Finding the Words We Need to Talk About Sexual Assault and Harassment

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Me Too.

These two words have ignited a conversation about sexual harassment and sexual violence that has spread across the internet in the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s outing as a sexual predator. As that conversation has spread and deepened, however, it’s rapidly become clear that not everybody is prepared for talking about such a complicated and difficult issue. No wonder that alongside the seeds of understanding, healing and meaningful change as a result of #MeToo, we’re seeing widespread conflict, re-traumatization and reactionary backlash.

In her biweekly column “The Digital Voyage,” Alexandra Samuel investigates the key psychological, social, and practical challenges of migrating to an online world.

The idea of women using “Me too” as a way of sharing their experiences of sexualized violence dates back to a campaign started by Tarana Burke. The idea is simple: when people (not just women, but also men and gender queer folks) share their experiences of sexual harassment and sexual assault, it makes survivors feel less alone, and helps raise public awareness of the extent of this problem. It’s a strategy that gained new momentum with an October 15 tweet from actress Alyssa Milano, which triggered millions of #MeToo tweets and posts all across the Internet.

As often happens when people join an online conversation, people come to the table with radically different experiences — and radically different stakes. The sheer volume of posts around #MeToo all but guaranteed we would see conflict and hurt feelings among the various folks coming to the table: People who are for the first time describing, acknowledging or even remembering their experiences of sexual assault or harassment. Men who are trying to express support or regret, without the language to do it kindly and cleanly. Gender queer or male sexual assault, harassment, and abuse survivors who feel silenced or left out. Spouses, family members and friends who are grappling with accusations levelled against people they love. Lawyers and HR professionals who are thinking about the workplace issues and policies that need to be addressed. Activists and policy professionals who are concerned to convert the #MeToo moment into social, behavioral, and policy change.

If you’re participating in the conversation around Me Too—or even just trying to make sense of it—these concepts and resources can help.

That’s exactly why we need a shared vocabulary for having a this difficult conversation: not just a set of words to describe our experiences, but a set of concepts that help us understand how our words will affect the people reading them.

On this particular issue, we can get a lot of the ideas and language we need from feminist, queer, and anti-racist scholarship; since sexual harassment and assault are topics that have been subject to extensive study and discussion among feminist scholars, that’s where I’ve drawn the lion’s share of my resources. Although it’s been decades since my undergrad days as a Women’s Studies major, I’ve made some effort to stay in touch with evolving language and theory; this conceptual vocabulary is hugely useful when it comes to engaging in the current conversation around sexual assault and harassment. I’ve rounded up some of the most essential, and found JSTOR resources (as well as some more accessible blog posts) that explain each concept.

If you’re participating in the conversation around Me Too—or even just trying to make sense of it—these concepts and resources can help. This is by no means a comprehensive list; consider it a starting point, not an end point. Maybe you only have ten or fifteen minutes to read up on some of the ideas that feminists use to talk about these difficult subjects, in which case, I hope you’ll get what you need here.

But if any of my very cursory descriptions rankle, well, don’t assume I’ve done the idea justice: instead, take the time to dig deeper. You can read the JSTOR article I’ve linked to on that topic (I’ve made a point of choosing articles that are good reading in their own right); I’ve also hyperlinked each phrase to an even more accessible blog post explaining the concept.

Privilege

Privilege is the idea that our social structure advantages some people and disadvantages others, in complicated ways. It’s an essential concept in the #MeToo conversation because it helps us recognize that we come to that conversation with very different experiences, stakes, and lenses—differences we may not always readily acknowledge.

Quoting the author of “White Privilege: Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack” (a piece I highly recommend reading!), Vicky Greenbaum notes that “Peggy McIntosh has found in pioneering the work of curriculum change at the university level that ‘I have often noticed men’s unwillingness to grant that they are over-privileged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged …. I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege as males are taught not to recognize male privilege.’” (Greenbaum’s article contains a terrific list of novels from a range of backgrounds, if you’d like to broaden your perspective through fiction.)

Recognizing privilege doesn’t make it evaporate: as Sonia Kruks writes, “In some areas, including race, our privilege will not cease to exist however much we may become aware of and try to abandon our previous styles of personal behavior.” An awareness of privilege is an essential starting point for participating in a challenging conversation, and particularly, for thinking carefully about your relationship to that conversation.

Centering

Centering is one expression of privilege: a tendency to place yourself, your experience or your social group at the centre of a conversation. In her article on anti-racist pedagogy, Priya Kandaswamy offers a useful example of what that looks like:

…in women’s studies classes, when discussing the experiences of women of color white students often either try to emphasize that they have had similar experiences to women of color or treat the experiences of women of color as separate from their own experiences and therefore as something about which they have nothing to say. Both of these positions allow white students to avoid questioning their white privilege by re-centering their own experience.

