OK, you know this had to happen, right? I mean me, sharing some thoughts about #metoo and sexual harrassment and Franken and Moore and the whole thing. Please feel free to skip this if it isn't your cup of tea, and return next time for our regular programming.
I have, as I'm sure many of you have, been watching and contemplating and contextualizing and trying to understand and processing how I feel about each of these revelations and their consequences or lack thereof, and wanting to write something about it, but haven't quite been sure where to start. It seems to me that there are so many threads that must be followed to come to even some sort of understanding of the whole fabric that, as it were, clothes this moment in history - which one to pick at first?
Having just spent a weekend at my annual conference (and there's a post in the queue about that), the American Anthropological Association's Annual Meetings, I've been thinking a lot about positionality. The idea there is that the various elements of my position - elements which are commonly thought of as identity, but which I would think of as being much more fluid and less stable than the noun "identity" suggests - have a significant relationship to my perspective on the world. They should, therefore, not be taken for granted; there is no objective or right or unmarked position from which anyone can stand and opine. So, it's perhaps worth coming right out and stating that I am: a European-American, cisgendered, straight, married, upper-middle-class, non-theist/animist, feminist, progressive woman who has two daughters and a PhD in the social sciences. And so much more, as you know (a knitter, a horse owner, a hiker, a reader, a friend - the list, as it does for all of us, goes on).
For the purposes of understanding my thoughts about sexual harrassment, the label "progressive" up there is perhaps the most relevant. To me, being a progressive is different from (although with some overlap) being a liberal, and means that I believe that we, as a society, can do better than we have in the past. Not by rejecting everything from the past part and parcel, but rather by learning from it, and reaching toward something better in the future. For me (and I wouldn't presume to think that this is how all progressives think), that means doing my best to create a world that resembles the Beloved Community discussed as early as the early 20th century (the philosopher Josiah Royce), although it is perhaps most associated with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The way I tend to think of the beloved community is this: that when we look at other human beings, we see ourselves. As an animist, I actually would extend that to the planet as a whole, but that's a discussion for another day. By seeing ourselves, I do not mean, being like ourselves; I mean seeing them as full and complete human beings, with the same desires for respect and peace and safety and well-being that we have. Seeing here means holding all the complexity of another person with affection and acceptance. If we look at another person and see ourselves, surely we would not want them to suffer, to be lacking in the resources that they need to live a full life, to feel fundamentally that they are not cared for and respected? Love informs the beloved community, not power.
Power informs sexual harrassment, not love. Not only power, but a lens that views women as not-people, not-self - instead as available for the whims of men either because those men are in power or because they want to feel powerful. (I realize that men are also sexually harrassed by other men; however, for the moment, I am going to center the perspective of women for two reasons: one, that perspective so rarely takes center stage, and two, the vast majority of those who endure sexual harrassment and assault are women.)
There are a number of threads that feed into a culture that accepts harrassment as part of the normal workings of everyday life. One of the most insidious is the one that frames men as a) highly sexual, b) inherently violent, and c) out of control of both their sexuality and violence. The onus for controlling men's sexuality and violence therefore falls on women. It is of critical importance to note that this is a social construct: men are not inherently more sexual or violent than women, and they are certainly not more out of control of their impulses than women. A culture of toxic masculinity both gives men permission to understand themselves this way, and traps them into that understanding, denying them access to their whole selves, selves that need and want love and affection and a full range of emotion, selves that often pay serious physical and emotional prices for locking away those sides of themselves. The NYT had a great article
today on exactly this, the power of touch and how critical it is for all human health, and how men's touch is so frequently given only two avenues for expression: violence, and sex (and how often those two then become conflated).
Another thread is one which treats women as somehow not belonging to the more general class of "people". Women are framed as weak and in need of protection; they are also framed as the purview of men. I can't tell you how many times I have heard people say, either "I was raised" (if the person is a man), or "I raised my boys" (a parent speaking of sons) "to respect women/to never hit a girl"; these often come in one breath. To which I invariably respond (or bite my tongue to stop myself from responding), why just women and girls? Why don't we raise our boys to not hit people? And to include women and girls in the class of "people"? This framing reinforces an understanding of women as weak, and in need of protection (usually by a man, which in turn reinforces our understanding of women as belonging to men). Imagine how different things might be if we raised people to respect people, where respect means many things, including allowing all people the integrity of their bodies.
