weinstein, Cosby, Trump – is supported by systems that render women silent. The system is structured to render our experiences seen, but not read; heard, but not listened to: like looking at words in an alphabet we can’t understand. Like hearing a scream and saying it is nonsense.

We have seen the outpouring of rage, anger, hurt, sadness, and political commitment from our communities in the form of the #MeToo hashtag, the lists making the rounds in media and Indian academia, and numerous acts of testimony. Many of us have felt the sudden, intense, and overwhelming sensation of revelation as that which we knew all along smashed onto the public stage. While there is extended debate on the efficacy of testimony and on the ethics of a mechanism like the public list, the political force of this outcry is undeniable. It puts an enforced not-seeing into focus, compelling us to read, finally, forcefully, and out loud, something that we saw, but did not see, all along. 

What has happened to us is real. It is public. We are here and we are not going anywhere.

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