Spurred by numerous allegations of sexual assault and harassment against Harvey Weinstein, thousands of women have come out publicly about their own experiences of male violence. Under the #MeToo hashtag, male perpetrators have been named publicly and the enormous numbers of women who have been targeted by men (which, let’s be honest, is really all women) has been made undeniable. But what next? This is certainly not the first time women have tried to make clear what they experience under patriarchy. While the posts have been touching and bold and inspiring, we need to take this momentum and move forward toward productive, feminist action.
I spoke with three women about their perspectives on #MeToo and on what can and should come next, in order to galvanize women as a class, to genuinely hold men to account, and to effect change.
Roundtable participants are: Finn Mackay, author of Radical Feminism: Activism in Movement; Lee Lakeman, author of Obsession, with Intent: Violence Against Women; and Keira Smith-Tague, a collective member of Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter.
Meghan Murphy: While I’ve generally been critical of what’s sometimes called “hashtag activism,” I found women’s #MeToo posts quite moving and courageous. What are your impressions of the conversations and posts spurred by this hashtag over the past couple of weeks?
Finn Mackay: I too have found them moving and courageous. I think it is always helpful to break the imposed shame and stigma that abusers, aided and abetted by society, shift off themselves and onto victims of these crimes. This is an example of the best of social media, as in this case it is being used to unite women and demonstrate the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault.
Lee Lakeman: While the numbers and the range of women across the barriers of class and race are impressive, the solidarity is touching, and the history is interesting, I find it all very alienated from real life effects.
Keira Smith-Tague: I’m skeptical of the use of hashtags and internet activism in general, for any social change agenda, but I was also surprised at both how quickly and how many women picked up #MeToo and ran with it. It makes sense to me that women en masse are now expressing their outrage online. The public discourse around male violence against women has been steadily growing over the past few years. I think of some of the major uprisings, like those in India following the 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder, the Latin American feminists with the #niunamenos movement against femicide, and of the global Women’s Marches at the beginning of this year as some of the responses by women that have contributed to a major shift in public awareness on the issue of violence against women. I think more space has been created for individual women to be less fearful about speaking out about their own experiences. What worries me about #MeToo posts is the online aspect, which breeds individualization and alienation from one another, and is the last thing we need right now.
MM: Do you think these posts are productive? If so, how? What do you think this kind of thing can achieve?
FM: Highlighting the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment can help make that fundamental shift from the individual to the collective, or from the personal to the political (as feminists used to say). Women posting their experiences — perpetrated by all sorts of men, known and unknown, experiences that took place in a huge variety of settings and situations — serves to shine a light on what feminists have always argued, which is that these crimes do not happen to individual women because of choices they made, risks they took, clothing they wore, or how late they stayed out. They happen to women because they are women, and this epidemic of male violence against women and children is a brutal symptom of such an unequal and unbalanced society.
LL: Exactly Finn, which makes this tactic very appropriate for 1973 when anti-rape centers first opened. I fear that this kind of faceless and bodiless solidarity can only accumulate singularities, rather than gather a conscious organization or group from anonymous shadows. It also seems to presume that adult women didn’t know and that men don’t know. But they do know. Our material condition is that the public does know and the government and economic forces obscure that reality whenever possible, so we go on and on proving the numbers over and over again as though if they knew, the authorities would intervene on our behalf.
KST: I think they serve some purpose, yes. The usefulness of the internet is that it allows us to speak to each other across incredible distances, languages, and time zones in ways that were not possible before. In that sense, it is a very useful tool to help campaigns like #MeToo reach masses of women. I think that the ability for us (feminists) to see the nature of other women’s activism around the world allows us to take lessons from each other, which can shape our own activism locally. I think the #MeToo posts have the potential to inform us about what concrete work can and still needs to be done offline.
