Like many socioholics, I’ve been virtually glued to my social media feeds over the past few hours, both appalled at and unable to turn away from the steady drip of new #MeToo posts and comments, and behind them, sometimes the stories, told with admirable, no-frills candour, and sometimes the bare hashtag itself, speaking of lifetimes full of normalised, regular harassment and assault. Women I don’t know, and women I do: friends, girlfriends, school friends, colleagues, mothers, sisters.
That, by the way, is an aspect of male privilege in a nutshell. Awareness of what goes on, because it’s all just locker room talk, isn’t it? just harmless banter?, but blithe naiveté as to the extent to which unsolicited and inappropriate advances of greater or lesser violence are a regular part of so many women’s lives, all because, as men, we’re not–or much less frequently–the targets.
I get ahead of myself. Following the recent surfacing of lurid allegations of harassment and assault directed at Hollywood film director Harvey Weinstein, several actresses came forward to relate their experience of institutionalised, casting-room-couch casual sexism and harassment, and many other actors and actresses lent their voices, in condemning Weinstein’s behaviour, and the toxic climate in which such behaviour could flourish with impunity. Chief among these voices has been the actress, Alyssa Milano, best known (to me, at least) from 1990s and 2000s TV series such as Melrose Place or Charmed, and, incidentally, allegedly, as the inspiration behind the face of Ariel, in Disney’s The Little Mermaid.
In a bid to encourage women who had been victims of sexual assault or harassment, Milano urged women to use the Twitter hashtag #MeToo:
As of writing, the hashtag has been retweeted in excess of half a million times, many of the accompanying tweets and posts quite harrowing (and not limited to Twitter, but also in abundance on Facebook), and it would not be a reach to suggest that this doesn’t even represent an ice crystal on the tip of an iceberg:
Reactions from men–and some women, but mainly men–have tended either towards apparent apologetics, such as comments by fellow filmmaker, Woody Allen (although he quickly clarified his statement); towards the ‘competitive victimhood’ of male victims of assault, muscling in on the discussion and, inadvertently or not, distracting from the legitimate issue of violence against women; or towards the outright victim-blaming from those who maintain that women have a hand in what befalls them.
This last stance has been the most surprising, to me. Male rape and sexual assault is a legitimate concern, and one that is, due to a pervasive culture of toxic masculinity, more of a taboo than sexual assault on women, simply because perversely, the latter has become normalised, whereas to be raped as a man is abnormal, and unmanly. The #MeToo movement strives to lend a voice to women, and legitimately de-normalise harassment and sexual aggression. Nonetheless, it should be possible to have a discourse about the issue of male-on-male sexual aggression without detracting from or minimising what so many women deal with on a daily basis.
One colleague of mine maintained that women who posted a #MeToo to their social media, without having reported their harassment or assault at the time, effectively enabled their aggressor to continue in his behaviour, thus obliging another woman to post a #MeToo.
This, of course, results in recasting the women not only as hypocrites, but as accomplices, and as such, represents a sort of ‘accountability overflow’, where blame spills over erroneously from the perpetrator to the victim. Silence isn’t helpful, obviously, but what this viewpoint suggests is that victims take a rational response, with scant attention or merit given to anything else, when we are not rational animals. There are systemic, institutionalised, cultural, and psychological layers to misogyny in particular, and to predatory, toxic masculinity in general (whether directed at women or at men), all of which can conspire to keep the victim silent.
The unsilencing inherent in the #MeToo movement is most welcome, and has been long in getting here, but that is no justification for making those who suffered in silence complicit in their own suffering, or in that of others.