#MeToo and Liberation for All

“I want to kiss you all over your smile.”

The poetic beauty struck me even while my entire body was contracting. The man speaking was drunk. I had asked him several times to stop calling me, at least not so late. He was married, with four children, 20 years my senior, and the president of the company I was working for at the time. I was in my late 20s. It was 1984.

Somehow, between the persistence of the phone calls and my repeated attempts to create boundaries while being human and caring, an unlikely friendship developed. Maybe because I was touched by the vulnerability at his core, or inspired by his brilliance and apparent openness. Slowly and painfully I realized, like so many women before and after me, that maintaining the budding friendship would require succumbing to the sexual overtures. I remember the moment of saying straight into his eyes: “Do you really want me to kiss you even if I don’t want to?” I was so shocked by his insistence in the face of my disinterest, that I lost my will; as if being seen solely as an instrument for his pleasure actually made me less of a person in my own right.

A relationship of two years emerged. It had its moments of true intimacy. And it was a difficult and complicated relationship. When the time came to end it, he predictably asked me to resign. I, unpredictably, declined. I loved my job and didn’t want to lose it. He protested, insisting that it would be difficult for him to see me daily after the breakup. I told him he could fire me, and that I would speak about why. To this day, I am astounded by my matter-of-fact courage.

Two years later, I discovered the literature on sexual harassment. My world exploded in understanding of what had happened; one of my own pivotal #MeToo moments. Even then, I knew I was relatively lucky. No ruined career. No watching him continue, with impunity, to victimize others.

Now, as so many more women are coming forward, the scope and severity of the issue are clear: nine out of ten restaurant workers in the US experience sexual harassment, for example, as reported in The Glass Floor. What, then, are we to do about the magnitude of sexual violence against women and its impacts?

Since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, most of the response I’ve seen has been as follows: find all the ‘bad apples’ and punish them sufficiently, leaving only the ‘good men’ behind, the ones that Heather Wilhelm describes as “normal human beings with operating empathy sensors and competent command of every basic human emotion.”

Even in articles I’ve found deep and refreshing, like this one from Rebecca Traister, there’s always a push towards punishment: “without real, genuine penalties on the line, without generations of men fearing that if they abuse their power, if they treat women like shit, they’ll be out of jobs, shamed, their families devastated — without that actual, electric, dangerous possibility: Nothing. Will. Change.”

As Dominic Barter of Restorative Circles told me recently, “so much of what’s being written about the subject at the moment only gives the options of silencing or condemning. As long as personalized condemnation is the only reaction that is validated, I have little faith in change.”

Most people seem to believe both that punishing men is successful at protecting and supporting women, and that nothing other than punishment could be. I question both. Punishment addresses neither the effects nor the causes of harm done. For one thing, punishment is directed at the person who harassed, assaulted, or raped, without any attention given to the person who was harmed and to what will happen with them. Even civil suits only offer financial compensation, as if money can act to restore what was broken in human relationships and trust.

With regards to the causes of harm, punishing ‘bad apples’ won’t transform the situation that so many women face on a daily basis, even if some specific men in positions of great power and visibility are fired or charges are pressed against them. Although those particular individuals may no longer pose a threat to women, at least temporarily, the problem is much more prevalent than a few people at the top. Punishment doesn’t deal with the underlying problem nor lead to change that is deep enough to transform the root causes of male violence.

A focus on individual punishment ignores the vicious brutalization that is the socialization of boys, resulting in cutting men off from the experiences of empathy that all boys and men, just like girls and women, need for healthy human development. It also creates anxiety in men, who, by virtue of being human, want to be seen for their own goodness. It can lead to defensiveness, questioning women, or aiming to prove that #NotAllMen are involved. It perpetuates separation and isolation for men, and feeds the continuing cycles of abuse against women. Ultimately, advocating for punitive measures is based on the notion that there is something fundamentally problematic in all or some men, and that only deterrence through fear will alter men’s behavior. If, instead, we believe (as I do) that sexual predation is culturally created and condoned rather than biologically innate, then a different approach makes more sense, one that creates enough space for truth to come forth and for transformation to occur.