I also love the thought of how many men are sweating it right now, wondering if their name will be in the next #MeToo post. I think men should be more worried, more often, and the possibility that some actually are seems like an improvement to me. Women already have conversations amongst each other about what men do to us, which ones to avoid, which ones have screwed over other women, and so on — it was only a matter of time until everyone else knew. Men have been protected for so long and have been so confident in that protection, and I see a tiny sliver of this unearned and unfair protection being stripped away from them by women with these posts.
MM: A big part of #MeToo has been the public “calling out” of men who perpetrated sexual assault or harassment. Here in Vancouver, lists of the names of local DJs, for example, have been published online, outing them as predators and rapists. What do you think about this as a strategy for holding men accountable?
FM: It is a great strategy to try to push for some kind of formal justice within the recognized systems, it also creates a safer space for other women to name abusers and make them feel less afraid of doing so. However, all this must be done safely and unfortunately there is still victim-blaming, shaming, and disbelief. It is very hard for the first woman to speak out. Even if she suspects that other voices may join to add to her own, she cannot know that when she is the first one and so in a sense we are asking a lot of those “first woman standing” in terms of what we expect them to risk and bear. Obviously social media enables such allegations to be made anonymously and if that can be done safely then that is hugely valuable. I hope that the mainstream authorities will cross reference allegations, and will compare anonymous allegations with ones they have already had recorded in the past, etc. But of course in terms of formal justice, someone somewhere will have to go on the record and that is always risky.
LL: I admire women calling out their attackers. If the point is to declare the truth and or to let others know, then this tactic has merit. If the point it to hold men accountable directly then it seems to be to be a fine tactic in which a woman risks, based on her own knowledge, and those who know her can side with and stand with her. But if the point is to get get others to hold him accountable, I say it’s a weaker and less honourable tactic. In that case, it carries huge risks that will be managed by others, not by the people involved. It is, in that case, very open to manipulation by the state against anyone they choose and by the right wing in that they can call for “law and order” tactics instead. “Law and Order” tactics usually backfire on women as they are loaded with white supremacy and class bigotry on top of the embedded sexism. We end up with women charged as pimps and murderers no matter the numbers. The men being outed can also use their already existing power differential to make her appear dishonest or unworthy of the protection of law.
KST: From working at a rape crisis centre and transition house over the past seven years, I know women who have wanted to publicly reveal what their boyfriends, lovers, or other male family members have done to them and are worried (rightly) about the backlash from communities, regardless of how “supportive” these communities purport to be (so far, most communities have continued to be an unsafe place for women who challenge violent men). I think many women saw #MeToo as an opportunity to speak their truth publicly while there was a groundswell of other women doing it, which I think is a good inclination. That being said, I think there is definitely a danger for individual women who out their rapists online, because it makes them vulnerable to backlash both from their attacker and as well as from his community, family, and friends. In some cases, she could also face the threat of legal action from him. I worry that when the boot comes down, women will be abandoned by those who “supported” them online but might not do so outside of the confines of Facebook.
I am encouraged by seeing some women decide to use this as an opportunity to report specific men who have attacked many women to the police and to access women’s groups like Vancouver Rape Relief and WAVAW to do so. But I don’t think this campaign provides any avenues to hold men accountable other than public shaming (which itself I don’t see as a problem). I think we need a multitude of ways to achieve justice and change men’s shitty behaviour towards women. One of the other major problems I see is that, by itself, it doesn’t put pressure on the governments or systems whose responsibility it is to ensure men are held accountable for violence against women, and I think we need to encourage that.
MM: A lot of men have responded to the outpouring of stories from the women around them. Some have responded by admitting they’ve behaved in misogynist or abusive ways, others have simply said “I believe you,” others still have expressed that they don’t know how to respond — that they are not sure what is appropriate. What do you think about the responses you’ve seen from men online? Is there an appropriate way for men to respond to #MeToo?
