our words will not be heard
but when we are silent
we are still afraidSo it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive.”—Audre Lorde, “A Litany for Survival” (1978)“I came of age in the 60’s and 70’s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different,” wrote Harvey Weinstein in a statement to the New York Times on October 5, 2017. “That was the culture then.” The document is presented as a brief, unsigned one-pager, written in the gently curving letters of Microsoft Word’s default font, Calibri. I find myself hyper-fixating on the font as I read. It’s a bare step up from a Notes-app apology. You know the ones: saying little, meaning less, admitting nothing.
Elsewhere, it’s even worse: the official Twitter accounts of various news outlets regularly spit forth content like this tweet from NBC news, which states that “four members of the U.S. Navy have been accused of engaging in a sex [sic] with an underage girl on a naval base and recording and photographing the illicit encounter.” Those crimes, by the way, are colloquially referred to as “statutory rape” and “child pornography.”
These unquestioned mechanics of the “#MeToo movement” keep us from effectively seeing and responding to sexual violence as a structuring force in our society, and as part of a larger machinery of misogyny.
“You guys are all the same,” she had told him, “you guys are all the fucking same.” The internet went up in flames. Harassment in the workplace was one thing, but a national referendum on heterosexuality? What were we supposed to do, not have sex? Bari Weiss, with the New York Times feeding quarters into the back of her head, figured that if Grace had been assaulted, so had every woman, including Bari Weiss, which obviously wasn’t the case.
“What The Post and the New Yorker did is the very basis of good journalism. So is the important reporting from the Times and elsewhere on the extreme limits of the new FBI investigation, as dictated by the White House.
Post Executive Editor Martin Baron’s celebrated description of his paper’s approach to journalism in the Trump era — ‘We’re not at war, we’re at work’ — addresses this point.
Sullivan’s addition is true, and I can appreciate its flair. But I’ll venture to make my own addition: Her very point is part of the problem. What women need right now is exactly what journalism can’t give us: an organized resistance.As a feminist and a scholar of women’s studies, I often get the feeling that we are so collectively embarrassed by the failings of the second wave that we’ve disavowed the whole era—in order to avoid realizing our own failures, especially. But now, caught in the wave of a movement that could not in a million years be called “grassroots,” perhaps it’s time to look back. The anti-rape movements of the 70s and 80s learned from the civil rights and Black Power movements that came before them, instituting totally new-to-them ways of organizing: self-defense initiatives, street patrols, and survivor support networks.The creation of rape crisis centers and battered women’s shelters were the work of these movements. ( What 60s and 70s culture does Harvey Weinstein remember? How determinedly was he blocking his ears to the sound of their shouts?) By contrast to these movements, the endless cycle of neutral reporting and marches, the appeals to journalistic objectivity and to legislative indifference seem hopelessly staid.
I’ll dare to add: It’s not resistance, it’s reporting.”
The minor abuses of sexism become permissible, and possible, because of women’s ever-present (and ever-enforced) fear of violence. This is a structuring force in our world. It is overlaid with and shaped by the equally structuring forces of racism, and capitalism, and ableism, and cis-heterosexuality. Until we can grapple with this structure of violence, we can’t begin to understand the other violences that are informed by it: abuse within the queer community, or by women or nonbinary people against men. These are the realities of violence against women—messier, more complex, and more omnipresent than the rigors of journalistic standards can perhaps encompass.
“The social incentive given to rape is woven into the logic of the institutions of this society. It is an extremely efficient means of keeping women in a state of fear of rape or of the possibility of it. It is, as Susan Griffin wrote, ‘a form of mass terrorism.’ This, in turn, buttresses the general sense of powerlessness and passivity socially inflicted upon women, thus rendering them more easily exploitable.”
The insurmountable value of one man’s life is the silent implication underlying the entirety of the Brett Kavanagh hearings, as we watch the full weight of the American government come down on a woman for daring to say she has been harmed by its chosen one. The value of a man’s life is the foundational ethics of our country.But it’s never about one man’s life. Mackinnon’s claim that (as some have paraphrased it) sexual assault is a gendering force that asserts and imposes womanhood on its victim has been controversial; however, what does #YesAllWomen do but insist that gendered violence is constitutive of the experience of being a woman?
The value of a man’s life is the foundational ethics of our country.
If I have any hope, it is that this is where the current masses of angry women take us next: to furious activity, to outrageous creativity, to steadfast righteousness. And, yes, to excess. To overreach. My anger has filled my lungs and pricked my eyes for so many years that it transcends words; it is, at best, the shrill scream of a kettle sat on a burner too long.So let’s boil over. Enough simmering; enough compressing ourselves into moderation so our voices come out level. That’s not how they feel when they’re rattling against the walls of our chests, clamoring and chaotic. Let’s want more than is reasonable. Let’s reach, united and teetering, farther than the span of our arms. By all this I mean: we must not let ourselves be limited. We have enough generations of anger and love carried between us to throw the world out of balance.With thanks to Laura Ciolkowski’s Rape Culture Syllabus, and to Dr. Randi Nixon at the University of Alberta for sharing her course syllabus for WGS431: Feminism and Sexual Assault with me.