FeatureFirst DraftsLetters

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.

Also for you:

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?

Previous post

Caroling at the White House with the Seven Forbidden Words

Next post

No-Platforming, “Unite the Right,” and New Free Speech Debate