We see the very common impulse to place yourself at the center of the story in comments from men who place themselves in the conversation by saying they care because they have wives or daughters or sisters. (So…this matters because it might happen to a woman you care about?) Nicholas Kristof criticized this framing in an excellent New York Times column that showed how a man can participate in this conversation without centering himself.

Kandaswamy’s article about anti-racist pedagogy illustrates why it’s so often difficult to de-center oneself in a conversation: “White students often have the racialized expectation that their experience will be centered in the classroom. Therefore, when the perspectives of students of color are taken equally seriously, many white students express a sense that they are being victimized because of their race.” If you find yourself thinking the #MeToo conversation is sexist or victimizing men, read more about the idea of centering and decentering. If you find yourself crying over how terrible it all is, read this.

Intersectionality

Intersectionality acknowledges that people have different identities and forms of privilege that intersect: a poor man of color can have male privilege without race or class privilege. In “Intersectionality, Metaphors, and the Multiplicity of Gender,” Ann Garry summarizes the concept of intersectionality as follows:

Oppression and privilege by race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class, nationality, and so on do not act independently of each other in our individual lives or in our social structures; instead, each kind of oppression or privilege is shaped by and works through the others. These compounded, intermeshed systems of oppression and privilege in our social structures help to produce (a) our social relations, (b) our experiences of our own identity, and (c) the limitations of shared interests even among members of “the same” oppressed or privileged group.

This is an essential idea to wrap your mind around if you’re going to engage in the conversation around #MeToo, as I was reminded on the very first day the conversation got underway. I expressed a little exhaustion with the idea that we needed evidence that sexual harassment is widespread; surely we all knew that? Someone quickly reminded me that sexual harassment and violence aren’t spoken about as freely in every family, culture, and context as they were in the white, middle-class, explicitly feminist family I grew up in.

That’s intersectionality in action: noticing that race, class, sexuality, and other identities intersect with gender and sexual violence; noticing that trans and non binary people are at exceptionally high risk; learning about the different ways sexual violence and harassment affect people of different ethnicities and classes. It’s complicated, but that doesn’t mean we can pretend this issue works the same way in all contexts.

Rape Culture

Rape culture is a term (coined by Susan Griffin in 1971) that helps us see sexual violence, sexual harassment, and everyday sexism as cultural phenomena that exist on a continuum. Larry May and Robert Strikwerda explain the idea of rape culture in their very thoughtful exploration of different ways to understand male responsibility for rape: “Misbehavior, especially sexual misbehavior of males toward females is, however mixed the messages, something that many men condone. This has given rise to the use of the term ‘the rape culture’ to describe the climate of attitudes that exists in the contemporary American male-dominated world.”

The concept of rape culture acknowledges that we live in a culture that immerses us all in messages that promote the violation of women’s bodies; recognizing rape as a culture-wide problem, and not just an individual character issue, is an essential precursor to actually stopping it. As May and Strikwerda put it, “while we believe that men should feel some shame for their group’s complicity in the prevalence of rape, our aim is not to shame men but rather to stimulate men to take responsibility for re-socializing themselves and their fellow men.”

Toxic Masculinity

Toxic masculinity or hegemonic masculinity are two versions of the idea that our society’s definition of manhood is inseparable from the oppression of women. It’s an important concept to understand in the conversation around #MeToo, because it’s the lens through which some people look at the problems of sexual harassment and assault: as byproducts of hegemonic masculinity. In “On Patriarchs and Losers: Rethinking Men’s Interests,” Michael A. Messner sums up its key dimensions:

 The fact that it is nearly impossible for an individual man consistently to achieve and display the dominant conception of masculinity is an important part of the psychological instability at the center of individual men’s sense of their own masculinity. Instead, a few men (real or imagined) are positioned as symbolic exemplars for a hegemonic masculinity that serves as a collective practice that continues the global subordination of women, and ensures men’s access to a patriarchal dividend. What makes this masculinity ‘hegemonic’ is not simply powerful men’s displays of power, but also, crucially, less powerful men’s consent and complicity with the institutions, social practices, and symbols that privilege men. To adapt a term that is now popular in market-driven bureaucracies, hegemonic masculinity requires a “buy-in” by subordinated and marginalized men, if it is to succeed as a strategy of domination.

