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

Sexual violence

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

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How Men Can Confront Toxic Masculinity (+ Why It’s Important for Mental Health)

mental health, Relationships, Sexual violence

With the #MeToo movement dominating the headlines over the past few months, many of us have had to ask tough questions about our own experiences of gender, power, and relationships. While women have taken the forefront of the movement, it’s also been a moment of reckoning for men.

The movement has not only provided an opportunity to confront more obvious acts of violence, but also how gender roles influence the way we treat one another in our own lives and relationships. This means confronting the role of toxic masculinity in our lives and relationships.

What is toxic masculinity?

Toxic masculinity is a term for some of the harmful associations of “maleness” in our culture. It doesn’t mean that masculinity is bad or that it is bad to be a man. It does mean, however, that some traits associated with masculinity in our culture are harmful or toxic for both men and women’s mental, physical, emotional, and relationship health.

We can all think of examples of toxic masculinity: the idea that it’s “unmanly” or “weak” to express one’s feelings or to cry; the idea that men should judge their own value on how many women they have sex with; or the idea that men should get into fights with one another to express their dominance, for example.

Check out the full piece at Talkspace.

Having Healthy Sex after Sexual Assault

mental health, Relationships, Sexual violence

The summer I was nineteen, I researched and wrote a travel guide to Italy, journeying from Venice to the Cinque Terre armed only with a sundress and my handy dandy Macbook.

It sounds pretty ideal, and it was—except for the constant, terrifying, enraging sexual harassment. From being groped on the train to being kissed non-consensually by hostel owners and bartenders, the summer left me tan, skinny, with killer calf muscles — and with a feeling of total disconnect from my sexuality. After months of constant, unwanted attention and physical violation, I felt that my sexuality had become a weapon used against me rather than something for my own pleasure.

My experience is not rare. From street harassment to rape, many of us, and particularly women and LGBTQ people, are affected by sexual violence. And because sexual violence is a violation of our right to make choices about our bodies, it can change our relationship to our own sexuality in complex and difficult ways.

Check out the full article on Talkspace.

Sexual Harassment Starts in School, and Boy Do We Know it

Sexual violence, Sexuality

You can read the original piece at Feministing

I was horny in high school. Like many adolescent humans, sex ricocheted through my body like a summer storm.

If you’ve read any of my writing, however, you will not be even remotely surprised to know that my outspoken feminism and ability to scan Shakespearean meter did not bring the boys to the yard. And if you existed in Republican America in the aughts you will also not be surprised to hear that there were very few out queers. No date invitations, no making out behind the bleachers: at sixteen, not being considered sexually attractive was its own form of Hades.

I was also cast as the seductress in about six high school plays.

I was the sexy one — the woman who slunk and commanded, who sang and smoldered, who whispered dirty nothings. I had gotten tall and my breasts had come in early, and there was something about my walk and my posture that seemed destined to scandalize my friends’ fathers. 

Now imagine how this shit can interact with a sex-starved sixteen-year-old’s brain: a nonentity in the preteen pecking order, on stage I was the sex pot of the scene. I learned to pose with one hip jutted out in doorways, to cast come-hither glances, and made out far more onstage than I ever did off it. 

While the slinky walk came more or less naturally (those hips were just waiting to swing), my high school drama teachers also offered some tutoring. Mostly men in their late twenties, they  coached me on how to walk and sit and deliver my lines with a seductive simper, drilling me as I donned blistery high heels to walk up and down the high school hallways.

I still feel this instruction in my body language when I flirt. 

There came a threshold when male teachers’ comments left the realm of theater and entered the classroom. Comments that both rewarded and critiqued my sexuality. That filled me with the mixture of queasy flattery and violation I, like many women, have felt about a million times. 

I was told that I seemed like a grown woman, too mature for the high school halls — and also asked, with eyes incredulously narrowed, if I had really never had a boyfriend. I was told I looked like a hussy. When I shared a strong opinion (and looking back on this one now I’m like what the actual fuck was this guy thinking?) I was told that men had better watch out or I would gobble them up with my…

I think he stopped short of saying vagina, but it wasn’t too hard to fill in the blanks.

