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The Reckoning

Sexual harassment, #MeToo, and the pain of radical change

This is a time of soul searching for men. It is a time of risk and bravery for both women and men. It is not fun for anyone. It is painful and scary and traumatizing and re-traumatizing. It is disruptive and destructive. Friends will be lost. Families will be torn up. Communities will be fractured.

But this is the only way, because threaded throughout our friendships and professional networks and communities and yes, even families, were agreements that were deadly to people’s bodies and minds and lives. Complicity, secrecy, denial, acceptance of the unacceptable — all were woven into the fabric of our lives. There is no way to root it out without disruption.

We don’t know yet what will survive, but it is clear that there will be collateral damage. But women and men who come forward are overwhelmingly taking a huge risk in doing so. They did not do so before because the risk was untenable. They do so now in solidarity with the brave silence breakers who began this moment. There have been many, for years, for decades, who told their stories before the moment when the spark caught flame. Every social movement has its precedents — the truth tellers, the early resisters, the lone voices shouting in the wilderness. We would not be here without them. But for reasons no one can accurately predict, some sparks die out. Some flare up briefly. And some catch flame and spread. And this is that moment.

It is not hysteria. It is not a witch-hunt. It is a moment of widespread cultural reckoning. Every woman I know senses this as a moment of urgency. I have heard many times expressed the fear that it will be over tomorrow — just a flash, just a momentary cultural drama — and nothing will really change. But every day, a new story is told, and somehow, someway, people are listening. So we keep speaking. We feel compelled to do so — for all those who can’t, for our children, for the younger generations, for those who will come after us in our professions, for those we are mentoring right now. We all sense that it is now or never. So we speak.

We speak even though we don’t want to. Our hearts pound, or families object, our colleagues beg us not to. And we suffer for it. We get death threats. We are doubted. Our reputations are dragged through the mud. This is not a party.

So it is important, I believe, to remember what we are aiming for. We are aiming for a move toward wholeness. We are aiming toward reaffirming those broken friendships, those shattered social and professional networks, those damaged families — remaking them, rebuilding them in ways that affirm all of our humanity. We are aiming for a world — expressed in every corner of our lives — in which no one has to accept abuse to be employed, to create, to have an education, to be loved. This is a lofty goal, but this is really what all of these stories and the demands they imply are reaching for. Relationships or structures that include or require denial of anyone’s humanity contain a toxin that will eventually poison everyone involved. Survivors often survive, but we pay a heavy cost. We may not see the benefit of this moment of reckoning. But we speak anyway, because we know that others will. We also speak anyway, because doing so restores our humanity.

The compromise we made before was always untenable. It made us sick — literally. But there was no hope of significant change, so the risk was untenable too. Now there is just the slightest tip toward the possibility of real change, and look how many are giving up their compromise.

I’m writing this because the reckoning is bigger than what we see in the news. It has to be, and it can’t not be. It is spreading into realms that won’t ever be reported on. It is connected to racism and economic inequality and domestic abuse. It is connected to toxic masculinity and misogyny in women’s culture and female friendships. It is woven throughout everything. It will frighten us. It will hurt us. It will cause disruption among family and community in ways that don’t immediately seem connected to the professional contexts in which this reckoning is mostly taking place.

But every woman I know knows that this is the case. We feel it. We know that the sexual harassment on the job is only the tip of the iceberg. We know that sexual assault is far more widespread than even the #metoo campaign has revealed. And we know that sexual harassment and assault is built on a thousand other dehumanizing, objectifying, and completely mundane dynamics and experiences. And the men and boys who have experienced sexual abuse and harassment at the hands of people (mostly men) more powerful than they are also suffer from this toxic foundation that shapes the lives of every woman and girl. They are standing with us and coming forward, and they are aware of those connections.

Those who are surprised have been allowed to be. Protected by their privilege, many are nonetheless our allies, or potentially so. But to be an ally, each has to be willing to abide the depth of the disruption. Chaos and destruction is not the aim. But reimagining, reconstructing, and eventually rebuilding can only come when the rotting beams are removed from the structure. And many houses will fall in the process. It can be no other way.

Jessica Delgado is an assistant professor of Religion at Princeton University. Her PhD is in Latin American history, and she teaches and writes about women, gender, sexuality, race, and religion in Mexico.

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Jessica Delgado

  • spherical

    This has been bothering me since you accused me of being a troll and I have to get it out. I agape love and respect you. You are my archetype for earnestness and righteousness.