FM: There is an inappropriate way — which is to be defensive. Another inappropriate response has been the suggestion that there is now a “witch hunt,” or that daily elements of male privilege, such as objectifying women or relating to women in an entitled manner, are now under threat or are going to be “banned” or “outlawed” in some way. It is actually quite telling that so many men pick up that women’s liberation will necessitate changes in their behaviour and they rail against making those changes — they perceive shifts towards some kind of extremely basic equality as an attack on their superiority and an attack on the status quo, in which they currently hold more power. So it is perhaps not surprising that they resist change. The point is of course that it has always been wrong to make women feel uncomfortable, to sexually harass women, to bark comments about women’s appearances in public spaces, to treat women like objects — all of these behaviours are not the sort of behaviours that would be tolerated in an equal society. Yet, with this global conversation, men have looked at the spectrum of entitlement and wondered whether, now, that if we are saying men can’t harass women or sexually assault them in the workplace, then are we also saying they can’t bark the occasional comment at them, or rank them out of 10 on an office morning? It is interesting that men themselves recognize this spectrum of privilege or this conducive context, as feminist scholars like Professor Liz Kelly have written about. Yes, there is a continuum of violence against women and, yes, it begins with you viewing pornified images of women and commenting on women’s appearance as if you own them. It’s so fascinating that this is what feminists have always said and now men are defensively acknowledging it themselves.
In terms of the right response, I think it is actually good for men to have conversations about their privilege and I wonder whether that should be done in men’s consciousness-raising spaces, because it might not create a safe space for women to have to hear all about the horrible things they’ve done and wish to confess to… Also, women are not a confessional alter, women are not responsible for men’s healing, feminism is not men’s mamma and cannot breastfeed them enlightenment and forgiveness. They must make their commitment visible by actually promoting women, listening to women, taking a back seat and urging women to lead, donating to women’s causes, involving men in causes against violence and abuse, organizing men’s movements against violence and abuse, picketing the sex industry, urging men to remove their patriarchal dollar from the industries of pornography and prostitution, picketing outside strip clubs and pole dancing clubs etc., lobbying politicians on gender equality issues, taking on more than their fair share of housework duties and domestic tasks, and so forth. Also, when men know men who have vocalized treating women unfairly or being sexually violent to women, then men should come out and name those men. Men could even make reports to the police, for example.
LL: I think of it as the sound of men squealing (in the fear that makes them disassociate from other men who might get caught, in the self defense that suddenly believes in the rule of law and the defense of patriarchy that Finn describes) at the tiny, tiny, tiny bit of pressure that women have exerted using this moment. To me, this squealing signals that this direction has some merit and should be examined, refined, and intensified by thoughtful feminists. That’s what made me post #MeToo.
KST: For the most part, I have been disappointed by men’s responses to #MeToo. A few weeks ago, a number of friends and I were sitting around my kitchen table talking about how many men from the East Vancouver community had been outed as rapists. It was interesting, though not surprising, that the men in the room were so quick to denounce women’s actions of outing these men online. My male friends are progressive and consider themselves in support of feminism but when it came to men they knew being outed, they were very quick to say that women were going “too far” and that outing men online was “not the right way to do it.” All the women in the room were pissed at these responses and argued back that, so far, there has never been a “right way” for women to report sexual assault.
It seems to me that there is a constant dodging of men getting in any sort of trouble for their violence against women. During the Jian Ghomeshi trial in Canada, women all over the country were essentially being told to abandon the criminal justice system and accept the fact that it “just doesn’t work for us.” We are barely out of the wake of that and men are already turning around and telling us that actually the criminal justice system is really the place for women to report men and NOT in the court of public opinion. There is no winning for women when they out men and I think that many of the responses by men to #MeToo reflects that.
In terms of how men should respond? I am not a fan of men publicly sharing their own stories of assaulting women and apologies for them online to then receive hundreds of “likes” and a flood of online comments of people telling them how brave they are or what an inspiration they are to other men. I don’t think men need any more attention or reinforcement for lip service and I’m suspicious of men doing it for more social credibility, to be seen as “one of the good ones.” I want men to take some responsibility by challenging other men. I have been watching men being denounced publicly and ostracized by other men in their community, including their friends. But I think ostracizing other men is too easy of an “out”, and what they should be doing instead is challenging them to change their behaviour and helping them with that process.
