As the wider conversation in our society around sexual misconduct and abuse across various industries has progressed over the past month, and as we begin to hold men accountable in real and tangible ways, I have been reflecting on conversations among my own friends. Not long ago, one said, ‘Well, why didn’t any of these women speak out sooner?’ It was disappointing because, as we hold men accountable, we also have to recognize that women are often complicit as well. Defensiveness is part of of being blind to, or even worse, complicit in upholding systems of oppression that allow sexual misconduct to run rampant. Compartmentalizing our experiences with abuse and internalizing them is a coping mechanism that allows us to feel separate from, and thus safe from, these kinds of abuses.
So over the past couple of weeks, my friend and I had a few gentle conversations—reminding ourselves to stay in a place that is grounded in love and understanding—that requires both of us to feel safe and vulnerable enough to admit to not knowing, or having judgments about, a specific issue. My friend pointed out, in this moment when so many of us are actively resisting this administration, as well as resisting this country’s age old racism, sexism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and all of these things that existed well before this administration, there are many people who may feel embarrassed about how unengaged they’ve been in the past. For my part, as someone whose work centers around the resistance, both prior to, and during this administration, I have had to address my own judgments about people who are not so engaged—so it goes in both directions.
We can also remove the ways in which a conversation might be seen as a personal accusation by framing it as systemic. In my own relationship with my partner, I try to acknowledge that when something happens to us personally, which I did not like or made me feel uncomfortable, it is often part of a bigger system that we’ve been indoctrinated into and plays out in our relationships every day. If we have a bigger conversation about all this stuff, it allows us to be more nuanced and sensitive to the roles played by race, class, and gender.
Conversations like this upend adjacent questions about how we talk about a culture of harassment, of rape culture and the toxic masculinity (or patriarchal masculinity) ingrained in our society. Right now, our focus is still primarily on Hollywood, politics, and the media. There are many truths that we have to hold space for at once in having these conversations: Are we in the midst of a cultural pivot, an honest and real examination of sexual violence and harassment and abuse? Is it unfortunate that it took accusations from among the most privileged women—the biggest stars in Hollywood, like Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie—to get us to shine a light on this? And are poor women, women of color, trans individuals, the queer community—the most vulnerable—still being left out of the conversation? Absolutely, to all of the above.
When the actress Alyssa Milano tweeted the hashtag #MeToo, it began spread rapidly across social media last month. It served to connect women who have encountered harassment or abuse and highlighted the prevalence of sexual misconduct. Women of color quickly pointed out that the “Me Too” movement had actually been started a decade prior, by Tarana Burke, an advocate for victims of sexual abuse, specifically to support women of color and vulnerable, marginalized women. With significant effort, Burke is now being recognized for “Me Too”—but it serves to further highlight how women of color are frequently left out of movements that center white women. And it’s true: For every household name, there are so many more women (and men, and non binary folks) with stories to share, and for every abuser who is also a Hollywood mogul, every Harvey Weinstein or Roy Moore (or R. Kelly, who has largely avoided the glare of the “Me Too” spotlight, likely because his accusers are young, women of color whose stories of abuse are rarely taken as seriously as those of white women), there’s also a restaurant manager, customer, or service-industry employer.
It has made me think: This is not just about sex, gender, or sexism. In fact it is much more about the abuse of power and how we define masculinity in our culture. This is also labor crisis and should be discussed as such. It’s something actress Brit Marling explored in a recent column for The Atlantic, in which she wrote that Harvey Weinstein wielded not only artistic and emotional power over young women, but also economic power. He could make or break a career. The systems that permit such widespread sexual abuse, as we’ve seen through “Me Too,” further permit the subjugation of women in other spheres, women who are the most vulnerable and have no avenues for support. How many women have been silenced, held back, traumatized and financially disenfranchised in their work places? How many women have left the the workplace because of these abuses? This is about what happens to women in public places (often work) and about maintaining a status quo where privileged men hold the most power. Viewing this moment as a labor crisis also helps explain how women can continue to ally themselves with abusive men—in many industries, women of varying degrees of privilege still do not have enough power to speak out.
It is also worth questioning why any advancement on the specific issue of sexual violence requires women to lay bare their personal trauma. There are so many more questions that emerge. What is the value in looking at this as a labor issue that we can examine in a more meaningful and less piecemeal way? How do we begin a bigger conversation about patriarchal masculinity (a term coined by bell hooks) that teaches boys early on that their greatest power is demonstrated in domination, wealth, invulnerability, access to women, and aggression? How do we uplift all women, and all their voices, to be clear that these issues of sexual violence are pervasive and systemic? As women, how can we really examine individually the systems that we perpetrate and uphold? And in my own life, how am I working towards a solution, or how am I inadvertently still part of the problem? Any conversation that I’m going to have about being a mother, for example, is absolutely through the lens of my own privilege. Privileged women—and, of course, men—ought to think about how they are upholding systems of oppression. Patriarchy and the normalization of sexual harassment, abuse, and violence can only exist when some portion of women uphold these values and when men live comfortably within them. We are, of course, more than 50 percent of the population, and many of us indirectly gain privilege through our proximity to powerful men.
As important as this “Me Too” moment is, we are still discussing sexual misconduct on a case-by-case basis, and as necessary as it is to expose individual abusers, it does little to dismantle the underlying problem. And yet, these individual stories coalesce into something that transcends any one abuser, and I don’t know how you get to that bigger, sweeping conversation without these specific cases and specific examples being brought to light first. Culture shifts are painful—they have to be—and they tend to start with specific examples. Narrative shifts involves us all wrestling down dialogues that we’ve become comfortable with, even when they are harmful, even when they disadvantage us. In the historical wave of how change happens, it starts with bold people taking a stand. It’s inevitably divisive. And people will always dismiss it as an individual instance, a single case. It’s very comfortable for people to individualize these things and take them out of the systemic culture they exist in, to call a person crazy or wrong or indict them in their own victimization. Then, we don’t have to take collective responsibility.
This also brings the conversation back to this month’s elections, which were, in many ways, a victory for Democrats. For example, Danica Roem, a transgender woman, defeated Robert Marshall, one of the sponsors of the “Bathroom Bill.” The result, I believe, is in direct response to this administration and this president. I think everything happening with “Me Too” and with this possible culture shift that we’re seeing in rape culture and the culture of sexual violence is a response to a man who was elected despite celebrating and being accused of sexual misconduct himself. At the same time, this year’s victories, and the victories of progressive candidates throughout history, were won by people of color who went and voted. Fifty-three percent of white women voted for Trump in the 2016 election; this year, 51 percent of white women voted Republican in the Virginia gubernatorial race. We must uplift women of color, who have been consistently winning elections for Democrats, who have been on the forefront of everything from the Civil Rights movement to the women’s movement, and now, to “Me Too.”
I know, I know, this was a mouthful. It’s messy, it’s complicated, but we have the capacity to hold space for many truths at once. Women and non-binary people especially have been forced to do this throughout time immemorial. As we head into a long holiday weekend, where these topics inevitably will be discussed, I encourage us all to look at the bigger picture and how all these issues are connected. I encourage us all to be nuanced and loving. I encourage us all to be brave, and, above all else, to be kind.
As told to Katherine Cusumano