Victim Blaming

Victim blaming is a facet of rape culture: a range of direct and subtle ways in which the victims of sexual violence and harassment are blamed for their experiences. In their assessment of a survey tool that is used to assess attitudes towards sexual violence on college campuses, Sarah McMahon and G. Lawrence Farmer write:

It can be argued that as overt sexism in general has declined, those rape myths that blatantly blame girls and women for rape have become less acceptable. However, many of the underlying beliefs that the girls and women did something to contribute to the assault and that it is not completely the perpetrator’s fault still exist but in more covert expressions. For example, in a study conducted with college student-athletes, McMahon (2005) found that respondents would not directly blame the victim for her assault but expressed the belief that women put themselves in bad situations by dressing a certain way, drinking alcohol, or demonstrating other behaviours such as flirting.

Victim blaming isn’t just unfair; it keeps us from changing power structures in a way that could actually affect the incidence of sexual harassment and sexual violence. Amber E. Kinser’s “Negotiating Spaces for/through Third-Wave Feminism” is a very readable and informative perspective on recent feminist thinking (usefully grounded in a brief review of feminist history). In it, Kinser observes the importance of “women…recognizing when they in fact have been victimized so that they can then stop self-blaming and begin the personal and political work that can help them reclaim their power.” That can’t happen as long as we’re busy blaming victims.

Silencing

Silencing is the behavior of shouting down or shaming unwelcome comments or voices—or simply signalling, in a million subtle ways, that a certain perspective or voice or set of of voices is unwelcome. The influential black feminist writer bell hooks writes eloquently about her experience of silencing in the response to her first book:

I was not expecting a critical level avalanche that had the power in its intensity to crush spirit, to push one into silence. Since that time I have heard stories about black women, about women of color, who write and publish, having nervous breakdowns (even when the work is quite successful), being made mad because they cannot bear the harsh responses of family, friends, and unknown critics, or becoming silent, unproductive…To those who wield oppressive power that which is threatening must necessarily be wiped out, annihilated, silenced.

In the outpouring of conversation around #MeToo we have seen voices that will not be silenced. And yet, when people jump into the fray without taking a minute to listen, read and learn, we can feel the edges of the silence starting to wash up around this important but fragile conversation. Even well-intentioned contributions can be silencing when they drift into victim blaming; when they de-center assault survivors and instead center the husbands or father of potential victims; when they erase the identities and experiences of different men and women by refusing to wrestle with the complexity of intersectionality.

If it seems like a lot of work to learn about all these different words and ideas, just so that you can avoid silencing or hurting people—well, it is. But if you’re actually trying to be an ally to the women, men, and non-binary people who are victims of sexual harassment and violence, it’s very necessary work indeed.


JSTOR Citations

Expanding the Canon: Shaping Inclusive Reading Lists

By: Vicky Greenbaum

The English Journal, Vol. 83, No. 8, Literature, Queen of the Curriculum (Dec., 1994), pp. 36-39

National Council of Teachers of English

Simone de Beauvoir and the Politics of Privilege

By: Sonia Kruks

Hypatia, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Winter, 2005), pp. 178-205

Wiley on behalf of Hypatia, Inc.

Beyond Colorblindness and Multiculturalism: Rethinking Anti-Racist Pedagogy in the University Classroom

By: Priya Kandaswamy

The Radical Teacher, No. 80, TEACHING BEYOND "TOLERANCE" (Winter 2007), pp. 6-11

University of Illinois Press

Intersectionality, Metaphors, and the Multiplicity of Gender

By: ANN GARRY

Hypatia, Vol. 26, No. 4, Responsibility and Identity in Global Justice (FALL 2011), pp. 826-850

Wiley on behalf of Hypatia, Inc.

Men in Groups: Collective Responsibility for Rape

By: Larry May and Robert Strikwerda

Hypatia, Vol. 9, No. 2, Feminism and Peace (Spring, 1994), pp. 134-151

Wiley on behalf of Hypatia, Inc.

On Patriarchs and Losers: Rethinking Men's Interests

By: Michael A. Messner

Berkeley Journal of Sociology, Vol. 48, rethinking gender (2004), pp. 74-88

Regents of the University of California

An Updated Measure for Assessing Subtle Rape Myths

By: Sarah McMahon and G. Lawrence Farmer

Social Work Research, Vol. 35, No. 2 (June 2011), pp. 71-81

Oxford University Press

Negotiating Spaces for/through Third-Wave Feminism

By: Amber E. Kinser

NWSA Journal, Vol. 16, No. 3 (Autumn, 2004), pp. 124-153

The Johns Hopkins University Press

Talking Back

By: Bell Hooks

Discourse, Vol. 8, SHE, THE INAPPROPRIATE/D OTHER (Fall-Winter 86-87), pp. 123-128

Wayne State University Press

Alexandra Samuel is a technology writer, researcher and speaker. She is the author of Work Smarter with Social Media (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015), and is a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review and The Wall Street Journal. Alex holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Harvard University and a B.A. from Oberlin College. You can find her on Twitter as @awsamuel and on her own site, alexandrasamuel.com.

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