After rehearsing a particularly saucy scene alone with a male teacher in the band room — feeling embarrassed as I performed for him, slinking and pawing, unsure of where to look—he looked me in the face. “Do it again,” he said. “But this time, look at me like you’d look at a man you were playing with under a table.”

A high school administrator caught wind of my new role, and typical of our Family Values community, expressed shamey concern for my immortal soul and reputation: “She’s started walking down the halls swinging her hips like she is having sex,” she reportedly commented, as though sexual activity could be read by the gait. At the time, firmly inculcated with the pretty standard message that my sexual attractiveness determined my worth, the comments prompted a strange and intoxicating mix of excitement (older men!) and terror (talking about my vagina!).

In retrospect, asking a teenager you have a supervisory capacity over to imagine giving you a hand job (or maybe a foot job, I don’t known the dimensions of the imaginary table) is pretty obvious sexual harassment.

As the cultural reckoning about sexual harassment in workplaces, educational institutions, Hollywood, and oh yeah, literally everywhere, has unfolded over the past few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about the weird, uncomfortable mix of gratification and humiliation that we are taught to associate with our sexualities. The double standard that says sexual harassment complaints make too big a deal about something that is “just a compliment,” but that labels us sluts when we accept wanted sexual overtures. How unwanted sexual attention wears us down. But how often, we’re taught to judge our worth by our sex appeal to such an extent we lose our connection to our own sense of what is and isn’t wanted.

Recently, I looked back at those photos of me in high school, silhouetted in the haloes of the low-budget stage lights.

And you know what? At seventeen, I was sexy. It wasn’t just my pouty lips and my hopeful, long-limbed body. It was a kind of ribald confidence, a shamelessness that bordered on exhibitionism. Seeing those pictures, I thought of that comment — men better be careful or you’ll gobble them up with your...

In a young woman, appetite is threatening. Agency is threatening. It’s threatening to men to see a sexuality which they cannot consume. The misogynist justification for sexual harassment is often just this repetition of a male inability to imagine women being beautiful, or interesting, or talented in a way that is not at all directed toward them.

High school girls are told to dress modestly because their bodies are “distracting.” They are frequently harassed or assaulted by peers and teachers. In college and graduate school, women are often at the mercy of harassment from the gatekeepers to our academic and professional success: professors, advisers, administrators, dudes who have written famous postcolonial studies manuscripts. If we speak up we are threatened with the diminishment of our educational and professional opportunities. This is a way to control not only our bodies, but our potential.

And they get us young.

Feministing writers past and present keep coming back to a question that’s often on my mind, too. Which is: Who would we be if we lived in a world without pervasive sexual violence?

Imagine the kind of effortless ownership we could feel if we grew up with the right to enjoy our sexualities, in environments that didn’t reduce us to them. If we were able to stride and sing down the high school hallways swinging our hips like we knew all the secrets worth knowing.

As sexually frustrated as I was in high school, I also had an impetuous energy that I envy in retrospect, a kind of raw and reckless desire dulled now by intervening years of misogynistic crap. The fight against sexual violence is not just about political and economic equality, professional advancement, and access to public space. It’s also about that. That feeling of being at home in our bodies, that bold and impetuous pleasure in our own flesh, which systemic sexism robs from us. 

Because despite all the sexist bullshit, I remember how good it felt to be seventeen and sexual. Waving my arms onstage, something burning inside of me. Like I was a bird straining against gravity. Like my legs were wings and if I could just spread them, I’d take off flying.

Cover photo: High school—it’s like High School Musical, but with sexual harassment. 

How Much Effort Do Women Put Into Coping With Sexual Harassment in a Day?

mental health, Sexual violence

Find the original article at Talkspace.

It’s that knot of anxiety in the pit of your stomach when you walk down the street. You step off the train, your bag in front of your breasts, flinching lest the next passerby brush you “accidentally-on-purpose.”