An alternative to the bad apple thesis is to identify root causes and transform the conditions that sustain them. That means shifting from an individual to a systemic lens, and from a punitive to a restorative response. It means examining the patriarchal scripts and training within which sexual harassment is nurtured and persists. Without this systemic lens, it’s impossible to understand how men who are generally seen by others as decent, caring, and committed to the liberation of women participate in sexual harassment.

Patriarchal scripts are prepared for us before we are born, affecting both men and women in varied and complementary ways. Justin Baldoni, in a recent talk at TEDwomen, describes the version he received: “acceptance meant I had to acquire this almost disgusted view of the feminine, and since we were told that feminine is the opposite of masculine, I either had to reject embodying any of these [feminine] qualities or face rejection myself. This is the script that we’ve been given.”

Baldoni describes the process of internalization that so many men go through, the brutality of men’s socialization that robs them of their tender humanity and prepares them for their patriarchal roles. Catharine MacKinnon, whose legal work in the 1970s was pivotal in putting sexual harassment on the agenda, captures the results in “Rape: on Coercion and Consent,” a chapter in a book that is as fresh today as when it was published in 1989. “It is not only men convicted of rape who believe that the only thing they did that was different from what men do all the time is get caught,” she writes, since “men are systematically conditioned not even to notice what women want [and] … women are socialized to passive receptivity.” The notion of the ‘good guy’ becomes meaningless when even well-meaning men coerce women without intending to, and without seeing themselves as doing so.

How does this happen? Part of the answer lies in how difficult it is for so many women to say “no” and for so many men to hear it. In addition to the very real negative consequences that may come to women when saying “no” in certain contexts, so many of us have internalized doubt, confusion, passivity, and powerlessness through our own patriarchal training. Without grasping the depth of patriarchal scripting, it can be hard to reconcile a woman’s apparent agreement or acquiescence to something with her assertions that she did not want it. Knowing what the man who was pursuing me was after, for example, why did I ever let him into my apartment if I didn’t want the same thing? When another man, at another time, used very minimal force which I could clearly resist in terms of physical strength, why did I freeze in shock instead of firmly saying no? Why do women sometimes wait years before reporting incidents, or don’t do it at all? Without a systemic lens, we are taught to read all of this as meaning that women wanted what happened, even when they insist that they did not. Without effective channels for us to speak and be heard about our experiences, how will men learn about the impact of their actions?

Thus, the problem is cultural or structural, not primarily individual. And as MacKinnon reminds us, “individuals’ ability to resist or escape, even momentarily, prescribed social meanings” is incredibly limited “short of political change.” We are all implicated in both problems and solutions. As Leah Fessler says “No one—regardless of their education, hometown, or politics—is immune to sexism.” Granted, sexism isn’t the same as sexual harassment or assault; it is, tragically, the breeding ground; the baseline of “othering” of girls, women, and femininity, which makes the lines all too fuzzy. Recognizing this can bring understanding and compassion to the extraordinary capacity of patriarchy to reproduce itself en masse, and to each of our participation in this, and thus open the gate for creative, restorative solutions.

We are far away from this structural point of view being widely embraced. Many responses to the current revelations about sexual harassment take refuge in the opposite point of view. “Sadly, some people would rather cast stones at all men” says journalist Heather Wilhelm in response to critics like Carina Chocano who, naming patriarchy, insist that “Weinstein’s pattern of behavior is emblematic of a system that runs on power differentials.”

If, instead, we take seriously MacKinnon, Chocano, and many others, and maintain our structural lens while continuing to seek protection and support for women and transformation of root causes, then we have a lot to gain from listening to those who have bravely embraced the restorative path.

