Recently I was having dinner with friends and the topic of sexual violence came up. One-by-one we went around the table recounting the first time we remembered feeling unsafe because of our gender. Each and every one of us had a story to tell. For most, our first #MeToo moment predated even our first kiss.
But there was another commonality, and I think this one’s important: It didn’t take a rape to make us unsafe. Our #MeToos weren’t moments of abject violence. They were subtle: words, looks, pats on the rear, and kisses. The encounters we had were expressions of power—the power a man had to hurt us, manipulate us, to change the courses of our lives.
It seems like a lot of men don’t understand the power play inherent to sexual violence. Often, when a man is accused of harassment or assault we hear him say, “I wasn’t violent” or “I didn’t rape” or “She could have said no.”
These defenses—similar to Rep. Duane Hall’s “I just know I didn’t harass” claim—are tone deaf and miss the point spectacularly.
Men—all men—have the power to harm women. That power may be physical, emotional, economic, or political, but it amounts to the same thing: the ability to punish and hurt women.
The #MeToo moment we’re all sharing is about a redistribution of power. Two of the many things that feed men’s ability to hold power are secrecy and habit. Even without knowing it, for centuries men have fought to uphold a system that leaves women completely unsafe and without any ability to establish safety.
The first woman to call out Harvey Weinstein took back a little of the power he held over her. The avalanche of #MeToos that followed was an epic shift of power. And predictably, men fought back.
Every time a woman has called out her attacker—and make no mistake that’s what these were, attacks—someone has stepped up to wonder “what about the man?” As a society, we’re so invested in refusing to shift power that we earnestly entertain these absurd questions. In what other scenario in our modern, “get tough on crime” culture do we generally manifest such a concern for wrongdoers?
Having borne the work of being oppressed by men for centuries, women can’t pretend to be surprised that even when we present evidence, many still rush to protect our attackers. We’ve had our butts slapped, our skirt lengths criticized, and our skin shamed. We know where the power lies.
The #MeToo movement takes the audacious step of not just taking back power. Joining this movement creates power. We don’t need the patriarchy or the systems designed to perpetuate it. That’s an uncomfortable fact for those who have benefited from the use of our bodies.
Men suffered from a complete crisis of imagination when they expected women to know our place and to be polite. As soon as we said we were being hurt, we were told we weren’t expressing ourselves correctly. We were told we needed to be sweet, and kind, and we needed to consider the complexities of the situation.
A lot of work has been done by Black and brown women in the service of rejecting societal norms and creating new power. #MeToo benefited from those proud women who for decades looked male power in the face and said “no way.” All womanhood reaped the rewards from the hard—almost impossible—work performed by these mothers of the movement.
For years white feminism forgot these women, yet they persisted. To them, resistance was existence. #MeToo is the movement they midwifed into our world, and like most things co-opted by white women, this movement largely ignored them. We cannot lose sight of the fact we started hashtagging right about the time good looking white ladies said publically they were harassed.
Right now, as this movement is having its moment in the sun, it’s time to consider how and why we interact with these new sources of power. We must be skeptical of those who hoard power or police tone and language. We must call out injustice where we find it-– even if that means dismantling power structures that benefit us. We must all play the long game with the knowledge that in the short term we may not win, or win in any way we recognize.
The recent moves to asses the sexual harassment policy at the NC General Assembly are a good start. But let’s hope that our leaders don’t suffer under the misapprehension that a rule change is enough. In every aspect of our worlds– from political all the way to our households— the moment is now to assess how sexual power plays out in our lives and how we can work to ensure equity for all.
Jen Ferris is the Director of Reproductive Advocacy at Progress North Carolina.