An active culture of predation
The year, 2017, began with the 'Women's March' on Washington DC and ended with the 'Me Too' campaign combined with the ignominious sexual assault allegations in Hollywood against the producer, Harvey Weinstein, and many other male actors. A shared narrative evolved globally where women realized that their individual powerlessness was, with voice, collective strength. Perhaps without social media this playing field would not have changed for women. There are two points I wish to discuss in this piece. First, why are so many women, who have faced sexual harassment and/or assault, much more comfortable telling their story on social media as opposed to resorting to the institutions of the State? Second, why have some women denounced the 'Me Too' campaign?
Today there exists a binary between our real lives and our online ones. Most of us now inhabit two universes - one where we are bound by constraints of society and State, and a second one where our selves are no longer limited by tradition, geography, language or law. Social media has provided many marginalized voices a platform to be heard and to be taken seriously. However, it has also raised the issue of credibility. What is 'real' in a virtual world? What constitutes a fact in the virtual world?
What we cannot overlook is that victims, the marginalized and those without power, who cannot access State institutions and seek justice, are using social media as a proxy to address their particular condition of victimhood. What this demonstrates is that traditional networks of State and society to provide justice, bear witness and administer therapy for a victim have failed globally. Also, victims want to be heard fairly, and they need access to the tools required to regain a sense of equilibrium in their lives.
Social media provides these tools. For victim/survivors of assault, social media is a universe where they can seek justice, they can express outrage, they can speak, and they are always heard. They know they are being heard, either positively or negatively, by the numbers of likes/emotions their story gets. Social media has made power asymmetries between men and women a little more equal.
For a victim of sexual assault and harassment, sometimes this is the starting point on a long road to recovery, for there is power in speech and in telling one's story to an audience that cannot jail a culprit but can definitely listen and demonstrate feeling. Sometimes knowing that people stand by them is a step towards regaining control of their daily lives after an assault.
If there is consensus that the 'Me Too' campaign was a success, then why has it faced a backlash? In a recent letter to the French publication, Le Monde, a group of 100 women, including the French actress, Catherine Deneuve, the French writer, Catherine Millet, and the German actress, Ingrid Caven, signed an open letter which says, "Rape is a crime. But insistent or clumsy flirting is not a crime, nor is gallantry a chauvinist aggression." The letter further says, "This expedited justice already has its victims, men prevented from practicing their profession as punishment, forced to resign, etc., while the only thing they did wrong was touching a knee, trying to steal a kiss, or speaking about 'intimate' things at a work dinner, or sending messages with sexual connotations to a woman whose feelings were not mutual." They defend men's "freedom to bother" as "indispensable to sexual freedom".
We need to take this letter seriously for the following reasons. First, it reveals a massive generation gap between women of older generations, who seem to have missed the memo on what constitutes sexual harassment, and younger women. Second, the letter conflates male sexuality with being necessarily aggressive and bothersome to women and contends that this is normal. Sexual harassment of women and flouting laws that protect women is a rite of passage for many men in most countries, like India. This open letter expresses a disconcerting level of comfort with male criminal behaviour. Finally, there is a way in which the letter resurrects a world view where the only way a woman could get ahead in life was through male attention given to a woman for superficial physical traits. By dismissing knee-touching, or "stolen" kisses as not constitutive of harassment, the women dismiss the claims of victim/survivors and write, "accidents that can affect a woman's body do not necessarily affect her dignity and must not, as hard as they can be, necessarily make her a perpetual victim."
Sexual harassment and assault are not "accidents". They are premeditated crimes that have far-reaching impacts on victim/survivors. By asking women to take such behaviour in their stride, the letter and the women who have signed it are creating the space for sexual predation to remain as an active cultural force. At a time when a powerful Oprah Winfrey bellowed at assaulters during a speech that their time is up, this letter reminds us that it really isn't and that many women see aggressive male sexuality as an affirmation of their own sexuality. It remains to be seen how this inter-gender and intra-gender war will evolve in 2018.