If you’ve been on social media much in the last few days, you might have seen a lot of status updates saying “Me too” with or without explanation. The idea is to raise awareness of the magnitude of the problem of sexual assault and sexual harassment, particularly of women, though my personal take is this ought to be something for people of all genders. While it seems likely that the nature of the violence would vary depending on the genders of the people involved, we do ourselves no favours in framing sexual violence as exclusively a women’s issue.
But now that we see each other as survivors, what are some next steps? One, I think, is to know that many people do not feel comfortable speaking up about their own experiences, for a variety of reasons, and that we ought not make assumptions.
But another piece of this: who has been causing the violence? There are huge numbers of people speaking up about their experiences of harassment and assault, but let’s not ignore the fact that these wrongs have all been committed by someone. And who are those people who have perpetrated these wrongs? The hard truth is that in many cases it is also us. I think that the common narrative of perpetrators as predators, deviant, outsiders, and others, has resulted in a great deal of harm. It does not help us see that in a world run through with injustice, it is very easy to be ignorant of ways in which we harm one another and perpetuate injustices.
Perpetrators of assault and harassment need not be monsters. They can be us, having watched too many movies portraying the relentless pursuit of an unwilling romantic partner as charming rather than terrifying. Or having internalized women’s resistance to sex as obligatory behaviour, and not necessarily reflective of a woman’s actual desires. Or having accepted an ideology of pity, that disabled bodies are inherently undesirable, and anyone who is disabled (or otherwise not-conventionally-attractive) should be grateful for sexual attention of any kind. It is not that hard for us to hurt each other without being monstrous in moral character.
So perhaps instead of just feeling heartbroken and helpless in the face of wrongs perpetuated only by others, it would be a good time to wonder about situations in which we have ignored boundaries to which we ought to have attended, or interpreted situations in line with our desires rather than another’s. But the point isn’t just to feel bad about this, either, or to treat it as just a sign of your own bad moral character. The point is that there is a reason that this behaviour is easy to ignore on your part, as well as on the part of others. It is easy to disbelieve that a friend has committed sexual assault because you know them to be at heart a good person, and think that the two things are incompatible with each other.
All of this needs to go. Guilt and shame are not ends in themselves here, and the mere recognition of our own wrongdoing is not enough. Recognizing wrongs in retrospect at times like these does not change the fact that many of these wrongs did not seem so wrong at the time. And it is this last fact that needs to change before these problems can be solved. Without that work, these confessions seem (as many other things do to me) like just more yelling into the void.