The #MeToo Moment and the Reproduction of Silence
Can we talk and listen at the same time?
On February 8, 2018, The New School hosted an event entitled “Sexual Harassment and Assault: Eros, Power, Violation, and Consent.” Psychologist Jeremy Safran moderated a panel featuring Lew Aron and Adrienne Harris from NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, Katie Gentile from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Lisa Rubin and Ali Shames-Dawson from the New School for Social Research, who together engaged the pressing ethical, political, and psychological questions arising from the #MeToo movement. This panel was meant to sketch — rather than answer — the most significant questions this moment brings to the fore, before transitioning into workshop style breakout groups. Below is the text of Ali Shames-Dawson’s contribution, with a post-script addressing audience commentary.
Good evening. While there is such an air of triumph in the sea change that we are to believe the #MeToo movement represents, I am rather stuck on the tremendous pain and hurt that pervades and yet seems to slip away from the conversation. While we speak urgently of our anger and indignation, grief as well as dread and confusion continue to be marginal to the public narrative. Although the Larry Nassar trial may stand against this claim, I am interested in what constitutes approved narratives and emotions, and what sorts of silences and exclusions are thereby reproduced.
In that vein, I want to acknowledge Black History Month, and the absence of black panelists this evening—even in well-meaning spaces, silences, invisibilities, and exclusions are reproduced.
Carol Gilligan wrote in her book Joining the Resistance of the myriad interviews she conducted with young women over the course of her career, noting that over and over again their speech was marked by repetitions of, “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.” She queries, “Where does it come from?” and answers,
Wherever it came from, it resided inside, becoming an inner voice mandating dissociation: don’t say this, don’t think this, don’t feel this. In short, don’t know what you know; ignore the promptings of your body and your emotions. Listen instead to the voices that tell you what is happening and what you should feel and think and say. Don’t listen to yourself.
The first time I read that it was chilling. I remember where I stood and how it felt. And now as I research women’s sexual agency, I too encounter women’s “not knowing” – not knowing their right to boundaries, not quite knowing how to sense what they feel or access the language to describe it, and still not knowing what level of discomfort they are supposed to ‘just put up with.’ It does not cease to be heartbreaking.
So we have a moment where women are speaking out and being believed – and what a moment it is — but the undertow of the old way is strong, and let us not be deceived as we were in the election of 2016 (not to mention in 2008) that the reality of the progressive intelligentsia pervades all strata of society. Who are we forgetting? The women of Ford, working-class women in male-dominated fields, trans women, women in poverty, women who face the indescribable horror of rape as a weapon of war — as the Rohingya women of Burma and the Yezidi women of Northern Iraq — and so on. Their stories seem a flash in the pan compared to our obsession with the glitterati and public executions of powerful men. And while important – as Catharine MacKinnon noted in her New York Times op-ed last weekend, the #MeToo movement is doing work that the law has yet to catch up with — I’m worried that spectacularizing the #MeToo movement threatens to distract us from the very real work to be done in our own lives. The takedown of the Weinsteins of the world is but a symbolic beginning to the process of healing the “mandated dissociation” that Carol Gilligan wrote about with such painful clarity.
The degree to which women are dissociated from their own desires, their bodily sense of self, hinges on the degree to which they are listened to, their voices are honored, they are encouraged to speak. Let us bear in mind, too, how socioeconomic and racial oppression are interwoven with sexual and gender violence, and how personal histories of abuse, neglect, abandonment, and experiences of intimate violence, while they are not visible markers of oppression, nevertheless color our perspectives, and indeed our physiology, framing individual differences in the experience of agency, access to self-determination, and to the language necessary to set boundaries.
Unfortunately, providing new scripts for sexual assertiveness does not spontaneously grant agency. In the complex space of desire especially, where risk and vulnerability will always be found, and where danger and pleasure intermingle in what has been called the feminist paradox, my sense of my possibilities for action is dependent upon my partner’s recognizing and responding to my attempts at communication, never mind the interference of confusing social messaging that pornifies sex and eroticizes violence. But to communicate, I’d have to know what I feel and what I have to say, and be given the time and space to work that out. What then, if we really hear Gilligan that at every turn young women are taught: “Don’t listen to yourself”?
I think that’s why when people critique the woman who told the Aziz Ansari story and say, “Why didn’t she leave sooner?” my heart breaks. It’s an achievement that she left at all.
And yet I am wary of diagnosing internalized patriarchy in women who hold contentious positions—like the Deneuves and the Merkins—because I don’t want to act as if I know the other better than she knows herself. I don’t want to regulate other women’s voices, nor wield theory like an oppressive rod. Catherine Deneuve’s face has been made into a meme of a battered woman, her face bloodied and bruised. There is so much grief that is getting expressed through vitriol, and I am wondering what it takes to reconfigure the space where women attack other women for holding positions that disagree with their own. I bristle when I hear “She’s dangerous,” about a woman who voices dissent, doubt, or dares to trouble the direction of the rushing tide. We are so swift to attack others for where they are in their meaning-making with such complicated, deeply painful and personal matters as those pertaining to desire, sexual history, voice, and agency.