Related to this thread is that of our treatment of women when it comes to reproduction. Women's bodies become the belongings of society. We regulate their access to birth control, and to reproductive health services, including abortion. Powerful men who enact the laws that regulate these things publicly sometimes encourage "their" women to make use of these services, up to and including the abortions that these men attempt to make illegal, when it suits the interests of those powerful men. Our nation's handling of women's bodies is, to my mind, one of the places where we are farthest from the beloved community that I spoke of earlier. If we truly value humans and human lives, why would we not do two things: ensure that women have access to safe, legal abortions, and, at the same time, work our hardest to create a world where that service is needed rarely? By that I mean valuing all life: the lives of mothers before, during, and after conception and birth, and the lives of children after they are born. This means easy and affordable access to: birth control; prenatal and postnatal health services; health care for infants and children; real food; high-quality public education from kindergarten through college; safe places to live and play; either support for mothers who decide to stay home, or high-quality affordable child care for those who need or want to work outside the home; a living wage. Also, a world in which they do not have to fear sexual assault. Do you see? Women are vulnerable. Laws which deny women full and free rights to their bodies and to choices about reproduction treat women as lesser humans and as society's possessions. Our current system, which limits women's access to birth control and health services, and which doesn't support them in raising healthy children, a social system which simultaneously supports men in (and even encourages them) harrassing and assaulting women with few, if any consequences (and certainly even fewer when it comes to then raising and supporting children who might result from such assaults), is a nightmare. It is also the natural result, and perhaps even definition, of patriarchy.
It is in the context of this nightmare that the assaults that we are hearing about occur, and have occurred for lifetimes. It is in this context that women live with these assaults as the tax that they pay for being born in a woman's body. If women were people, in the way that men are people, can you imagine how the world might be instead? I am reminded here of Muriel Rukeyser: "What would happen if one woman spoke the truth about her life? The world would split open."
And to some degree, that is what has happened. I think it's time and past time that we split this particular aspect of the world open. This is what I mean by being a progressive: I don't think that our past practices serve us here in creating the beloved community in which mutual respect and love govern our relationships to one another; the patriarchy that our current social relationships are founded upon doesn't allow for that - because it is, rather, a social order grounded in power relationships.
And here's where things get complicated. It seems to me, in watching what's happening, that progressives such as myself are embracing this moment as a chance to split the world open, to try to realign our priorities to include all humans in our vision for a just, fair, and equal society. The ousting of politicians like Franken, a man whose public face supported women's equality even while his private life included actions that were not in alignment with that, is a reflection of the desire to ensure that accountability happens, even for men whom we like. What scares me is that it appears that conservatives are not interested in creating the same culture of accountability and change within their ranks. (I want to note here that I'm speaking of general trends, not individuals.) The fact that our current sitting President was elected after being heard on tape bragging about assaulting women, coupled with what looks like the immanent election of Roy Moore, is what points me towards this conclusion. That worries me on a couple of levels. If one of the two groups who struggle for political power in this country is trying in this moment to stand on principle and oust men who actually support policies that support women, while the other of those two groups is willing to abandon principle to elect men who are harassers, in order to maintain power - well, we have a problem. It means that we disagree fundamentally on whether it is important to value women in this society that we are in the process (always and forever) of creating. It also, I think, means that we have fundamentally different ideas about what it means to respect women. The perspective that I have articulated here holds that respecting women means treating women like people; the more conservative perspective, as I see it represented in a broad range of public discourse, holds that respecting women means protecting them, preferably in the safety of their homes and roles as child-bearers and -rearers; it also separates the worlds of men and women, and holds that separation as natural and proper, instead of understanding it to be an aspect of a very particular historical moment.
At the same time, that isn't the only thing that concerns me about this particular historical moment. I worry about due process. To some degree, Franken and Trump are easy cases - there is documentation, visual or audio, of their harrassment of women. That, however, isn't true in all cases. And while I happen to believe the women who have accused Moore and, say, Weinstein, at the same time, I am not an advocate of vigilante justice, and there is something worrisome about, say, firing people (e.g., Matt Lauer among many others) without some kind of due process. And yet, we all know that due process is deeply (and I do mean deeply) flawed. There are cases upon cases of men being let off with few to no consequences for atrocities committed upon female bodies (Brock Turner, I'm looking at you). So I understand the urge to grab this moment and make. someone. pay.
I don't even know what to suggest here. I only know that I am troubled. That I believe with all my heart that women are people and should be allowed a full range of expression and self-determination. That I believe with all my heart that men are people and should be allowed a full range of expression and self-determination. That I believe that we can create a world in which those things are possible. But that we are far away from that world, and, I fear, getting further. I reread this and feel that it's too long, and yet there is so much I didn't get to say. I welcome your thoughts and insights.
ETA: As a reward for getting through all that, two humorously serious takes on consent and harrassment:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KXRYlfjlFLk (Tracee Ellis Ross rocks)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZwvrxVavnQ. (tea and consent)