Taking the #MeToo conversation beyond sexual harassment

Chicago Women's March

Photo by Max Herman

Participants in the Women's March on Chicago demonstrate near Trump Tower on January 21, 2017.

Popping up in social media timelines, watercooler conversations and news stories like an unwanted brush of the knee or an uninvited whisper of sexual suggestion, the #MeToo phenomenon has certainly gotten on some people’s nerves. That is exactly what it should be doing.

The hashtag that started trending in the wake of sexual harassment and assault allegations levied against Hollywood movie mogul Harvey Weinstein has touched a nerve for women worldwide, from the United Kingdom, India and Brazil, from Australia to Pakistan. Now that we know the answer to the implicit question— harassment happens, a lot — what are we going to do about it?

The simple statement didn’t demand a backstory, as it bore witness enough: Women knew exactly what it meant. In truth, though, men also know, and it’s time to stop letting them off the hook, at work and everywhere else. Even men who don’t engage in behaviors that harm women physically, or thwart their mobility in school and the workplace, are familiar with this seamy aspect of culture and gender.

“I already know the prevalence of these experiences,” said Dawn Bounds, a psychiatric nurse practitioner and assistant professor at Rush University. “My own experience, my patients’ experiences … We’re talking about early-age adverse childhood experiences.”

This is a moment for women, regardless of race, religion or creed, to come together and stick together on a range of issues—like birth control access and the right to decide whether an abortion is appropriate for them—that lead to one important outcome: Respect. This is about a necessary paradigm shift in what it means to be a woman, and talking about sexual harassment and assault is just the beginning.

This moment is really about women’s agency and the belief that women — not men, not society — own their bodies and must decide what to do with them.

Filmmaker Luchina Fisher, a former Chicagoan, makes this clear in a new documentary she co-produced, “Birthright: A War Story,” recently screened here. The film expands our perspective by telling the stories of several women of varying ages, races and religions, connecting the dots between campaigns across the country that are designed to take control of women’s reproductive healthcare choices.

“Birthright” shows how everybody and every institution–including states, courts and religious organizations–has taken control over if and how a woman bears children, turning women into criminals in the process. No wonder men think they have a voice and a choice about women’s bodies: Everything we do and say reinforces this.

Reproductive options and sexual harassment may not seem to go together, but make no mistake, they do. As we’re clear rape is about power, so, too, is sexual harassment and assault. All of these issues are tied to an ethos that views women as property, too infantile to know what’s best for themselves.

If that sounds crazy, just look to the White House for confirmation that these attitudes are found in the highest quarters.

Because Weinstein is actually facing consequences — being fired by The Weinstein Company Board and kicked out of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — #MeToo has given women the courage to come out of the shadows and validate the pervasiveness of unwanted sexual advances. But has a lack of accountability in other cases led us into a place of silence, where it’s easier to let it go than fight against the oppressor, and where women who speak up face their own consequences?

It’s on us, men and women, to take this celebration of consequence and accountability for one man and make it really mean something for all men.

For Chicagoan Caroline Muslin Berkowitz, #MeToo connects to everyday bread-and-butter women’s issues, such as why women who seek a “reasonable salary” are doubted. “Because you know, her husband is a good earner — why does she need to make THAT much?” Berkowitz posted on Facebook.

And for Sara Shapiro-Plevan, a New York-based education consultant, #MeToo evokes the ways we allow women to be made to feel small. “I’m thinking about the ways in which we denigrate women’s work and contributions to our world, that we would never consider doing to men,” she said. “We use the same (or similar) language that we use when talking about a woman who is the victim of a rape.”

“When a woman is asked to work for free,” and she accepts, we say, “It would be good for her career, or it gives her needed exposure, ” Shapiro-Plevan said. “No. Let’s be careful with the way we use our language to debase women in every way.”

Let’s also be careful how we usher boys into manhood, Bounds says. “I feel like that’s where the conversation needs to go. It’s about men who are not doing this, raising a generation of boys who don’t do it.”

Now, some women are blanching at the potentially exploitive nature of a campaign that seemingly nudges women to bare all to share their stories. #MeToo broke the lock on shuttered memories: Sexual harassment has a way of seeping in, becoming a part of a girl or woman. Those events linger as part of a woman’s moral framework of what she will and won’t accept, whom to avoid, how she presents herself in subconscious ways she doesn’t even realize she’s doing over time.

Every mental adjustment is aimed at surviving the moment: Maintaining composure, appearing confident and competent, unflustered, as if the action never happened, letting the perpetrator off the hook. Whisper networks exist to share intelligence, like knowing which man is a foot fetishist at work. A practiced, casual laugh is mastered to make it through uncomfortable work meetings, until it just becomes … a way to be.

Lately I’ve noticed this in my own life, when in crowded spaces like a queue or the train. When a person inadvertently touches my knee or brushes my backside, epic memories awaken as those places feel more exposed. I shift to acknowledge the brief breach of social protocol. It often happens again. Do I chalk it up to a mistake? But my heart is literally racing with recollections of being touched, catcalled, cursed and objectified. It will pass, but in this moment I want these people to know how this makes me feel so they can momentarily empathize — or feel badly, too.

Now when this happens, I matter-of-factly say: “Constantly touching me like that makes me feel vulnerable. I would appreciate it if you stopped.”

It usually works because you know what? Me, too.