* Kumru Toktamış, Associate Professor in Political Sociology, Pratt Institute, Brooklyn ** Abby Scher, Dollars and Sense, Board Member and Former Co-editor
The #MeToo movement has opened up important space for women, girls, and sometimes men to voice the criminal nature of men’s sexual attacks and assaults against them, and the abuse in the form of harassment that is threateningly coercive but not necessarily physical. For redatory men, the sexual availability of women (or men) is a perk that comes with their power, power that itself is maintained by a system of often hidden violations and violence.
Sexual attacks and assaults are often silenced even when they are voiced. Our culturally created tendency is to emphasize the sexual (read salacious) component of the attacks rather than the violence (read coercive hegemony) of them. This means gendered attacks and assaults are still perceived and professed as problems in the private realm of dignity, honor, and shame rather than in the public realm of violence and violation. Their exposure titillates onlookers as stories oscillate between irrelevant gossip and criminal allegations.
Despite the trivialization that happens when they turn into spectacle, assaults and threats in our domestic or public lives are boundary violating, and even incapacitating. This is true for the higher profile women who braved humiliation and loss of livelihood in exposing Harvey Weinstein in Hollywood, the everyday women who had the misfortune to cross Bill Cosby’s path, or the hotel housekeepers who won new protective work rules in their contracts against guests who take predatory access as a right.
The salacious cultural streams and the honor/shame codes that are still prevalent in even the most emancipated societies limit women’s (or men’s) ability to bring visibility to such violence and violations. That makes the importance of the #MeToo movement that much greater. The much-needed visibility and voice it created has already destabilized long-established power dynamics in government, media, and church even while its emancipatory qualities could be strengthened. In fact, we can make these controversies even more productive and liberating when we actively infuse the movement with an emancipatory feminist perspective, one that captures power differentials of diverse social spaces and creates the solidarity that truly empowers the subordinated gender(s). This means striving for a cross-class, cross-community movement that creates space, power, and redress for people working in fields, offices, or restaurants, living in convents, or Beverly Hills mansions. History shows that isn’t easy.
Learning from Past Blunders
Identifying the #MeToo movement’s controversies and emancipatory potentials is hugely relevant in the formation of feminist politics. Historically speaking, we’ve seen many conservative women’s movements in the United States over the years – or ones that mix liberating and conservative elements like the Temperance movement against alcohol of the late 19th and early 20th centuries — but even feminists have split in taking on sexualized forms of domination for their emancipation.
This new wave of the women’s movement targeting assaults, in private and public lives, is astonishingly similar to and yet profoundly different than its precedents. It builds on the women’s movement of the 1970s, which enlisted mainstream women’s magazines in opposing sexual violence and harassment in the workplace, and made it a cause even for liberal feminists. “Labor feminists” in women-majority flight attendant and pink collar unions first took on the sexualization of their jobs in that decade and other union women helped make the Equal Rights Amendment a labor demand. Speak outs were an important tool of second wave feminism, where women publicly challenged “honor codes” and broke silence about their illegal abortions, sexual assaults and other hidden violations that were not socially acceptable.
As a term, “sexual harassment” swept the nation in 1975, after Cornell University women held a “speak out” against this abuse of power by administrative and academic personel and found a phrase for it. They were led in part by Carmita Wood, an administrative assistant at Cornell University who was harassed and repeatedly mauled by her boss, a nuclear physics professor. She and her supporters created an organization called Working Women United which gave voice to the survivors and raised awareness of the workplace assaults against women and how harassment both targeted them because of their lack of power at work and weakened them still further. The organization reached beyond campus to organize nearby factory workers, but soon disbanded under the stress of organizing its blue collar, white color and pink color members. Wood’s own suit against her harasser failed in the courts. It took until 1986 for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that sexual harassment was illegal as a form of gender discrimination in the workplace. Meanwhile, Wood’s boss was elected into National Academy of Sciences and his name still adorns several buildings at Cornell University.
The movement grew deeper roots in the decades since, as academic feminists documented harassment and sexual violence, and feminist lawyers waged long legal battles. But the intense pressure and professional and personal cost of going public at work, in school, in families or congregations keeps many victims isolated from acting, and from the liberating changes and emancipatory transformations that potentially come from realizing you are not alone – and it’s not your fault.
Solidarity of Victims or Activism of Survivors
The #MeToo movement is a new version of the 1970s speak out, this time on social media and other outlets. Like the earlier wave, it has created a prominent feminist political space in the United States for a public conversation on gender relations. Its highly vocal presence has been complemented by distinct, particular, and personal voices of high-profile women who are reshaping the gender dynamics of their professional lives in the higher circles of celebrity in entertainment, finance and technology industries. But women frequently find solidarity only online and not in the intimate supportive spaces that face to face women’s groups provide.