On the individual level, we can perhaps find inspiration in the story of Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger. In a recent Ted talk they describe their many-year journey of reconciliation initiated by Thordis nine years after Tom raped her when she was sixteen. . In Thordis’ words: “how will we understand what it is in human societies that produces violence if we refuse to recognize the humanity of those who commit it?” Recognizing the humanity of those who sexually harass and assault women includes, in particular, having some faith that they can be affected by learning about the impact of their actions. Restorative experiences provide a place for the truth of women’s devastation to be heard and integrated, which provides healing and transformation for the women at the same time as providing an opportunity for the men in question to learn, heal, transform, and support the women they have harmed. This is why restorative approaches reduce recidivism, sometimes to the point of 0% of graduates of a multiyear program for batterers. The executive director of the organization that ran the program said they adopted a more restorative approach after noticing that: “Treating abusers like they were bad people reinforced a sense of shame they already felt about themselves and didn’t allow space for change.”

Ann Malabre has been advocating for a restorative approach in response to her own and dozens of other former students’ experiences of decades of sexual misconduct by teachers at Exeter, a prestigious boarding school in New Hampshire, US, reported in a series of articles in the Boston Globe over the last two and half years.

I talked with Ann and read some of what she’s written to other survivors, with whom she has formed a group for mutual support and for effectiveness in approaching the school. Meanwhile, Exeter has already paid lawyers seven million dollars to fight against the few (of many) survivors who filed lawsuits. What has that done for the survivors, mostly women, who’ve come forward? Very little, says Ann. “So many people are reacting to, defending from, profiting on, and deciding about the survivors, and in all this, so little accountability, true justice, and reform.” Ann’s restorative approach, although limited by the school’s insistence on legal and adversarial responses, aims to reach as much understanding as possible about what happened, its causes, and its effects, so as to reduce or eliminate the chances of this happening again. Her key question: what could unite alumni, survivors, faculty, administration, and the larger community?

Ann believes that a focus on taking survivors’ stories seriously, inviting faculty (both those accused of sexual misconduct and everyone else) and administration to take in, acknowledge, and learn from the impact, and creating meaningful avenues for repair of harm, can go a long way towards healing for all. To the survivors, she suggests leadership as a form of healing and growth, going beyond basic post-trauma survival. At present, Ann and other survivors are working with the school on the possibility of refunding survivors’ tuition, as a meaningful act of indicating that their suffering is taken seriously. They have invited Exeter to become a leader in facing sexual misconduct charges. The story is still unfolding. If successful, it can be one model for how an institution can hold itself and its members accountable to harm without blame, without punishment, while addressing the root causes through collective learning.

Done on a large enough scale, I believe restorative approaches can fully replace punitive responses, providing better long-term protection and an opportunity for all to examine and heal from the patriarchal scripts into which we have been socialized. Eventually, they would no doubt lead to questioning, challenging, and transforming the political, economic, and legal systems that reproduce patriarchy.

And until then? What’s to be done with the men in positions of power, and the many more with less power, who keep being identified as having sexually abused women?

I understand why there is so much pressure on political, governmental, and corporate entities to distance themselves from the individuals involved. In the absence of enough better options, such measures can indeed offer the affected women some breathing room. I mourn how rarely such measures are taken with a truly protective intent, and how often the focus on punishment interferes with the results. To move towards a different climate, I call on more and more institutions to create restorative systems and processes to allow those impacted to tell their stories and be taken seriously, those who’ve been accused to engage with the impact of their actions and take meaningful responsibility for those actions, and all involved to identify action steps to transform the power relations that perpetuate harassment and violence, one institution at a time.

