The problem with #MeToo: awareness is not enough

By Eden Watkins

I have something horrible I want to write about, and I’m sorry, but I want you to read about it.

The language of sexual assault is changing, and the way we think about it is changing as well. Over the past several months, many wealthy and famous actors, comedians, and producers have been toppled by allegations of sexual misconduct, and thousands of women have added their names to the list of those who refuse to continue being ignored.

The first few to step forward empowered others to do the same, and the cycle repeated, and before long a broader movement developed, revealing sexual assault as a disturbingly common occurrence that must be identified and eradicated.

#MeToo is forcing people to confront something they were already aware of

In the wake of this vital awareness-raising, however, an unspoken assumption has developed behind how people discuss the issue: that if everyone knew how frequent sexual assault is, they would be horrified, and motivated to act.

I think that this is largely untrue. I think that the real impact of this new public discourse is not making something known that was previously unknown, but confronting people with something they were already aware of and didn’t like to think about.

Sexual assault is treated as something sad but unsolvable

I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s heard some men being described as “like that when they’re drunk”, or “a bit dodgy around women”, or “a real shark during freshers week”, all essentially euphemisms for the same thing: “If someone told me he’d forced himself on them, I would be sympathetic but ultimately not surprised.”

Phrases like this are often branded as normalising sexual assault, though such a description implies that, to most people at least, it was abnormal beforehand. On the contrary, it is normal; indeed, it is exactly this normalcy that makes it acceptable to people. It’s treated as something sad but unsolvable, like poverty or factory farming.

But the fact that we are desensitised to its horror does not mean we are excused from challenging it. The problem is that, broadly speaking, men feeling as if they have a right to sex and the use of violence of any kind to enforce that right isn’t something explicit or open that can be challenged easily; it appears from time to time on an individual level, and so has to be countered in the same way.

It is easier to condemn a Hollywood actor than a friend

On a large scale, when dealing with rich and powerful people in the public eye, standing in opposition to sexual assault briefly becomes simple and understandable. On a small scale, in a friendship group, workplace, or university campus, it becomes complicated and messy.

By writing a Facebook post or a tweet condemning a Hollywood actor you can stand up for what you believe without putting yourself at any personal risk; if a guy in your group chat rapes someone, that stops being true. That is how they get away with it, and they do. For the many high-profile men we’ve seen fall from grace this year, their time ran out, the bubble burst – but think about how long that bubble had been growing. The truly staggering thing about this recent wave of awareness, aside from its scale, is how long it took to come.

The allegations that have been made since November last year are about events that happened as recently as last month, and as distantly as fifty years ago. This delay was not the result of some statistical inevitability, or law of nature, but the compound effect of countless choices made by free agents in everyday situations.

The truly staggering thing about this awareness is how long it took to come

Think of all the people who chose not to ask, chose not to listen, or chose not to speak out for fear of not being listened to. Think of all of the bubbles that never grow big enough to burst at all. When you do, you realise that you are surrounded by them.

When the friends of sex offenders claim ignorance they are probably not lying in a technical sense, but at some point ignorance becomes more a choice than a predicament. What the #MeToo movement has achieved, what all allegations achieve, is drawing this point nearer and making it harder to ignore.

Now we have to face a darker reality, that ignorance has not been the only obstacle to action. As the terrible weight of consequences become clear, complacency degrades into complicity. They may not know when, or where, or even who it happens to, but they know it happens, they probably even know who’s doing it. They just choose to look the other way.

Photograph: GGADD via Flickr and Creative Commons 

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