Why men need to step up to actually make #MeToo work

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The hashtag #MeToo was originally started by activist Tarana Burke over a decade ago. It recently took on a new life, however, on October 15, when actress Alyssa Milano asked her followers to engage with the hashtag. She tweeted that “if all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

Over 12 million women — some famous, many not — have since used #MeToo to share their experiences with harassment and/or assault. But, of course, not all women who have experienced sexual assault used the hashtag. As one Twitter user wrote, “Survivors don’t owe you their story.” To be fair, not every single survivor should have to come forward, should have to create a vast number of testimonies on social media, for our society to acknowledge that sexual assault and harassment affect a vast number of women.

One need look no further for proof of rape culture than the fear of assault lurking in every corner of women’s lives every day. Take, for example, men who feel they need to be overprotective of their sisters and daughters when they go out, but not their brothers and sons. Or how about the fathers who don’t want their daughters to date because “boys are pigs,” and who offer “dating advice” that consists of fending off guys’ inevitably unwanted sexual advances? “Just assume that every man you meet from now until you’re, I don’t know, 53(?) would sleep with you if given the opportunity,” one man wrote in an article for the Good Men Project. “Stay three feet away at all times,” and “wear three bras all with different clasping mechanisms,” advises another. Men also reveal sexual assault has become a mundane aspect of women’s lives when they continue to victim-shame survivors — they ask what she was wearing, say that she should not have been walking alone at night, that she should not have drunk so much.

Yet despite these common pieces of evidence, men (and some women) still feel a rush of misplaced, patriarchal power when they invalidate women’s experiences of harassment and assault. For example, in response to an article about #MeToo, one Facebook commenter argued that there were “different degrees” of “unwanted attention” and #MeToo “puts them all into one category, which undermines the more serious assaults.” Essentially, this suggests that we should prioritize the ways in which women are objectified and degraded, as if they are not all connected and can’t all be taken seriously at once. It suggests that men should be allowed to catcall and street harass because it is some sort of sexual compromise between respect and rape.

#MeToo is an important reminder that women’s autonomy must always be respected and their experiences believed, no matter the circumstances under which they occurred or medium through which they are expressed. But as much as this hashtag and the women who used it should be celebrated, we must also be vigilant about the consequences of such an experience to those very women. If women continue to be the only ones who share their experiences of assault and rape culture, they could risk falling victim to psychic numbing. According to psychologist Paul Slovic, psychic numbing is the idea that “as the number of victims in a tragedy increases, our empathy, our willingness to help, reliably decreases.” Our minds don’t know how to make sense of large numbers — many can’t visualize the 12 million people who posted #MeToo. In response, therefore, some people try to shrink those numbers — like, say, by creating a hierarchy of how “serious” these offenses are and victim blaming and invalidating certain experiences — to more easily wrap their heads around the issue and feel as though there could be an easy, tangible solution.

Of course, this in turn only perpetuates rape culture. Silencing victims won’t reduce their numbers. Separating certain offenses from more “serious” ones isn’t helpful: Rape, street harassment, and all other forms of female objectification are all part of a toxic family of rape culture.

So how do we avoid psychic numbing?

We flip the narrative.  

When we say #MeToo, we know who the action was done to, but not who it was committed by. Rape, harassment, and assault are not committed by some anonymous evil but by a person. With a face. And a name. And a life of their own that probably continues unaffected while their victim lives with the pain they inflicted.

What if men stopped expecting women to educate them about the effects of their actions and were instead expected to do something about the causes? Why should women need to step into the limelight and share their painful stories when men aren’t expected to share their stories of failure? Why can’t men post about the times they have catcalled, sexually assaulted, or otherwise committed an act of sexual violence towards women? Of course, admitting to objectifying, humiliating, and even hurting women would hurt their reputations and perhaps incur legal consequences. It could bring public shame and threatening messages. But most of these consequences are the same things women endure when they share their truths. If anyone has to reveal themselves, shouldn’t it be men? Shouldn’t they be the ones to feel raw, exposed, and ashamed?

Maybe we would feel less hopeless if we held men more accountable. If we did, perhaps we would realize that the onus of ending sexual assault should not be on survivors, but on perpetrators. Doing so would of course require all of us to take a great amount of responsibility for our actions, but, ultimately, may be the crucial element to actually ending this problem.

More articles by Category: Feminism, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Rape, Sexual harassment, Sexualized violence



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