    Now let me tell you my story. When we went to school I was taught to never hit girls, yet girls did hit me. Mindy Calegari chipped my tooth by throwing a thermos at my face at point blank range, I still have a chip on my front top tooth. Celeste Guaraglia whipped my balls with a power line, sending me to the doctor. I never fought back. Later, my virginity was taken by a more experienced girl when I was so drunk that I could neither talk, stand nor consent; you would call it rape. Later, while living in Washington D.C. as a 16 year old intern, two older women, one 22 and one 26 had sex with me; you would also call this rape. Throughout my life I have been groped by both women and men. My one and only fiance would regularly punch me in the face with closed fists and knee me in the balls. Occasionally women have offered me benefits if I would have sex with them. Sometimes I accepted these offers and more often I declined. As a man I have been in several bar fights, usually while protecting the honor of women like Kristen Noel (nee Gilmore).

    So I have been raped at least three times, beat up by men over women and battered by women, but I am not a victim and I look for no restitution. I grow stronger with each negative encounter. I now defend myself against any attack. I have overcome the conditioning society puts on men to be the perennial punching bag. If women want to be equal to men, they too must take personal responsibility. If someone offers you a benefit for sexual favors then you have three choices: accept, decline or narc. I do not consider accepting, taking the benefits offered and then later narcing as a valid option. If women require special dispensation and treatment, then they require segregation. If women want to be a part of our adult world then they need to act like it and stop complaining to higher authorities for redress. Women weaken themselves by crying wolf over minor transgressions from decades past. You are creating injury where none existed previously. For your own welfare you should stop this nonsense.

    P.S. The results of the whole #metoo has been amusing from the perspective of the right because it is the left eating itself. The left has lost politicians, entertainers, producers and more while the right has only lost one politician.

  • Mitchell

    I worry that this isn’t playing out as benignly as this author hopes. The other day, I was driving in my car, listening to the new, stunted “Prairie Home Companion,” thinking of the Orwellian erasure of Garrison Keillor. I was also thinking about the need for every man to keep his head down while merely walking the streets (like a Black man in the Jim Crow era), to avert allegations of “the male gaze.”

    Where the issue is legitimate, it isn’t really about sexuality or gender; it’s about power. Is it “sexual” harassment that every underling in every job is expected to kiss a$$? In that sense, the most basic structural timbers of our society are rotten. Talk about the need for radical change — and the ways in which a true reckoning with that need are currently being deflected!

    After all, we’ve meanwhile entered a neo-Victorian era when — Glory Hallelujah! — sex is dirty again, when every hug or kiss must be litigated, when “unwanted” eye contact is conflated with rape.

    Where are the likes of Allen Ginsberg or Lenny Bruce now that we need them?

    • Jessica Delgado

      One of the central points I wanted to make is exactly that this movement isn’t, won’t be, can’t be benign, and that this will be painful and that this will be messy. Another of the central points I wanted to make is that this movement is absolutely not just about sex, nor just about one type of exploitation and abuse. Rather, it is connected to a multitude of other expressions of unequal power. We need many conversations, and there are many moments where those conversations can start. Who is the “one party” you are envisioning as saying, “shut up and listen!” I don’t see a unified block of #MeTooers silencing anyone. Rather I see a thousands of women and dozens of men who have been silenced and shamed for so long, saying, “I will not shut up! I will shout, and I will speak, and if you want to listen, listen. If not, I will speak anyways.” I see thousands of women and dozens of men saying, “I was hurt, but I survived, and I WANT to talk about this. We NEED to talk about this.” Insisting on speaking one’s truth is not silencing others.

      I am disheartened every time I hear this movement described as anti-sex or anti-erotic or prudish. It is nothing of the sort. Unless sex and sexy and the erotic is fundamentally defined as coercive and related to unequal power dynamics, then there is nothing anti-sex, sexy, or erotic about what people are calling out. There is plenty of room for every kind of play and kink and sex positive engagement and expression within a concept of positive consent. Yes means yes, and if we want to free ourselves from “neo-victorian” prudishness, then we shouldn’t settle for anything less than “hell yes!” in our sexual interactions.

