No, the #metoo movement is not about women “playing the victim”

Check out the original article at Feministing.

You’ve been stuffed into a box your whole life. You contort yourself to fit. Twist your legs. Chop off your arms. Breathe shallower. Then one day you realize—we realize, together—the box has seams in it. After lifetimes of contortion, we realize: Explode the box.

It’s easier said than done, but this is the project of #metoo—a collective moment of realization and anger that we shouldn’t have to contort ourselves to accommodate gender conditions that do not allow us the space to live full and liberated lives. Here of course, the contortions are both drastic and pervasive: Don’t wear the shorter dress for fear of staring. Try to forget about the justonetime your partner slapped you. Lay there and let him fuck you because you’re too tired of repeatedly saying no. Lie about why you’re late.

The collection of stories and debates under the #metoo  banner are rightly complex, with the realization that constraints work on many levels, that harm is both structural and systemic, public and intimate, and that eradicating sexual violence means radically restructuring sexual relations, including the relationships that form the foundations of our lives.

From the dismissals of a number of critics, however, we find a much different (and frustratingly two-dimensional) take. It goes something like this: Millennial women are privileged and oversensitive babies getting off on “playing the victim,” and they need to toughen up and take life like we did. Take Caitlin Flanagan’s dismissive comment, in her essay slamming the Babe Aziz Ansari story (for the wrong reasons), that “apparently there is a whole country full of young women who don’t know how to call a cab” (you’re right, we don’t call cabs, we use apps…but okay). 

Or take this story from a couple years ago responding in part to an article written by yours truly, cooly titled “The grrrls of the ’90s have given way to the uptight millennial women.” Leaving aside the fact that calling women uptight is kind of the oldest trick in the book to derail our genuine critique, the article repeats the tired spiel that in some past time, feminists were empowered and equal, and now we’re just whiny victims intent on ruining sex. (For what it’s worth, I am totally intent on ruining shitty, patriarchal sex, so look out ’cause I’m coming to haunt your bedroom!)

Finally, there is the ever-classic “talking about your experience of street harassment takes away from the real victims” strategy, of which Jia Tolentino did a great analysis and refutation here.

Besides being a crude dismissal of the very real violence we face at all levels, this “you’re just playing the victim” trope is a frustratingly simplistic way to talk about harm and violence. It boils down violence, and feminism for that matter, to a binary between empowerment and victimization, and to the assumption that attempting to draw attention to, understand, and thus undo harm means we are somehow weak…or that weakness and strength are even a relevent binary to the conversation.

In reality, of course, we’re talking about the need to change a system; the fact that our set of cultural norms around relationships are so limb-twisting, so banally and brutally violent, that we are finally ready to change the box rather than continue to contort ourselves.

We have every right to talk about our experiences of violence, including of small violences, because we are human beings who have a fundamental right to dignity, autonomy, and freedom from bodily harm. Our experiences are important in and of themselves, because we are important in and of ourselves.

Shared experience is also a solidarity upon which women survive. The look of immediate understanding that flashes between our faces when we hear a friend articulate a shade of pain we thought was just our own. How sometimes a group of women can laugh at a rape joke and for a glimmering second life seems livable and love ever-present.

To burst open that box, we have to first trace its edges. Talking about violence, from the microaggression to the macro-level system, is a fact-finding mission: What are the common threads, the underlying trends? The “big” violences only exist after all, because we let the “little” ones exist. The most obviously brutal stories of sexual violence happen for related underlying reasons as, and are on a continuum with, “bad sex.” We analyze these experiences because we are smart enough to piece the entire system together; we are also, as Tolentino pointed out in her piece, smart enough to know that different kinds of violence require different kinds of justiceWhen we only focus on the “big stuff,” the obvious and easily condemnable violence, we maintain the idea that violence is isolated, spectacular, and can be entirely boiled down to an individuals’ condemnable actions. The structure works at all levels, and therefore we must trace it at all levels.

We thus find—and this is my own, much different critique of an exclusive focus on victimization—in shared pain, shared responsibility. Victimhood is never an absolute state and an experience of victimhood does not somehow erase the responsibilities we have toward each other. We have the right to claim victimhood without apologies for our experiences of abuse, but very few people are ever victims in all aspects of our lives. And in the same vein, very few people are ever just perpetrators in all aspects of theirs. Talking about rich powerful white men committing heinous sexual crimes is easy, and should be done, but if that’s the end of our moral universe we have a pretty limited moral universe. The real test of our politics is how we respond to the way violence nests like a series of Russian dolls, the reality that many perpetrators have been victims of interpersonal and structural violence, the reality that our own craving for retribution can perpetuate the very brutality done to us. The real test of our politics is refusing easy but false binaries. The real test of our politics is having the courage to not only vindicate, but implicate ourselves.

Rather than dismissing our own experiences of aggression, however “micro,” because someone else is supposedly the real victim—or forgetting the intersections in which we always live—we can take the next, brave step of asking ourselves some genuine questions:

If we find our declarations of “#metoo” are met with sympathy, what enables that? What allows people to identify with our stories? What stories don’t get the same recognition?

Can we pay attention to the gaps and silences in the conversation, which may include issues like transwomen’s brutally disproportionate rate of victimization, the fact that sexual violence is rampant in prison, or the fact that the American military commits systematic sexual torture?

Can we connect our pain to a bigger system, and understand our place in it?

We do not owe anyone justifications for expressing and demanding justice for our own experiences of violence. But we do have a responsibility—pressing, urgent—to make these connections. To ground our conversations, and our movements, by connecting the dots between our own pain and a broader system. And to ask, always: Which voices aren’t being heard, or can’t speak? Which victims seem more “victimy?” Who receives sympathy and who doesn’t? How can #metoo be an “us?”

Cover image: New York City Women’s March 2018, Wikimedia Commons