I’ve been sitting uneasily with the #MeToo movement. I believe in calling out sexual harassment, sexual assault or sexual misconduct. Indeed, my spirit needs us to do so. But #MeToo doesn’t leave enough room for me to operate as an agent. To be sure, I have been victim. I’m not sure I know an adult woman in the US who can’t name various small or large moments of sexual harm. The first experience of sexual victim-hood that I can remember was one that I was not yet old enough to understand. I was in middle school and a male student behind me kept kicking me in the butt through the small opening in the back of my desk. No matter how many times I asked him to stop, he wouldn’t. I finally went to the teacher and requested that he tell him to stop. The teacher turned bright red and I could tell he was embarrassed although I didn’t immediately know why. The boy snickered and got high fives. I didn’t understand what was happening, but I knew I felt shame and embarrassment, both at my naiveté and also that my body could be the thing that elicited the whole scene. That was a small moment. I have some large ones too. From high school and college, from my first job after graduate school, from the supermarket just after I gave birth to my first daughter… I could go on and on. We all could. For the permission #MeToo has given us to begin telling these stories openly, I’m thankful.
But #MeToo needs a corollary. A space where women can tell their stories of being powerful agents even in the face of abuse. We need to tell the stories of the ways we’ve responded to abuse both when those responses were righteous and when they weren’t. Right now, the social script for #MeToo dictates two choices: woman resists and is punished or woman doesn’t resist. This doesn’t leave a lot of room for the breadth and depth of the human experience of oppression and power.
Many years ago, I was on an El Al flight returning from London to New York. The seat in front of mine remained empty, despite the flight being sold out. Just before the cabin doors closed, an ultra-orthodox man came bustling down the aisle carrying with him a very large roller bag. It was clear that it was too heavy for him and my instinct was to help him put in the bin. I started to offer but realized that he was refusing to acknowledge me because I was a woman. His interpretation of his religious tradition forbid him from seeing me or engaging with me. So, I waited for the man on the other side of the aisle to offer to assist. Before that could happen, the religious man hefted his suitcase, lost his grip and smashed it into the side of the head of the woman passenger in the middle seat. She was injured and pissed off. She demanded an apology. He just stood awkwardly unable to acknowledge her. She used his patriarchal silence to amplify her own voice. She took the opportunity to let the entire plane know what she thought of his behavior and his interpretation of Judaism; an interpretation that would allow him to harm her but not allow him to apologize to her for that harm. She made it known that she was a Jew too and just as religious as he and that he was morally responsible for his interpretation of religion as much as he was for hurting her. She was harmed, but she was powerful. When she finished, the people on the plane clapped.
Also many years ago, I was at work when two male colleagues, people with whom I worked closely and to whom I felt quite close, began comparing my body to that of my two sisters. I was completely taken by surprise. I was shocked to learn that men really talked like this. I was shocked they felt permission– felt that I would be “cool” with the conversation. I felt let down that decent men who worked hard to do good in the world still talked about the women in their lives in this way. I told them to shut up. I let them know that what they were saying was degrading and embarrassing and filled me with shame. I told them this in language that I cannot repeat here. They did shut up. Because they are flawed but decent people, they were embarrassed and ashamed of themselves. I could see them recognize their own thoughtless evil. I don’t know that they were transformed, but I certainly was more than just a victim. #MeToo isn’t the right hashtag for this story. Or it isn’t the only right hashtag.
I need a hashtag that holds in tension both being a victim and claiming the power of a response to abuse. Of course, I need to acknowledge the privileged place in which I stand. In both of these stories, the women at the center were professional white women. I don’t know the woman on the plane, but she had enough money to fly internationally and felt permission to proclaim her truth, so I feel comfortable saying that we both have a lot of privilege that is not shared with all women in all places. I don’t demand that every woman be both victim and triumphant agent. I don’t demand that every response to abuse be one for which people clap. But I do demand that we talk about the responses and the ways our responses resist the simple narrative of victim-hood. Not every story is a story of resistance, of course. Sometimes, we really and truly are just the victims. I am aware that I operate from a position of privilege that makes it easier to think of and speak about resistance than others. My experiences of sexual harm are nothing alongside the daily experience of too many women and girls.
Still, I believe that the victims of oppression can and do find ways to resist. Not every time and not always in public ways. Sometimes you are Moira Donegan and you begin a spreadsheet. Sometimes you whisper to the other women around you what you can’t say publicly. Sometimes you speak your truth before those around you are ready to hear it, like Anita Hill. I’m not trying to critique #MeToo. I’m only identifying a need Tarana Burke has spoken about at length and with greater depth than I can here. #MeToo was designed to create solidarity for young women of color around sexual violence. It was a means, not an end. It is the larger social tsunami that has taken it out of its context and created the something to which I can’t help but respond today. From the beginning #MeToo has required that something follow it. My hope is that what follows be something that resists, something that amplifies agency and something that fuels the fire for change.
Resistance, by its nature as the underdog, is creative and filled with energy. Resistance is life-giving. I need the stories of Ellen Pao, and Susan Fowler, and Tarana Burke, but I need the stories of the lawsuits and the blog posts and the years of activism even more. I need visions of women who resisted and who lived. I need to know the ways my sisters have taken action. We need to tell those stories just as much as we need to tell the stories of being victims. I think we might even need them more. I need stories of women who didn’t have a chance to say “no” but fought back in other ways. I need the stories of women who held men accountable to the harm after it was done, in small ways and in big ways.
My faith calls me to hope. Even when I don’t feel like it. I have to believe that God is not just with the victim in her hurt, shame and anger, but also in her actions afterwards. I need to believe God is in the power of speaking the truth and demanding justice. I need to believe that God is with the ones who can’t yet speak out and also with the ones who can’t stop speaking out. I need all of the stories.