Me Too: Two Complicated, Loaded Little Words
By now, you must have seen it. On Twitter. On Facebook. “Me too.” In the wake of the seemingly unending revelations around the downfall of scumbag producer Harvey Weinstein rose a viral campaign. A chance for women, or anyone really, to acknowledge the sexual harassment and assault they’ve experienced in their life. To feel less alone. It started with Alyssa Milano on Sunday afternoon:
If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet. pic.twitter.com/k2oeCiUf9n— Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) October 15, 2017
Only it didn’t, not really. As Ebony reported, activist Tarana Burke, a black woman, coined “me too” as a grassroots movement ten years ago to unify victims of sexual assault, particularly in underprivileged communities. It wasn’t intended to be viral, of course. It wasn’t intended for celebrities. It was a way for women to talk to women. Particularly women of color.
In just two days, the narrative surrounding “Me Too” has become snarled. Have women of color often been left out of the conversation? Have they gone unsupported, like Jemele Hill or Leslie Jones, while everyone jumps to boycott Twitter when it’s a white actress getting banned for her words? Oh yes. Women are supporting women, but racially it’s often a one way street. And while I have a hard time thinking there was any conscious intention of co-opting the work of another black woman in this case — after all, “Me Too” is such a small phrase, just two obvious little words that seem impossible NOT to come up with in this context — it’s equally impossible to ignore the fact that the second a famous white woman said those words, everyone joined in. And it’s not a good look. Now more than ever, we have to give credit where credit it due. We have to support each other. All of us.
But the origin of “Me Too” isn’t the only thing worth unpacking. The phrase was always going to be more than a rallying cry. It’s a conversation starter. And if you’ve continued to follow the threads on social media, that conversation has gone in some interesting directions. So let’s take some time to break down some of the reactions, contributions, and other things this viral campaign has brought to light.
The Importance of Agency
You may have seen that image being shared quite a bit these days, and it’s an interesting point to raise. The value of words, and of agency. The language we use to address issues IS political. And in general, the problem with a campaign like this is that it rests entirely on the victims to re-expose themselves. The onus isn’t with the perpetrators, the predators, the harassers to stand up and say, “It Me.”
But in terms of crime, it never really is. We talk about murder statistics, not murderER statistics, so it’s not unique to sexual assault. What IS unique, however, is that statistically speaking, sexual harassment and assault is perpetrated by repeat offenders. It’s not a 1:1 ratio of victim to predator. A single harasser or assaulter is more than likely going to commit that crime over and over again. Project Callisto, a non-profit organization that creates technology to combat sexual assault and empower survivors, has some terrifying numbers to share. 90% of sexual assaults are committed by repeat offenders. And yet only 10% of victims, at least on campus, ever report the crime to the authorities. Callisto’s platform aims to make it easier to report assaults, and one interesting option — their “Match” function — gives victims the option to store information about their perpetrator under the precondition that it will only be released to the school if another student names the same perpetrator.
So while I agree that it is problematic to ask women to expose their victimhood over and over again, I also think that it doesn’t negate the power of seeing how widespread the issue issue is — not because the onus shouldn’t be on the predators, but because there simply will ALWAYS BE MORE VICTIMS THAN PERPETRATORS.
That Said, “Me Too” Is Definitely Still Problematic
Look — for the victims, the only lesson they stand to learn from this campaign is that they aren’t alone. But I’m sure a lot of us would like to point out: WE ALREADY KNOW THAT. We talk to each other. We have spoken up before. Maybe not on social media, but in gossip columns and courtrooms, to families and HR departments. And guess what? Nothing changed. Maybe seeing it shared on social media will help victims or maybe it will trigger them, or make them disgusted or angry.
It’s a double-edged sword. Speaking up makes us vulnerable all over again. Victims are blameless. We’re not the problem. We can’t force predators to change, though we would benefit from it if they did. But there is no campaign asking sexual assaulters or harassers to stand up and say two other little words like “I’m Sorry” so here we are, shouting our pain into the internet. Asking them to admit their faults would be a greater benefit to society, but that’s unrealistic. Because not all predators are Harvey Weinstein.
And by that I mean, not all assaulters or harassers are as calculating and devious and gross about it. In fact, some are nice! They’re smart and kind and maybe when they’re drunk they might grab your tit. It’s a spectrum of behavior that needs to change, and while it’s easy to point to the Weinsteins and the Cosbys of the world and be like “Fuck Those Guys,” they are only the extreme. What about the cat-callers? What about the people who only stare at your body parts but don’t touch?
I posted my “Me Too” on Facebook, because I recalled a time I had my pussy grabbed, Trump-style, in a nightclub when I was 18. Just an unseen hand, reaching out from the crowd to cup my crotch. Do you know what I learned? That I fucking hate nightclubs — not that my body was an object to be groped, because sadly I already knew that. That instance was enough to justify saying “Me Too.” But after I said it, I recalled other instances. Like the time I woke up to find my friend, a guy I looked at as a sort of silly, slutty little brother, fondling my boobs. And I didn’t even hold it against him. I wasn’t threatened. I expected it of him, and I knew I could say “no” and be heard. But even that is a sort of privilege, because this could have happened with someone who wouldn’t listen to me.
