To square up to the sexual abuse revelations of 2017 we must discover our shared humanity.
Harvey Weinstein. Photo: Mandoga Media / Alamy Stock Photo
I remember being asked a question once in a group therapy session. The question was: "Do you feel that being a woman is the defining aspect of who you are as a person?" I didn’t know how to respond, so obvious was the answer. No matter what I would like to imagine myself as, what traits I would like to attribute to myself, I am nothing but a woman.
I thought for a long time that fighting against particular injustices I have experienced as a woman would help me evade this feeling. I realised for the first time this year how little speaking of these things had impacted me in any way. I realised it when the repercussions of the Harvey Weinstein affair began to actually take effect. Men were being pilloried, were being fired, were being investigated for their sexual transgressions, and aside from a removed feeling of relief for their particular victims, those individuals, I felt nothing.
Surely this is what we – I – had wanted all this time: for there to be real and measurable consequences to sexual harassment, assault and rape? I kept on expecting to feel something, seeing the high profile humiliations and condemnations. But it never came – the relief, the decompression.
It often seems absurd to me that women are expected to be placated by legal or otherwise formal responses to their abuse. We should not have to shoulder the burden of the long and horrific history of inadequate legal procedures. There are many abused women who are well aware of the brutal, racialised inhumanity of prosecution and of prisons – there are many abused women who abhor the police. But we are forced to work within the legal system, because there is no other obvious barometer with which to prove how obscenely common and devalued acts of sexual violence are.
Sometimes I try to think about what life would be like without these things to constantly take into account, but it’s like trying to imagine what the world would be like with no ocean, or no animals. Would there be life, society, as we experience it now, without this perpetual remembrance of past sexualised traumas, our fear of those yet to come?
What I have learned in 2017, from the post-Weinstein reckoning, is that what we are trying to talk about is so much bigger than what we are actually talking about. It’s made me see how laughably inadequate individual legal repercussions are. It’s entirely understandable that, at various points throughout history, we have believed that parity was being achieved – when women got the vote, when marital rape was outlawed, when equal pay was enshrined in law. But it seems so clear to me now that functional, compulsory, legal changes like these could hardly touch on the unfathomable hatred of women, which has defined us forever.
Men have hated women forever. The reality of this hatred – how it is expressed and lived every day – is so insidious and tragic and far-reaching that it's no wonder we can’t see it fully. Some of us don’t see it at all. Some of us can only look at it through certain prisms. But almost none of us can afford to see it for what it is. We can’t look at it directly or we would all be blinded.
The inability to see it breeds disbelief. It hardly seems credible that there are so many men in the world committing heinous acts – but this is only so if you view them as aberrations instead of pillars; as mutations instead of building-block cells of a very dangerous and sick animal that has been alive for too long.
The only accepted expression of the pain that our culture causes to its chosen losers is rape. It is enshrined as the purest – the only – example of that kind of gendered pain. Our psychotic culture has entire television shows dedicated to the investigation of sexual crimes, which are judged to be more heinous than crimes of other sorts. But this exceptionalism sits in the context of wilfully ignoring the multitude of other iterations that surround and support it.
What happens next? We have not yet understood, en masse, how we will respond to the men who hurt us, in all the varying and creative ways that they do. We have not decided who it is correct to exclude, and for how long. We have not decided who can be rehabilitated, or in what way we believe they should be. It goes against everything I believe, everything I want to believe, to say that someone who has wronged can never be redeemed. And yet it remains true that I have no idea how to be in the same room as a man I know to have been sexually violent.
As we leave 2017, the next year is just as dark to look out into. But in the upset of this moment, in its unknowability, its chaotic distress, lies a chance.
I recently read a climate change apocalypse account which suggested that, in these days, the end of humanity as we know it approaching inexorably, we can either give up or try to imagine an entirely different way of living. And so it is with this: we look out into the persistent darkness, squinting at its familiar shapes – the ones our mothers told us about, the ones which have propped up our entire lives – but we can try to reckon with the scale of what has led us to this moment, the millennia, the bodies, the blood. And ownership, what we consider property, which sparked what we now call patriarchy. We can and must reckon with that too.
We must try now to see it for what it really is, has always been, like a magic eye poster which has finally revealed its secret image because we have stared long enough; something that makes up our lives and always has. If we see it all, finally, is there the chance that we will tear it down?
There is so far to go back, so much to undo. But the things that divide us are so much more porous than we once knew. What we call men and women have much more in common than we have dividing us. There is a true and real shared humanity glittering just out of reach.
What we build, blindly, in the poisonous darkness we find ourselves in now, what we build – it really could be anything. It really could be anything we imagine it to be.