Some funny things have come out of the #MeToo campaign. Okay, I use the word “funny” to describe things which have no humor about them.
The stated intent was to show victims of sexual assault they are not alone. This result may or may not have been achieved. We are certainly aware a large percentage of people, both women and men, have been comfortable enough to say “Me too.” This is enormous. Although the campaign was originally supposed to be about women, many men have come forward as well, uncovering the secret that any discussion about sex includes all sexes. Unfortunately, even with the barrier lowered from “experienced sexual assault” to “experienced sexual harassment,” the experiences have been exposed as, and this should come as no surprise, personal. One person’s assault is another person’s compliment. This has been difficult to digest for a digital world unaccustomed to nuance.
Society requires sensationalism. It is no longer satisfactory to say Susan doesn’t like Charlotte (who happens to be black), Susan is a racist. If Andy is uncomfortable with homosexuals he must be a homophobe. If Henry lets everyone in the room know he’s available he’s a sexual predator. If Cindy voted for a conservative she’s a NAZI.
One of the reasons a large number of victims of sexual assault did not come forward in the past is because they did not feel they would be believed. There are two parts to the reason they felt so. The first is because the primary defense to such accusations was to blame the victim, and in cases of sexual assault the psyche of the victim had already been crushed once. The second is that a fair number of accusations were false, because even the accusation is enough to destroy some lives; one false accusation can be used by countless defenders of the genuinely guilty.
I do not like to denigrate anyone’s pain. We all have different tolerances, and while in many of the experiences described as “sexual assault” no assault took place, the victim was damaged in some way. The important thing to remember is that damage does not refer to the act, only the result. If Charlie walks into the office and says “How is everyone today?” and Norma is having the very worst day of her life, Charlie did nothing wrong. Neither did Norma, until she claims Charlie harassed her by asking. Making claims of abuse when none has taken place is abusive in itself.
Some of the more abusive claims I have heard in the last few weeks have included a woman who claimed her assault took the form of a man referring to her as “honey.” One word, one time, no other context. Another woman claims to have been sexually assaulted by former President George H. W. Bush, four years ago when he was eighty nine and confined to a wheelchair. Mind you, in both these instances the word “assault” rather than “harassed” was used.
My own most frightening instance of sexual assault was only intimidation, there was no physical contact. I was twenty, driving an ice cream truck through the projects in California when I was surrounded by a gang of Chicanos. One reached through the window and removed the keys, a couple other ones started rocking the truck, tipping it enough the wheels would come off the ground, and the leader hung on the window telling me how they were going to “bone” me. As it was, I had another key and was able to escape, but I was terrified as I lived across the street from the projects and parked my truck out front, it was altogether possible they would see me at some point. I quit that job and moved across town about a month later. So I understand that no physical contact is required to create fear, but I maintain the threat of violence (in any form) is a requirement in order to designate assault.
I have been party to other conversations in which I was told that a difference of opinion threatened the person’s very existence. Fear is present, with no threat. Fear is beyond understanding, it is irrational, which is why it holds little legal standing.
This is why words are important. Assault is a crime, claiming you were assaulted implies someone committed a crime. Falsely accusing someone of a crime is a crime by itself. The lesson we should all learn from the #MeToo campaign is communication is crucial, and without words that have common meanings communication is impossible, often at the time it is needed the most.
It is fairly normal to be uncomfortable from time to time (sorry millennials). The level of that discomfort is the measure of trauma involved. I feel safe in saying everyone has at some point in their lives been uncomfortable in a sexual situation. This does not mean everyone has been sexually assaulted, what it means is that we all deal with life differently. Each and every one of us. My first “sexual assault” (different event, heterosexual) might be described as someone else’s fantasy; I was just unprepared that time and it was outside my desires. It was however an assault, I had no interest and the woman forced herself on me. I would never consider the millions of times I have been referred to with “terms of endearment” as sexual assaults, anyone who does is in need of psychological counseling as they are incapable of social interaction.
My hope is that the #MeToo campaign encourages conversations (dialogues rather than monologues), and those conversations create understandings. Some of those understandings are going to result in trust, some of them may result in discovering over sensitivity, most will result in growth. That would be a good thing, and the world needs some good things.