It’s never knowing whether your boss is leaning just a little too close.

It’s turning the music up loud so you don’t hear the catcallers, or turning down an invitation to a work outing because the coworker who’s going has a reputation for getting handsy when he’s drunk.

In the course of an average day, women spend an incredible amount of time and energy attempting to avoid sexual harassment — and thanks to recent research, we now know how much. This time and effort is called “safety work,” and it is work: All those moments of self-censorship, of adjusting our behavior, of choosing what we wear or where we go based, not on our real desires, but on fear for our safety, aren’t just minor annoyances. They have a major effect on our mental health, from daily stress to effects as serious as post traumatic stress disorder.

A recent group of feminist researchers has elaborated how “safety work” exacts a toll on women’s everyday lives. UK-based researcher Liz Kelly has argued that safety work is the labor that women are forced to do in order to try to keep ourselves safe from domestic and sexual violence, in a world in which this violence is not an occasional incident but an overwhelming daily threat.

Find the full original article at Talkspace.

Why Doesn’t My Friend Leave Their Abusive Partner – and How Can I Help?

mental health, Sexual violence

Find the original piece at Talkspace.

You may see your friend crying, hear your friend’s partner make demeaning comments towards them, or notice they seem anxious around or afraid of their partner. Or your friend may open up to you on their own.

Knowing or suspecting that someone you care about is in an abusive relationship can be a deeply conflicting experience. You know it’s taking a toll on their mental and possibly physical health — and you want to help — but you may not feel equipped. You want to swoop in and “rescue” your friend, and yet you know you have to respect their right to make their own choices.

Despite these difficulties, it is possible to support a friend who is in an abusive situation — and often, a good friend’s support makes all the difference. Offering real support means putting our friend’s needs before our own desire to play the hero. It also means learning about the complex psychological effects of abuse.

We can understand the complexities of abuse by answering one common question: If this relationship is hurting my friend so much, why don’t they just leave?

So Why Is it So Hard to Leave?

Don’t forget that even if your friend’s relationship is abusive, it’s still a relationship: It’s complicated, and human. There are many reasons someone may stay with an abusive partner, and there is a lot you can do as a friend to offer nonjudgemental material and mental health support.

Here are a few commons reasons why victims of abuse stay in the relationship, along with ways you can help:

Find the full original piece at Talkspace.

Street Harassment and its Effect on Women’s Mental Health in Teen Vogue

mental health, Sexual violence

You can find this piece in Teen Vogue and the original at Talkspace.

I remember what I was wearing: A blue tank top with a picture of a peacock, jean short-shorts, and flip-flops. I remember the weather: High summer, sweet grass scenting the air and the sun just beginning its slow descent to the horizon. I was walking down a country road, lost in my thirteen-year-old daydreams, when suddenly —

Honk honk!

A car horn split the air with its grating clamor. A group of men in the car waved their hands and heads out the windows, hollering at me.

It felt like I jumped a mile. My body flooded with shock. Fear. Self-consciousness. The moment before, I was at ease in my space, my body, my summer daydreams. Now, my sense of peace was ripped away like a wax strip torn from the heart.

That was the first time I was street harassed.

Do you remember the first time you were street harassed? Were you a little girl? A young woman setting off for college? Or has it happened so often you can’t even remember the start?

If you’re a woman, chances are you’ve experienced street harassment — and not just one time. In fact, some surveys show that as many as 85% of women report experiencing incidences of harassment in public space — including behaviors like staring, sexual comments, whistling, and even groping — before the age of 17. That means almost all of us have been street harassed before we’re even licensed to drive.

Street harassment affects women from all backgrounds, races, classes, and sexualities, though it can have a particularly difficult impact on women of color and members of the LGBTQ community. And while men can experience street harassment too, they are often harassed for being perceived as LGBTQ or “feminine.”

