By Megan Wildhood
In October this year, I scrolled through about five pages’ worth of Facebook statuses saying only “Me too.” A hashtag began to appear before the phrase. It was three or four days before I was able to figure out what was going on. I would say I’m relatively informed, so it was unusual for me to be so clueless. Even after much reading, I have to say I’m confused. I’ve come articles explaining #MeToo as a social media campaign to raise awareness about sexual assault, a way for women to take their power back over something they’d long been silent about, the beginning of the move from social movement to social change. I’ve read denouncements of the campaign’s exclusion of male sexual assault victims. I’ve tried to keep track of the various spin-off campaigns. Articles detailing various women’s hesitation about whether to post #MeToo, deliberating whether solidarity was a good enough reason to post or demanding that those willing to post also share their story to “legitimate themselves” proliferated. No matter the angle, each post was complete with tomes of vicious infighting in their comments sections.
It was not a difficult decision for me not to post #MeToo but it’s become extremely difficult to explain why. Our culture, hyper- and singularly focused on identity as it is, simultaneously allows and demands that you be whoever you say you are in the moment. If you’re a sexual assault victim – or if you care about anyone who is – you’ll post those two words preceded by a sharp sign (the original hashtag) or you’re a liar. In a culture where the most visible means the most valuable, it’s not surprising that we’d continually have such awareness campaigns. What’s surprising is that people think they’ll help.
Hollywood, college campuses, healthcare, mental-health treatment, politics – these systems – they’re far larger and more beastly than mere ‘institutions’ now – are difficult to change. What if they’re impossible to change? I think they might be, at least the way we’re currently attempting to do so. #MeToo, by some accounts, was an awareness campaign. Maybe awareness used to spark social change, but in our information-overloaded culture, the results of awareness initiatives I most often see are fear, anger and apathy. I watch _____ Awareness Month after _____ Awareness Month roll by with nothing but memes and arguments online among utter strangers. The issues people raise awareness about turn to wedges, yet more devices to divide us when what we need so much is how to learn to be together in and through these terrorizing and absurd times.
Many of the men I know weren’t aware of the extent of women’s experience of sexual assault, but that’s less about awareness and more about patriarchy and privilege. I’ve come across several posts by men about how, if we “really” lived in a patriarchal society, moms wouldn’t get custody much more often than dads; police wouldn’t “automatically” arrest the man in a domestic-violence situation; there would be a glut of hiring initiatives for men rather than the current trend of seeking non-male-identifying people or explicitly discouraging them to apply in more and more fields; etc. but patriarchy is not merely male privilege. It is the social, economic and relational way of being we are all socialized into in which it is systematic and regular for women to be devalued and therefore limited in their power. This does not, as has been noted a thousand times over elsewhere, exclude men from oppression. The fact that men couldn’t allow women to have a movement about female sexual assault without not only saying #MeToo but crying foul while I can’t think of a single situation where the roles have been reversed – I’m sure the trolls out there will think of some just so they can write this off – is a good example of the damage patriarchy imposes on us all – namely, it led, from what I saw, mostly to accusation, one-up-manship and deepened division, distracting from the real work we need: how to be together in ways that fortify against forces that would destroy us all in the name of greed, power and obscene wealth.
The vicious competition is not simply between men and women, however. Articles delineating “real” sexual assault from “mere” catcalls have proliferated. We are addicted to comparison and measuring ourselves against each other, and discussions rating abuses suffered, with criteria including age at time of first victimization, level of physical pain, whether the perpetrator was known or unknown, are a particularly toxic by-product of our obsession with being better than at least someone, rather than building communities where it is not only safe but nurturing to pursue one of the basic human needs: connection.
Overall, we in The Information age suffer more from awareness fatigue than awareness deficit. And even in cases where that isn’t true – maybe because there’s too much information for us to wade through on our own and we just don’t have the emotional capacity to bear one more tragedy or dire emergency – I’m not coming up with many recent examples where awareness led to great social change, let alone action. In a culture that’s enshrined meaningless busyness as a status symbol and valid excuse to let relationships fall into disrepair, it’s not hard to figure out why awareness – raising or obtaining it – is itself construed as action. Serious question: how many people posted #MeToo and then called or got together with – not simply liked or commented on their post – someone else who posted #MeToo? (No finger pointing here; I didn’t, either.)
Another surprising thing I came across way too often during my reading was the celebration of women “no longer” being silent. A hashtag does not take back power, but even if it did, women have not been silent up until now. Women have been speaking out against sexual assault/abuse/street harassment for years – standing up to it, even!, sometimes to the tune of their lives. Whoever thinks women are still being silent is simply not listening (and by “whoever,” I mean major media outlets like The Atlantic, CNN and the Daily Beast). Continuing to label story sharing as the powerful thing to do not only alienates those who are not ready to share their trauma with the world, it also invisibilizes them at the very moment it claims and appears to be empowering victims.