That is a departure not only from the 1970s movement but from the original “me too,” an initiative of empathy and bonding among women who had survived child sexual assaults launched in 2006 by Tarana Burke, a community organizer from NYC. Burke recovered the phrase to “break silence” in an effort to raise awareness about the pervasiveness sexual abuse and assault especially targeting young girls in marginalized communities. As a “silence breaker,” this “me too” sought to end the cultural codes of honor and shame that pushed victims of attacks into silence and solitude. It was a community building and solidarity forming initiative that focused on empathy and emotional support.
By late 2017, the highly publicized #MeToo moment created an online landslide of women “breaking silence” when it was picked up by Hollywood celebrities such as actor Rose McGowan to stop film production mogul Harvey Weinstein from attacking again and bring him to justice. In its 2017 reincarnation, the #MeToo moment looked very much like celebrity feminism with the potential of rippling beyond the actors’ glossy arena. In fact, many of Weinstein’s own victims were not stars but aspiring actors, temps, and other staff he encountered in his daily dealings. Soon, women within established institutions such as churches, finance, schools, universities, journalism, the military, music and even the porn industry, adopted #MeToo activism to identify attackers, fight against implicit and explicit threats of retribution, and seek legal redress of cases of attack and abuse.
By the time #MeToo became more than a moment, but a movement, it was no longer Burke’s victim support and solidarity initiative. Survivors sought justice by identifying and calling out those persons and settings they held responsible. The movement’s growth and impact took shape within this tension between being a victims’ solidarity initiative and survivors’ pro-active demand for just workplace practices. By the end of 2018, the #MeToo movement was said to have brought down more than 200 powerful men in the United States, almost half of whom have been replaced by women. It also gave a language to struggles that predated the Weinstein case.
Despite its force, it has yet to fulfill its potential to move significantly beyond celebrity feminism and become a resistance tool in the hands of the larger and more vulnerable segments of the population. A series of bills at the federal and state levels have sought to protect women from retribution, remove arbitration clauses from employment contracts blocking women from suing in the courts, and enlarge the protections of freelancers. That is a start but only a few have been enacted as yet. And for lower income women workers, among the most vulnerable segments of the American society, their possible union champions can be part of the problem.
A Political Space for Emancipation
Unions proved themselves one of the institutions in need of transformation. Most recurrent victims of workplace abuse such as farmworkers, waitresses, hotel workers and almost all who labor in the care-industry are still ignored as their scantly exposed cases hardly ever makes the news. In a well-documented study, reporter B. Yeung describes a member of Service Employees International Union-Workers United West speaking out about a list of grievances from long and overwhelming work hours to low wages during a union meeting in February 2016. When the member added on “sexual harassment” to her list, “a low roar emerged from the audience” as she was booed by some of the male members who did not see women’s issues as workers issues. The union movement has its own high profile men toppled from power because of #Me Too. Bringing together working-class men and women around the issues of gender violence has historically proven to be as hard as bringing together women of diverse backgrounds. But struggle in that arena is vital for union officers and organizers to be more than bystanders in the abuse of power faced by their members.
A gloves-off fight by labor against sexual abuse in the workplace would help ensure that the celebrity saturated #MeToo movement isn’t undermined by people dismissing gender violence as a frivolous scandal. Similarly, the original “metoo” activist Tarana Burke, who herself feels marginalized by the movement she helped ignite, explains a hard truth about the overlooked experiences of women of color: “The world responds to the vulnerability of white women. Our narrative has never been centered in the mainstream media. Our stories don’t get told and as a result, it makes us feel not as valuable.”
The Power of Cognitive Constructs
Protests by male union members or Tarana Burke’s observation are powerful reminders that as much as systemic forces of capitalism and its bosses, managers and workers contribute to the creation and maintenance of degrees of vulnerabilities, sexual violence predates the current economic system, and relies on persistent cognitive constructs of manhood, womanhood, and race that shape our present-day perceptions and narratives of violations and violence. This is a hierarchical system of disregard.
The prevailing cognitive constructs that dominate our social imagination still tend to push violations via sexual means to the dark corners of individuality so that it serves to maintain the prevailing gender hierarchies unchallenged. As long as the abuse resides in the realm of subjects that are not to be talked about, it is hard to for us to comprehend how these silences enable our structure of power.
A “boys will be boys” mentality was glaringly condoned during Kavanaugh hearings before the US Congress in 2018; the questionable character was the silence-breaking woman, not the former boy whose entire intersectional being as a white upper-class man was perfectly entitled to become one of the top justices of the United States. At a time when the rippling effects of the #MeToo movement peaked, this public hearing became another reminder that our gendered constructs are sustained by very powerful social dynamics that are maintained by men and women who are trained to a natural double standard. These gendered convictions and narratives undermine individuality and maintain relations of domination and subordination.
Another example of such power differentials is in the Roman Catholic Church, now being torn apart by the scandal of priests abusing nuns, only coming out after a decade of exposure of priests’ child sexual abuse. As finally acknowledged by the Pope himself, nuns are accusing priests of sexual harassment and coercion, even having forced abortions, and were kept under “a culture of silence and secrecy” all over the world from India to Latin America.