For many of us, the very pervasiveness of street harassment normalizes it, making us feel that it is inevitable or that we must simply “grin and bear it.” For too long, popular culture and even people close to us have reiterated these negative messages by dismissing street harassment as a “compliment,” as “no big deal,” or even as something that we invite through the clothes we wear, how we look, or where we choose to walk.

But let’s make one thing clear: Street harassment is never our fault and is much more than a “minor inconvenience.” Street harassment is a global public health epidemic.

Read the full article here. Cover image by Joanna Neborsky for Teen Vogue.

Here’s How Street Harassment Affects Women’s Mental Health—And How We Heal

mental health, Sexual violence

Read the full article at the Talkspace blog

I remember what I was wearing: A blue tank top with a picture of a peacock, jean short-shorts, and flip-flops. I remember the weather: High summer, sweet grass scenting the air and the sun just beginning its slow descent to the horizon. I was walking down a country road, lost in my thirteen-year-old daydreams, when suddenly —

Honk honk!

A car horn split the air with its grating clamor. A group of men in the car waved their hands and heads out the windows, hollering at me.

It felt like I jumped a mile. My body flooded with shock. Fear. Self-consciousness. The moment before, I was at ease in my space, my body, my summer daydreams. Now, my sense of peace was ripped away like a wax strip torn from the heart.

That was the first time I was street harassed.

Do you remember the first time you were street harassed? Were you a little girl? A young woman setting off for college? Or has it happened so often you can’t even remember the start?

If you’re a woman, chances are you’ve experienced street harassment — and not just one time. In fact, some surveys show that as many as 85% of women report experiencing incidences of harassment in public space — including behaviors like staring, sexual comments, whistling, and even groping — before the age of 17. That means almost all of us have been street harassed before we’re even licensed to drive.

 

Read the full article at Talkspace.

We need to confront gendered violence in movement spaces.

movements, Sexual violence, social justice

Read the original article at Feministing.

It’s easy to talk about gendered violence from conservative men because, well, their ideology is often consistent with their douchebaggery. When you’ve devoted your entire career to ranting against abortion rights on television or groping your way to a white-supremacist presidency, there’s a pretty clear and obvious connection between your stated values (sexist) and your actions (violent). 

What can be harder, but in some ways even more urgent, is calling out sexual harassment, sexual violence, and intimate partner violence in the progressive communities that many of us call home. I’ve been asked this question a couple times during conversations and campaigns related to gender justice in activist spaces recently: Why focus on progressive and activist men? Aren’t our political foes equally if not more guilty? Won’t highlighting sexual violence give a bad name to our movements?

Sometimes this question is asked  more out of naivete than gaslighting — surely, a nice radical boy will ask, the problem can’t be as bad among progressive people? Sometimes, this question is downright hostile — I’ve even had “radical” men tell me that feminism is antithetical to revolutionary movements (and then I realized why there is still value in the admittedly overused word “brosocialist”).

If we care about building just and egalitarian societies, we will fight gendered violence in our communities, period. This is a commitment that cuts to the very core of our movements, a marker of our willingness to pursue truly transformative politics which change social relations from broad systems down to our most intimate spaces and selves. We talk about gendered violence in activist spaces —

Because we have high expectations that our behavior will match our ideology

It can be hard to identify gendered violence in radical spaces because many of us can talk the talk of gender justice so damn well — but our behavior tells a much different story. Maybe a dude has been vocal in support of women leaders in the movement but has a reputation for sending unsolicited dick pics. Or a queer activist talks about fighting violence but talks down to her girlfriend in a way that makes everyone uncomfortable. Believing our own rhetoric, we can deny what’s right in front of us. But our rhetoric means nothing if we’re not putting it into practice. 

Because we are all learning to be better

We all come from the same fucked-up societies, and we’ve all imbibed patriarchal and heterosexist values from day one. Nobody is born a great feminist, or a committed socialist, or a powerful antiracist activist. Learning is also a form of labor and it’s one we all must partake in as a continual process of political growth. Inevitably there will be mistakes. Being uncertain about gender issues or occasionally messing up is okay; refusing to listen, learn, and grow from our mistakes is not. 

