We don’t have to choose between a world in which men can violate without social consequence or one in which men are held accountable for their actions but misogyny is replaced by repression.
#MeToo has stirred up a lot of controversy, and not simply in the spheres one might expect. Some feminists are concerned that this movement will renew a postmodern version of Victorian ideals of purity and chastity; in effect, stripping women of the hard-won freedoms of the past century. Other anti-#MeToo folks contend that the groundswell of this movement eclipses the due process necessary to prove the sexual allegations true in a court of law. That these powerful men have fallen too far, too fast, and it is unfair for a social media movement to have such a personal impact on the professional careers of the accused. This sentiment is understandable but it misses the point. It is not the victim’s job to carry out due process. This necessary process belongs to the legal system. We stand between the infancy of one form of public discourse – the town hall, the village square – of social media, and the checks and balances of older organized discourse, codified in the legal system. This uncharted territory demands that we question our assumptions and engage deeply with the work of creating new and just systems based on open discourse, true gender equality and an uncompromising respect for women and men alike.
If I am victimized, my ability to own my body, my thoughts, my rights – has not disappeared. If I’m a homeowner, and my house is broken into, I remain a homeowner – one who has been violated. One who needs to be supported when I report the burglary to the wider world and to the authorities. I should not refrain from reporting the incident simply because I fear being perceived as a victim, or because perhaps I wasn’t “broken into enough” by someone else’s standards, or for fear that I might cast other homeowners in a bad light – and certainly not because I fear impinging on the right of burglars to burgle. No. I say what happened to me. I leave it to the authorities to excavate the truth and dole out appropriate consequences. I am not the police. I am not the perpetrator’s employer. I am a woman, agent in mind and body, who was violated. I get to share that information however I want, with whomever I want – including No One At All, if that suits me. The point is, I decide.
Ditch the binaries
Historically, victims of sexual assault and harassment rarely see justice or reparation. Arguing over semantics in the public sphere forestalls the momentum that could very well make a difference for generations to come. If you care about equal rights, about public discourse; if you believe in female agency, that a woman is both her mind and her body, then please – let’s ditch the binaries. One can be victim and agent simultaneously, just as one can be cerebral and embodied at once, a point some #MeToo detractors seem to have forgotten. We are more than our bodies, yes. And we are our bodies. Dismantling a culture of violence against women starts with the individual – with you – and with me. First, ask, which is shorthand for Listen to women. Believe women. Respect women. And if you want to pursue a physical relationship with a woman, start with consent.
We don’t have to choose between a world in which men can violate without social consequence or one in which men are held accountable for their actions but misogyny is replaced by repression. There’s a tertium quid here, a third way. In this third way, women and men hold one another accountable by sharing their truths and working for a just and equitable society, one substantial enough to maintain both the rights of victims to tell their stories in the court of public opinion alongside the commitment of the legal system to defend the truth and ensure due process. In this third way, women and men own their agency, and those who have power and privilege speak up for those who do not.
So #MeThree, because the third way is radical in its simplicity: ask questions, seek consent, knock down barriers to justice. In short, “do to others what you would have them do to you.” May we dare to be so radical.