This is arguably worse than directly and clearly silencing them and the word for it is gaslighting. I’m not talking about intention here; I’m talking about impact. #MeToo gave the impression that here is a safe opportunity to share your story and somehow find this feeling of solidarity even if you never actually talk to another victim, let alone find consistent community. If you still feel isolated and alone with your wounds, it’s your own fault for not sharing, regardless of how safe it was or felt to you to share; in other words, #MeToo’s implicit message was, you aren’t part of the group you really are a part of and it’s by your own choice to stay silent. I know this was one impact of the campaign because I felt it and those of my friends who didn’t post began quietly to share (not on social media) their feelings of isolation and exclusion as well. (It doesn’t have to happen to all to matter than it happened to some.) I did see one post related to silence: it gave survivors permission to choose it if that’s what they wanted. It did not explore reasons why people might choose silence. It did not provide resources or support people uncomfortable with widely publishing their story (for fear either of exposure or of the silence they might receive in return, perhaps?) in finding help or solidarity or support or community or any of the things human beings legitimately need that the story of individualism shames us for needing. The problem is that you don’t actually ever need permission to choose what to do with your story, whether you choose to share or not; #MeToo created an atmosphere where granting such permission looked like a helpful rather than patronizing thing to do.
Now, of course, no campaign can be about everything, and no campaign can be all things to all people. It’s more realistic to assess whether a campaign is meeting its own goals. These were relatively difficult, at least for me, to figure out, but if my guess about #MeToo’s goals is at least partially correct – raise awareness about the prevalence of sexual assault among women, create solidarity and a shared sense of responsibility, sound a rallying cry that sparks long-needed social change – then it has on one deeply important level failed. During the height of the #MeToo firestorm in October, I overheard a woman in line at a coffee shop ask her friend, “If I’ve never been sexually assaulted, does that mean I’m not pretty enough to get married?” This is rape culture: when a woman is worried she isn’t attractive enough to be marriage material because she’s never been sexually violated by a man. This is a horrifying conflation of self-worth with objectification for another’s consumption, and it is at the very heart of all acts of aggression, sexual or otherwise, whether you’re a male or female victim, whatever your abuser’s gender. But where was there room for this woman, a human being in her own rite as well as a microcosm of the center of rape culture, in the #MeToo campaign?, or in the #YesEveryWoman campaign before it, or the #WhatWereYouWearing campaign before it, in any discussion about sexual assault I was able to find? It was almost like women who have not been molested or assaulted were the ones who weren’t safe or welcome. A campaign that claims to talk about sexual assault fails if it does not address the false but ubiquitous equation of violation and relational value.
#MeToo actually created unsafe spaces it was blind to because of the appearance of a consensus that broadcasting your stories about sexual assault is the automatic powerful choice and staying silent (never mind the reasons why) is, though perhaps “understandable,” the choice of a weaker person “still allowing their trauma to define them.” Here’s my reason for not sharing my story of sexual violation: posting my narrative for an undiscerning public who has, because of this country’s legacy of individualism, patriarchy and drastic misunderstandings about mental illness, no ability to care appropriately or respond effectively would retraumatize me. But there wasn’t room for that discussion – one which would call out aspects of the way we are all socialized that enable rape culture – either. We do not have a culture that is prepared to really, adequately be there for each other, let alone take responsibility for the damage we’re inflicting on one another. Raising awareness is ineffective, at least for the kinds of change many overblown articles about #MeToo portended about the campaign, but in an emotionally isolating and abusive society like ours, it seems like the best way can do. Unfortunately, our culture has shown that awareness is radically and persistently detached from meaningful action by paradoxically equating the two rendering both impotent.
It’s a little bit worse than that, though. The dangerous thing about these campaigns is not just that they are entirely insufficient to produce the change we desperately need in our culture, but, again, that people believe they will. The belief that by contributing (i.e. reposting the hashtag or sharing your story), you’re actually doing something to change things is strong and wide. We may claim to “really” know that hashtags don’t change the world and that we “don’t really expect this to make a difference,” but the campaign was less than a month ago, and I don’t really see even sustained conversation (another thing that doesn’t actually change social structures while making us feel like it is or will) about it anymore, let alone even the hints of a scaffolding for cultural change. I see further division: among genders, between those who identify as victims and those who identify as survivors, between those “brave” enough to share and those unwilling to risk further trauma, and between those who have experienced sexual assault and those who haven’t (#YesSomeWomen). Maybe it’s good that #MeToo has, like every other social-media-based ‘movement’ before it, peaked so quickly. The more these conversations drone on, the deeper both these divisions and, bafflingly, the belief that the conversations are helping, get.
Do you feel isolated, uncertain about where in the world your story might be welcome? Megan Wildhood, a Seattle-based writer and poet, can deeply relate – she feels like an outsider most places she goes. She’s written about disability, mental health, estrangement and the misfit experience in, among other publications, The Atlantic, Litro Magazine, PsychCentral, America Magazine and in her chapbook Long Division, released this September from Finishing Line Press. Head on over to meganwildhood.com to learn more.
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