Amongst my friends and colleagues, whispers and worries over what is okay to think and feel circulate, and, I think perniciously, stultify the honest working-through of this most complicated landscape. I have been fortunate to have mentors and professors who have created this space while I fumble to make sense of my feelings and reactions, but not everybody has that luxury. We are in danger of substituting one symptom for another, I’m afraid, if women are fearful that if they do not speak the approved narrative, they dare not speak at all.
As for the Deneuves and Merkins, I want us to try to understand what is valuable in what they have said, even if we find its delivery problematic: they are fearful that in amplifying a victim narrative we will write agency out of the equation. And Nicola Gavey – who studies sexual violence and has made a career of calling attention to coercive aspects of normative heterosexual encounters — voices the very same fear when she warns that we must remember the material effects of discourse on the body, lest we reinscribe the very narratives we are fighting to get out from under. In fact she puts a finer point on it, paraphrasing Sharon Marcus’s work: “reiterations of representations of women as passive and vulnerable and men as sexually aggressive may in fact actually render women’s bodies more rapeable, in a material sense, and men’s bodies more able to rape.”
So, for our work together, I ask the following:
1) How do we engage a radical critique of power without collapsing the possibility of agency?
2) How we as clinicians harness what we know about the delicate and complex nature of the change process and the challenge of listening to our work on social change of this magnitude?
3) How do we reckon with the fact that men are just as much subject to destructive formative myths as women are, and how can we attack the ills of patriarchy while working constructively with the boys and men we love?
4) Can we honestly confront the ways institutional silences and gag orders — meant to protect confidentiality — simultaneously disrupt meaning-making processes and reproduce shame, anxiety and self-doubt among marginalized members of communities, in essence, redistributing marginalization and silencing?
5) And finally, without shaming ourselves or others for missteps, can we each take seriously our own process of healing whatever level of “mandated dissociation” we’ve inherited from our social contexts and personal histories?
Post Script: During and after the event, many points of value were raised in response, which I would like to briefly outline here. First, to my suggestion that grief is more marginal an emotion than anger and indignation, it was suggested that women’s expression of anger—and its reception in the public sphere–is an achievement after being relegated to feeling only sadness or melancholia. The anger we see dazzling at center stage, the point was made, is evidence of a recovery of a long-disavowed aggression, and we all know women’s aggression has not been tolerated well within patriarchy. I certainly don’t disagree, but my point was simply that the approved public emotion – the emotion that captures attention, gets heard, made space for – is an historically “male” emotion, such that there is evidence of a patriarchal logic continuing to structure the meaning-making process in public space. Grief and sadness are still figured as ‘lesser.’
Secondly, it was suggested that to classify women’s speech marked by “I don’t know” as necessarily bad forecloses the recognition that admissions of not knowing are important and useful, and perhaps women are pointing the way to a valuable counter-hegemonic attitude toward knowing or having-to-know. Also a good point; however, in this case it would seem that the young women Carol Gilligan had interviewed had not found power in not knowing, had not found spaces in which not knowing was deemed honorable, but instead would state how they felt or what they thought and then quickly diminish/undermine it by punctuating it with “I don’t know.” It’s probably important to distinguish between genuine, generative humility and constant, subtle self-abnegation. If women are more likely to show humility in the face of what they genuinely do not know, which tends to be the common read of gender dynamics in academia as well as elsewhere, then what will it take to flip the cultural standard that values knowing over the admission that one does not know?
And finally, it was rightly mentioned that men and boys are “disciplined” just the same, subject to powerful heteronormative scripts that distance them from themselves just as girls are distanced from themselves. This has been well documented: boys are taught to deny their feelings, their need for closeness, their wish for safety and security — especially within male friendships — and any vulnerability or desire for tenderness; indeed, there is a “mandated dissociation” at play for boys and men as well. In the name of masculinity, rather than submit, they are taught to grab power; rather than to be agnostic, they are taught to claim certainty; and rather than to doubt themselves, they are taught never to show self-doubt, even when they should. These learned behavior patterns in turn reinforce women’s submission, not knowing, and self-doubt. That is why Deborah Tolman and colleagues have developed Adrienne Rich’s notion of “compulsory heterosexuality” in a model of adolescent sexual health that acknowledges “gender complementarity” — for instance, elucidating the link between homophobia and heterosexual coercion — to highlight the ways in which “masculinity and femininity are constructed and deployed in ways that appear to diminish boys’ and girls’ humanity and potential for healthy romantic and sexual relationships.”
So let’s get to work.