      There will be collateral damage. There will be innocents wrongly accused. There will be people who take advantage of this movement. There will be harm caused that is not just. That is part of what I was writing about. I am not happy about that. I am not advocating a blind stampede. But I am acknowledging that when so much is built so fundamentally on abusive, dehumanizing power dynamics that have been forcefully kept an “open secret,” to make it visible, to bring it into the light is devastatingly disruptive. There is no path forward that is gentle and smooth. This is going to hurt. And we should all do our best to talk to each other, to learn, to listen, maybe even to forgive. But there is so very much listening that needs to happen–so many amends, so much change. “Shut up and listen,” is not what I hear people saying. I hear them saying, “God dammit, I’m not going to shut up any more. I’m going to scream it and sing it and dance it and burn it down. And if you want to come with me to build something new, you will listen and try to understand. If not, I’ll speak anyway.” That is very different. Very different indeed.

  • Mitchell

    This is in reply to a post by Jessica Delgado that (in the course of writing) appears to have been removed. I hope it contributes to further dialog, and I invite a response:

    FWIW, I’m more fearful of rejection than I am of “unwanted affections”
    and I’ve been hurt far more profoundly (and far
    more often) by the former than by the latter.
    In the
    gay world, those deemed to be (or
    who deem themselves to be)
    desirable all-too-often wield their attractiveness as a weapon, and
    invoke it as a license to be manipulative and cruel. The onus falls on
    desire itself; for the object of desire, disdain gets to pose as
    “unsullied innocence.”

    At age 68, those are the “dehumanizing
    power dynamics” I’ve experienced most consistently (regarding sexuality)
    over the course of my life. That’s the ground on which I’ve struggled
    to recognize my own attractiveness and self-esteem.

    By over-generalizing, you’ve poured salt in some very real wounds.

    Furthermore,
    despite the claims of many feminists (and others), my life as a gay
    activist has been devoted to the liberation of an aspect of male
    sexuality — and, for that matter, to repudiating the very notion of
    “gender identity” as among its (deplorable) fetters. I accept ostensibly
    “feminine” feelings as fully appropriate in a male body (and, indeed,
    in that context I’ve struggled to respect my body as such. (I’m a gay
    male; I’m not “LGBTQIA+” — or, as I once had to explain to my
    [well-meaning] mother, “Mom, I’m not ‘lesbian and gay.'” Sex may not be
    dirty, but politics has always been a dirty business.)

    “God
    dammit, I’m not going to shut up any more.” Now that (I hope) I have
    your attention (and, I hope, your respect as more
    than an unfortunate object of “collateral damage”), I’ll simply invite
    an open dialogue regarding the above. Hoping against hope — despite my
    experience with the howling “#metoo” mob, I won’t try to drown you out
    or shout you down.

    2) Given these disparate experiences, why are
    we talking about sexuality in the first place? As I’ve noted, power
    dynamics are indeed a pervasive problem in business — and throughout
    much of social life. Focusing on their operation in the realm of sex is
    merely a gaudy distraction that deflects attention from the full extent
    of the underlying abuse — the oppressive nature of hierarchy and the
    overall abuse of power itself.

    3) Is the default always, “No,
    until you hear yes”? Why? Is sex undesirable, by default — that is,
    except in those specific instances where it is declared otherwise?

    “Affirmative
    consent” can be taken to mean that we are all untouchable unless a
    touch is explicitly invited. Must every hug be litigated? Is there no
    such thing as warmth, or context — let alone spontaneity? How have we
    lost our abiiity to trust?

    Once upon a time, “freedom” meant
    “absence of constraint”; these days, it’s increasingly coming to mean
    “denial of access.” A focus on openness and expansiveness (a
    Whitmanesque vision of freedom) has been supplanted by the sense that,
    first and foremost (by default), we have cause for fear.

    That fear might indeed be legitimate — but if so (in my humble opinion), it’s symptomatic of a society that’s past its prime.

    Empathy
    or trust is a matter of balance. To me, such a balance means that “If
    someone does not mean me harm, they’re permitted to touch my body.” (If
    he’s cute, he’s more than permitted — he’s implicitly invited! — and
    it’s far more rewarding if I don’t need to ask!)

    The alternative
    is a notion of personal “sovereignty” that (by default) sees itself as
    subject to violation and plunder, thus constantly under attack.

    Ironically,
    this attitude has now infested both sides in the “culture wars.” As I’m
    fond of saying to my cat, “Lucy, I don’t think we’re in Woodstock
    anymore.” That’s far more than “collateral damage.”

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