INVITATION: To discuss this and other posts with me and other readers of this blog, check in to the free Fearless Heart Teleseminars. Next dates:
Sunday, January 28, 2018 10:30 am – 12:00 pm PT
Sunday, February 25, 2018 10:30 am – 12:00 pm PT
Monday, February 26, 2018, 5:00pm – 6:30 pm PT 

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Image Credits: Top: “Sad Woman” by Jiri Hodan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Second “Bad Apples” by Craig, Flickr, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

16 thoughts on “#MeToo and Liberation for All

  1. Robyn Marie Bors Veraart

    Thank you Miki! I am in the midst of preparing a talk to be given in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. The title is “A Path to Healing: Eliminating Gender-Based Violence.” In it am looking at how we can move from Domination to Partner Societies collectively by moving from Dissociation to “Connectivity” individually. This article blends beautifully with the message I want to bring, and I am, as ever, grateful for your ability to write about this, and other tough issues, with dignity and grace. I am resonating with the wish to bring reconciliation work, in ever-widening circles, to life!!!

    Reply
  2. Fenton Lansdowne

    Thank you for the excellent article! I agree with its substance but would change its form so that it would be about matriarchy. Let us consider this paragraph:

    How does this happen? Part of the answer lies in how difficult it is for so many women to say “no” and for so many men to hear it. In addition to the very real negative consequences that may come to women when saying “no” in certain contexts, so many of us have internalized doubt, confusion, passivity, and powerlessness through our own patriarchal training. Without grasping the depth of patriarchal scripting, it can be hard to reconcile a woman’s apparent agreement or acquiescence to something with her assertions that she did not want it. Knowing what the man who was pursuing me was after, for example, why did I ever let him into my apartment if I didn’t want the same thing? When another man, at another time, used very minimal force which I could clearly resist in terms of physical strength, why did I freeze in shock instead of firmly saying no? Why do women sometimes wait years before reporting incidents, or don’t do it at all?

    Here is how I would rewrite the above paragraph: “How does this happen? Part of the answer lies in how difficult it is for so many [sons] to say ‘no’ and for so many [Mothers] to hear it.” “In addition to the very real negative consequences that may come to [sons] when saying ‘no’ in certain contexts, so many [sons] have internalized doubt, confusion, passivity, and powerlessness through our own [matriarchal] training.” “Without grasping the depth of [matriarchal] scripting, it can be hard to reconcile a [son’s] apparent agreement or acquiescence to something with [his] assertions that [he] did not want it.” “I could clearly resist in terms of physical strength, why did I freeze in shock instead of firmly saying no?”

    Reply
  3. Anke

    Dear Miki!
    Thank you. As always hearing you speak and write resonates in me greatly. While I was reading I had to keep on taking short breaks to share with friends and to connect your line of thought and action with the actions I am planning together with a friend and colleague. One of them is creating spaces of connection with people who see peace and ease in identifying who’s fault it is that they cannot live life to its fullest. In this case identifying the cause of their discomfort in the people who are looking for safety and a home here in Germany.

    And reading Fenton’s comment once again reminds me of how much pain we have collected in us, that makes it hard to grasp how we have internalised and reenact these systems of dominance and oppression. In the trainings I give so many people say “but I never intended to…. why wasn’t there someone who could have helped me understand / do things/see things/learn things differently?” and there is anger and despair -” how could I have been allowed to learn such dehumanising ways of seeing others and myself?!”

    This is why I think we need to work on all sides of reconciliation and reconnection, the one I am talking of here is recognising how systems of oppression and dominance work (in ourselves as well as in the structures and institutions) and are interconnected and what we can do to active disrupt the system.

    A big and warm hug from Berlin
    Anke

    Reply
    1. NP

      ‘recognising how systems of oppression and dominance work (in ourselves as well as in the structures and institutions) and are interconnected and what we can do to active disrupt the system’. Feeling a big ‘yes’ to that. Ears open for examples of what’s being tried and where

  4. Michele Livingston

    Thank you Miki. I appreciated your descriptions of the work of reconciliation that is going on. To me that seems such an important step. Perhaps more openness will help us begin to heal the terrible experiences that might lead anyone to hurt another person.

    Someone once told me that it is our secrets that make us sick. Perhaps as a society, our very secrecy about these strongly negative experiences is part of what holds the sickness in, while speaking about it and learning about the root causes will help us develop the new tools and skills we need to move to new forms of relating to one another.