Men like him were on Twitter, on Facebook, seeing the flood of “Me Too” — but by and large they weren’t joining in to acknowledge that they’re part of the problem. It’s easy not to when you can look at someone like Weinstein as the figurehead of all sexual misconduct and know that you’re not THAT bad. While the downfall of a movie mogul is a great catalyst for discussion, there is danger in letting the focus remain only on the most predatory of predators.
And if we’re being honest, there’s a culture of behavior that I’m an agent of as well. I’ve slapped my share of asses, jokingly. I’ve had my tits grabbed by friends, jokingly. Where is the line between consenting over-familiarity and the perpetuation of bodies as objects made for the manipulation of others? Rather than publicly owning my victimhood, should I have confessed my own crimes? Would other assaulters have joined in? Can they learn, and grow, and change their behavior? Who deserves a second chance? Even saying all of this, writing this down, I worry that I’m making mistakes in my words or my analysis. That I’m missing portions of the conversation, not doing justice to the complexity of the topic. Letting someone down. This campaign has dredged up more implications than those two simple words would seem to indicate, and the discussion is far from over.
But What About The People Who Didn’t say “Me Too”?
Just because thousands of people shared a “Me Too” doesn’t mean that’s the complete picture. Plenty of women, men, trans, and gender nonconforming people spoke up — and plenty remained silent. Partially because they don’t owe the world their vulnerability, and partially because… well, go take a look at Monica Lewinsky’s Twitter account if you want to see what can happen if you speak up. Here’s a sample:
There was no assault or harassment by Pres Clinton as MONICA testified.— Sunflower Soul 2.9! (@SunflowerSoul71) October 16, 2017
Here’s the thing: there’s no reason to assume that the very public history we all are familiar with is the be all/ end all of her experience with sexual misconduct. Sharing those two words doesn’t tell you the context. And for someone like Monica, sure, people are going to assume they know what she’s referring to — but they don’t.
And that’s true for any of us. The call to action was for anyone who has experienced sexual harassment or assault. If you’ve been cat-called, say “Me Too.” If you’ve been systematically assaulted by a family member from childhood, say “Me Too.” On the one hand, all of that behavior is wrong and context shouldn’t matter. But on the other hand, it may be easier to come forward if your experiences are less traumatic. Even as someone who spoke up, I felt guilty seeing people react to my post. I felt guilty reading the astonished reactions of men in my life, talking about how heartbroken they are to see how victimized all these beautiful people they know have been in their lives. I felt like a fraud, because while I have been harassed and touched, I have a complicated relationship with my own victimhood — likely the reaction of my own coping mechanisms. It isn’t cut and dried for everyone. Still, I could contribute to the conversation. And it’s important to remember that many people didn’t, or couldn’t, for their own reasons. We’re still only getting part of the story.
The other thing that “Me Too” doesn’t include in the picture it’s painting? That sometimes just existing feels like being a victim in waiting. You don’t have to have been assaulted or harassed to live your life in fear of it. You walk home faster after dark. You put in earbuds so you can ignore the cat-callers, but you don’t play music just in case you need to hear their footsteps following you. You choose to get in the subway car that has more people in it rather than less. You make sure your friend knows where you’re going on that first date with the person you met online, and make plans to check in later than evening. You choose your work outfits carefully to not draw undue attention from your boss. All those little tactical choices we make simply because we live in a world where being assaulted in some form or another is a likelihood. More than that — it’s a probability.
So What’s Next?
I have no fucking clue. Will “Me Too” have a lasting impact, or will it be another hashtag that’s here today, gone tomorrow? I think we can safely say that things are changing, to an extent. Harvey is being investigated for crimes that went overlooked for years. Brock Turner may have gotten off with a slap on the wrist, but he’s now literally the textbook definition of rape. And perhaps holding the worst accountable is the necessary first step. You have to start somewhere. But will the fear of real retribution be enough to change a culture of behavior that treats consent as a shiny accessory rather than a mandatory factor in sexual relations? I dunno. I hope so. But I don’t think we’re anywhere near there yet. And I have a feeling we’ll see many more social media campaigns like this one in our future. Because sadly, as unfair as it is, I fear that it will take the victims standing together to force this change into reality.
In the short term, I do hope that this reinforces the importance of listening to each other. Supporting each other. Acknowledging the experiences of different races and genders and making sure it’s all represented in the conversation. Confronting ignorance and aggression. The value of true allies, and that it’s never too late to become one. And most importantly? Not blaming victims. Not equivocating. Acknowledging that silence is a choice, not a sin. That truth doesn’t NEED to be spoken, or believed, to be true. We all own our own experiences, and it’s our choice whether we use them for anyone other than ourselves.