MM: What do you think needs to happen in order for #MeToo to become something productive? What can we do next to build on this momentum? What do you hope happens next?
FM: This is the million dollar question. I don’t have clear answers. There will be attempts to direct the debate to one about “toxic masculinity,” and to demonize the few men who will end up being charged as monsters, to avoid addressing much more macro issues about the social construction of masculinity and femininity. We already have laws against workplace sexual harassment and laws against rape and sexual violence, yet here are millions of women acknowledging that these things happen all the time. So, clearly, workplaces need to do more to facilitate reports and there need to be far more systems for anonymous reporting and third party reporting. Here in the UK, there is an initiative at the moment on London transport, run by the British Transport Police, wherein undercover police officers travel the underground and look out for men who are sexually harassing or assaulting passengers on the underground and they can then arrest the men because they witness them commit the crime. There could be far more of those initiatives. While generally, as a feminist and as a socialist, I am wary of increasing criminalization in any area, I feel that while this is the system we have at the moment and while supposedly sexual violence is against the law, then it is about time it was damn well treated as being against the law and the law was actually enforced.
More broadly, we need to shift the debate away from individual stories of survival and a focus on individual men’s criminal behaviour. We also need a much wider conversation about sex class and sex hierarchy and how this is maintained from micro actions onwards. How can we rebuild society so that being a man is no longer about being on top and competing and treating women as conquests and as prey? How can we rebuild society so that being a woman is no longer about being prepared to be on the bottom, to compromise, to follow instead of lead and to be seen as prey. Basically, we have to dismantle patriarchy — so, quite a big ask!
LL: The broad conversations are very important and feminists have to push strategically to keep those conversations broad, troubling, intelligent, and, most of all, keep them radically integrating the pressures against class and race and sex hierarchies. Women have had enough of the self indulgent cynicism of the male left and faintheartedness of the female left. We have had enough of the moral hypocrisy of the male right and the exemptions granted by the female right.
By “conversation,” we mean revolutionary/transformational intent and possibility. But selective reforms can contribute to that transformational power. Women want some immediate victories.
On the reform here-and-now level, we want and should demand that individual men — especially these named men of power and position, who have breached even the criminal law (which is a very low standard) — to be effectively criminalized. We do not need to draw and quarter them or cart them off to the guillotine. We could and must have fair criminal, civil and administrative proceedings (for a change). We could and must demand progressive penalties and sentencing, including things that bring down “masculinities” by a peg or two.
I think that is the consensus we, as feminists, have built over these 40 plus years — women want to hold those at the top of the hierarchies accountable: men, who have the benefit of sex position, but are also endowed with class and race status, and who use their positions to criminally exploit and sexually violate women and girls.
Feminists need to try to make sure that we keep building the pressure, and that women learn how to discern the hierarchies clearly and that “hold men accountable” comes to mean “fairly convict and effectively bring down to size.” To achieve all this will mean women giving up anonymity and joining face-to-face women’s groups that can sustain non-violent public actions.
KST: I agree with both Finn and Lee and I think this is a time for us feminists to organize ourselves in response. We can use this momentum to put pressure on the government for reforms we have been demanding for decades, like fair and immediate responses by police, the crown, and judges, in cases of men’s violence against women. I also think this is a time to test the men in our lives to live up to their word. Men can’t just get away with saying they support women without doing anything — time’s up. Men need to stop supporting women’s subordination by watching pornography or defending prostitution or being selfish sexual partners. They need to interfere with other men’s violence and they need to concretely support women by supporting feminist actions and initiatives or by donating or fundraising for feminist groups.
I think that the beauty in what we are seeing is that when one woman speaks her truth, it emboldens other women to do the same. I think this an inspiring example of how, when women are in a movement together, they become stronger and bolder. I hope women who have participated and/or been inspired by #MeToo join a feminist group and use this energy in the movement for women’s liberation.