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.