In the realm of persistent sexual violence, sexuality is just one of the ways to establish control and domination which has an identifiable perpetrator who denies the humanity of the other(s). However, unlike other forms of systemic violence, attacks and assaults via sexual means are violent in a very quiet way, enabling perpetrators to hide in the daylight of social mores and attitudes and thus rendering them socially unrecognizable and unidentifiable. It is within that muddle that we often question the reliability of survivors of such attacks, as they themselves seem to violate the social codes of silence. The evolving culture of disbelief against accusers serves to silence many others that suffer through such violations.
To put it simply, to explain sexual assaults to many political and corporate leaders, as well as union workers and even women in powerful positions, today feels similar to the “myth of invisible ships.” According to this somewhat offensive myth, indigenous people did not have words to identify the ships carrying Western explorers and conquerors so “their highly filtered perceptions could not register what was happening, and they fail to see the ships.” Like these mythical natives, lack of language prevents many powerful people from imagining and developing different skills to grasp and cope with something that is not visible or comprehensible to them. Contemporary constructs surrounding our sense of gender roles and codes compel us to isolate sexuality into dark corners of individuality and privacy in the name of defending a collective decency that undermines the power dynamics of such isolation.
The cognitive revision of perceiving assaults via sexual means as assaults is core to the #MeToo movement and a tension within it. Each attempt to bring visibility to what “must remain in the dark” obviously needs secure solidarity bonds as much as active re-imagining of a collective sense of justice that undermines ascribed gender roles. In that sense, the so-called feminist assumption that regards every man as a potential rapist is equally destructive as the myth of man the hunter. The hunters of the early human ages were both men and women and men are not born as rapists or harassers; they are made into attackers via narratives of manhood and the structures that enable them.
Agency in Action
The power of cognitive constructs in shaping gender relations are significant in building a movement. In her 2013 book Lean In, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg encourages individual women to overcome professional obstacles that prevent them from being successful by activating self-confidence and “leaning-in”. Such individualism hardly speaks to the agency of the majority of professional, working class women whose self-confidence may simply leave them unemployed, destitute, and marked as a troublemaker. Her perspective is oblivious to the retribution which subjugates and subordinates women in all walks of life, from family, to school, to workplace, and religious institutions. Part of the #MeToo movement’s exemplary success involves organized, collective, and relentless challenges against retribution, whether at Fox News or SEIU. This is what we must make available and accessible to all women as we develop the agency to have control over our lives.
Legal and institutional guidelines in the workplace are necessary safeguards but they are hardly sufficient especially in the face of the silencing and other constructs of gender. We see that limitation in the financial sector, where women hold only 25% of the top executive positions, but is already reporting a backlash to the #MeToo movement. The #MeToo movement, say hiring executives, is not only “about stopping harassment, but essentially trying to achieve the impossible: desexualize the workplace.” Therefore, men feel the need to protect themselves by not hiring women or socializing with them, they report.
The individualism promoted by Sandberg’s trickle-down feminism and institutionalized workplace protections both fail to fully bring out the agency of women who need a collective, emancipatory political space where they regain their dignity and integrity after being violated. Isolating sexual violence as a private matter, infantilizing women as victims to be protected and expecting trickle down liberation from celebrity feminism, risks squandering the value of the political space for transforming norms and institutions.
Once we look beyond the salacious details of such assaults, we can more easily focus on two central areas: the attacker who forcefully pushes his will over another and the person whose will is being violently undermined. Whereas the predator seeks domination, and thus activates a victimization process, the social circumstances can enable the violated person to overcome victimhood and become survivor of an assault. In that sense, it is the power differentials within which these encounters are socially situated that have to be the starting point establishing the nature and severity of violations. In other words, when the attacker is situated in a church, workplace, family, or other space where the agency of the survivor has already been denied, the political space opens up when the abused/attacked person gains her right to the same space.
The value of the #MeToo movement is its ability to bring out the agency of survivors who can effectively change a culture and practice of violence while seeking redress and justice and challenge retribution. In a cultural climate of disbelief and institutionalized practices that infantilizes women as humans that need to be protected, the effective voice of women is diminished. There needs to be a clear statement that laws and regulations in the workplace and public life are to prevent violence and violations, not “protect weak women.” We must get beyond the silencing shame of sexual coercion.
But more importantly, a movement is built upon cross-class alliances and coalitions. Rather than parading rich and famous women on red-carpets, the #MeToo movement can overcome the past blunders of feminism by leaning on examples of cross class activism such as supporting teachers’ strikes, advocating unionization, demanding better wages, improved working conditions and job security that bring together as many women as possible into the struggle against exploitation, abuse and violence.
 Dorothy Sue Cobble, The Other Women’s Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America, (Princeton, 2004).