Because you are our comrades and we need to trust you for any movement to work

As Alex Press reminds us in In These Times, we cannot build powerful movements without basic trust and equality between us. Gendered violence is not only an act of serious ideological hypocrisy: it rots the trust in our communities, and therefore our movements, by maintaining the very hierarchies we claim to be fighting against. How can we fight side by side when women don’t trust that men will respect our basic rights to safety and bodily autonomy?

Because we are intimate

Gendered violence most often happens within personal relationships and communities — from lovers, partners, friends, acquaintances, and that dude your roommate chills with who gropes women at parties. Men in our movement spaces are our lovers, our comrades, and our friends. We are in the streets together, in meetings, and often in bed. Our politics don’t come off when our clothes do. We need you to demonstrate at every moment, through your labor and consideration, that you consider us your equals.

Because sexism is a structural barrier to women’s participation in politics

Whether we’re talking about education, the workplace, or activism, the dynamics are similar: gendered violence pushes women and queer people out of the system. When we are demeaned in political spaces, when we are sexually harassed, when our voices are not listened to, when we are made to do menial tasks and care work while our male comrades pose for the glamorous photo-ops, we are pushed out. That hurts our politics, our movements, our communities, and us.

Because prominent progressive men have a good deal of power in our circles, which can be abused

Just because you resist power doesn’t mean you lack it. Many activist men enjoy a good deal of social prestige in the circles they occupy. Activist men can use their social, political, and sexual capital to coerce. An activist becoming involved with someone else in the movement is normal and can be healthy. An activist using his clout and reputation to coerce romantic attention or sex is destructive and politically reprehensible.

Because progressive movements of various shades have a long history of exploiting women’s labor and neglecting the gender question

This isn’t a new issue, and if socialist and anti-racist movements of the past had adequately addressed gender-based violence, we maybe wouldn’t have to be having this conversation so emphatically today. Radical movements have often set out to transform everything but the basic assumption that women will cook food and provide sex for men. And for just as long, women have resisted. We hold you accountable in full knowledge of that history.

Because our politics are only as good as our practice

We can say all day that we’re politically better than the right, better than the center, better than liberals. But saying is one thing and doing is another. If you organize a meeting about gender issues at which you talk over women, expect women to clean everyone’s dishes, and stare at our tits, you might as well be right wing. Many argue that the accusation of sexism has been used to discredit leftist movements more generally, and therefore women who raise qualms about gender issues in radical circles are simply fueling the fire. But if we cannot treat each other with basic equality and respect, we are not any better than the right or center after all and we do notdeserve to have our political program listened to. 

Because we believe in the possibility of transformation

Making radical change means acknowledging and confronting the injustices around us. If we don’t acknowledge that something is a problem, we cannot transform it. When we know that a prominent man in our community is a serial harasser, but don’t speak up; when we know an organizer is abusing his girlfriend, but continue to uncritically champion his work; when we see unequal gendered distributions of labor within our movements but we don’t name and challenge it, we give up the possibility of change. Shielding a perpetrator, rather than confronting the harm they have caused, is tantamount to saying: We don’t believe gender relations can change. We don’t believe social relations can be transformed.

Because our movements should look like the world we want to build

But we do believe gender relations can be changed. We do believe that social relations can be transformed. That is why we do this work: Because we know that we can make a radically different, and better, world. During the May ’68 revolts, students reminded us through graffiti that “The future will only contain what we put into it now.” If our movements don’t seek a transformative approach to dealing with gender-based violence, our future will not be transformed. There is no social change if we do not believe in the possibility of change in our most intimate and intense experiences of love, solidarity, sexuality, friendship and comradeship.

Because women and queer people have a right to participate in our communities, to work, to love, and to make revolution without fear of gender-based violence.

Because we have worth. Because we need each other. Because these movements are ours.

What Does it Mean to Break Silence?

movements, Sexual violence

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.