The explosive #MeToo phenomenon which took over social media last week highlights our long tolerance and enabling of an intolerable, systematic abuse of power.
We must not take for granted the honest witness of millions of women (and some other survivors of abuse as well) speaking truth in the face of the overwhelming powers of denial and coercion. Though for others, personal healing had to come first—with their “me, too” either coming in private or remaining their silent thought—a stunning number of women I know and love, friends and family alike, did step forward.
Such a remarkable sacrifice of privacy demands a response, not silence. In order to honestly address this issue men, too, must allow ourselves to be vulnerable.
The #MeToo social media campaign kicked into gear by Alyssa Milano comes in the wake of a much older ministry: a “Me too Movement”, which emphasizes the prevalence of abuse against women of color, actually has existed for 10 years, and was founded by Tarana Burke. It would be a tragic irony—and would fit a long, dishonest pattern of erasing black voices—if this social media campaign overshadowed and drowned out Burke’s tireless work, rather than building it up.
“Me, too” is a powerful expression because it testifies to universal or near-universal experiences of women in this country. Burke refers to the phrase’s power as “Empowerment through Empathy.” Sharing experiences among the many women—as well as some men and many LGBTQ individuals—lifts some of the stigma and shame felt by each. This empowerment is crucial because at the core of sexual violence is the abuse of power. In the words of James H. Cone,
“sexist violence is found wherever men think that they have the right to determine the place of women in the church, home, and society” (Church and Society, 1995)[i].
For a man, the all-too-easy, disingenuous way to duck any sort of engagement with the issue is to say “oh, but I don’t act that way! #notallmen! Don’t blame me for what “other guys” are doing!” But this blame-shifting ignores the reality that actions of physical abuse—as well their symptom, verbal harassment—are given leverage whenever we normalize expectations that men be in command of any given situation.
My own part in this picture clicked when a relative’s post popped up in my Facebook feed. Although the original is no longer embeddable, here’s my copied and reposted version:
In my life #Itoo have failed to ask for consent. I, too, have been complicit in propagating a culture of…
What person among us is exempt from this responsibility? I, too, have been complicit in perpetuating the culture of male power in numerous ways, on numerous occasions…and the subtle impact of even small actions adds up. Each time, I have given leverage to those who believe they can abuse the power implicit in their privilege. But even if I were not someone who has sometimes followed the flow of mainstream misogyny, I would still be responsible for the culture’s need to change.
And our culture does need to change. Writing of the extreme inadequacy in terms of prosecution and enforcement of sentences against male sex offenders, Marie M. Fortune wrote more than 20 years ago:
“We do not believe that women have the right to be free from bodily harm and that men who abuse women should be held accountable. When will we?” (Church and Society, 1995).[ii]
This seems like an astounding claim about internalized norms of sexual violence—but it appears to still be backed up by the facts today. People in positions of particular power can go for years living out the cycle of abuse and impunity again and again, still rewarded with fame and prestige. Yes, Harvey Weinstein and other directors, disgraced TV pundits, CEO’s, and some churchmen fit this bill, and a certain “Access Hollywood” tape comes to mind. But the problem is broader than these individuals—it is a climate of “access womanhood” that extends from leering and joking to groping and rape.
In a perverse sense, Donald Trump’s assertion that his awful comments were just “locker room talk” has been revealed to be more true than we thought—to the extent that it indicts the society of locker rooms, as a proxy for male-dominated culture. His defensive “but everyone does it” may not be entirely accurate, but there is uncomfortable truth behind the statement. (This of course lends no justification to his glorification of sexual assault—it only admits that the problem extends beyond Trump).
Common decency, faith values, and any sort of love for each other—each of these demands that we accept common responsibility for and beyond our individual actions.
Admitting our own broader part in this injustice is not about men feeling guilty. No matter how justified, guilt won’t solve the problem—nor would the process of publicly asking forgiveness on social media (and, in some cases, what an imposition that might be!) But as members of a society which tacitly supports this systemic and repeated abuse, we are responsible for taking steps immediately to mitigate and change the culture of violation. More than anything, what “me too” tells us—and what we admit by saying “I, too” in response—is that each of our actions matters. A catcall, unwanted physical contact, and sexual assault are all tangible manifestations of the much broader set of actions and structures which constitute “rape culture”—which is ultimately composed of variations on the theme that men should have power over women.
You may ask: can we really eliminate all the elements of objectification and coercion, so often reinforced by workplace hierarchies? My answer: the feasibility of the goal is not our reason to act. Necessity is. Common decency, faith values, and any sort of love for each other—each of these demands that we accept common responsibility for and beyond our individual actions.
Our fear of feeling guilty cannot be allowed to stand in the way of change. The first step is to listen and believe that the problem exists. The second is being willing to give up any sense of a right to power over others, and allow ourselves to be vulnerable equals.
“I, too,” marks that choice of vulnerability over domination.
Firstly, as a grammar enthusiast, I’d like to point out to the nitpickers out there that “I too” is NOT a correction of “me too” … it is the other half of the picture. “Me, too” intentionally implies that someone else is the actor—the survivor saying “this has happened to me too” is not at fault for the abuse or harassment. “I, too,” on the other hand, deliberately admits to agency in addressing the problem by saying, “I, too, have responsibility for positive change”.
Secondly, at press time a new social media response has blossomed and gained much more traction than #IToo: #HowIWillChange. Perhaps this articulates even better the sense of individual responsibility of each person with disproportionate power—particularly each white man like myself—to own responsibility to change both my own actions & assumptions and those of the culture in which I am immersed.
General Editor’s note:
My appreciation goes to Henry and all those seeking a better path in gender relations. He is right to see that it is partly culture that harasses women, the power of the movies that reflect Harvey Weinstein’s gaze; I think also of Ross Douthat’s recent “Speaking Ill of Hugh Hefner,” which sees the commercialization of sexuality as causing untold damage. Ethicists have not missed the shadow sides of liberation. Women in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have contributed to this analysis, as in the fine study, Far From the Song of Songs (1988). That was written in the pre-internet period and is perhaps in need of updating, both for technology and for a more international perspective on the struggles of women and men in families.
[i] James H. Cone. “In Search of a Definition of Violence.” Church and Society: January/February, 1995. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
[ii] Marie M. Fortune. “Picking Up the Broken Pieces: Responding to Domestic Violence.” Church and Society: January/February, 1995. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
AUTHOR BIO: Henry Koenig Stone serves in Louisville, KY as Managing Editor of Unbound and Associate for Young Adult Social Witness. Originally from Rochester, NY, Henry comes from a long line of pastors and professors. His family has practiced an equally long critical tradition of having “roast preacher” for Sunday lunch. Henry holds a B.A. in Economics (2015) from the University of Chicago and an MPP (2017) from UChicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. His past work has focused on policy analyses of healthcare pilot programs and public health systems. A baritone, Henry is a fan of both sacred and irreverent vocal traditions. His favorite place on earth is Dunkirk Camp & Conference Center, where he has been a summer camp counselor for many years.