    Reply
  5. Brianyo

    Hi Miki for many years i have been a student of sexual harassment and have come to many conclusions some of which may be right and others which may be way off the mark. Your article brings to the fore the widespread and depth of the problem in our society. Millions joined the “Me Too.” group. To me it seems obvious the problem is so wide spread it is embedded in society in epidemic proportions and will probably never be eradicated. I believe it is difficult to actually define what abuse is.. There are many obvious cases especially in schools or among church groups but others see abuse as even recognizing or admiring femininity as abusive. In the adult world where does this leave men? Do they dare compliment a women on her appearance . I held the door for a lady a few weeks ago and she gave me such a glare I thought I had better not do that again. I believe we should go back to the beginning of time and start again. Men hunted the sexual favors of females and they fought each other (not the female herself) in order that the female would select them. There is no doubt that even today this pattern exists as top male performers both physically and artistically, attract females in large numbers . While females (gatherers) gather the smiles whistles and compliments of as many men as they can,building their self esteem and sexuality and they chose which and who they will mate with. Or is the world heading for sexual neutrality where like in some Australian schools children can chose to wear girl or boy clothes depending on how they feel on the day. We now have same sex marriage is this where the world is heading. I am not for or against just interested. Remember it was men who brought in most of the rules which forbid women from gathering and making it wrong to do so (often in some countries under the threat of death.) I believe it is this which has lead to the situation we have today men have won the war but women are starting to win the battle. When they do I believe the world will return to its natural balance and mothers will create a new patriarchal scripting for their daughters to follow instead of the unhealthy one they now follow which leaves them scared for life in a field of unwarranted
    guilt.

    Reply
    1. Lisa H

      Brian — Thank you for your courage in sharing your perspective as a man. In this #MeToo climate I fear a mob mentality among many women emerging that condemns all men for the actions of some, and diminishing wholeness for both the men they condemn and themselves.

  6. Lisa Hong

    Thanks, Miki, as always, for bringing the principles of nonviolence to bear of societal situations that too often default into habitual Us/Them false dichotomies.

    I, too, yearn for a word to replace “patriarchy,” as it makes it too easy to create enemy images of men — as individuals and a group — since the word specifically means “a system of society or government in which MEN hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.” I like Riane Eisler’s use of “domination” vs “partnership” (consistent with Marshall’s description in NVC), while also wanting to recognize and hold accountable the domination system in our society and many others that do indeed privilege men over women in key areas of societally-sanctioned power. Women do generally have power/privilege in emotional expression, nurturing, caregiving, but unfortunately those things hold little external value in terms of economic or social stature.

    Reply
    1. Brianyo

      . i agree with the demands for equality. i agree equal pay for equal performance. My words (Remember it was men who brought in most of the rules which forbid women from gathering and making them feel guilty for doing so. (often in some countries under the threat of death.) I believe it is this which has lead to the situation we have today. I feel it as important for mothers to create a new patriarchal scripting for their daughters to follow instead of the one they have learn’t and are passing on(WE V THEM) At this point I see many both men and women are giving up as the battle between the sexes intensifies. As a final comment to females. Please understand most men do not know what love is . Teach them and you will be well rewarded. i know most answer “Why should I? That is what his mother was for .” Unfortunately most of the mothers giving advice grew up in abusive situations and they do not know what love is either. So the answer to why should I , Is to save humanity.

  7. Alan Givré

    As a man, I mourn the discourse that equates power with happiness. I really want men to understand that the end of gender roles is not charitative work for the women, but for their needs too, and not only for their needs of contributing to the World. Is it not the apathy, the vacuum, the lonliness, the “rejection”, the “failure”, the frustration that men live in a direct consecquence of our “power”? What use it is the power if it is not going to get you desired, for instance? Our position is not to envy, but men’s liberation depends on women’s. I wish that both men and women feminists recognized that the men homicide and suicide epidemic is also a gender issue, but I’m afraid of people using it as a way of diminishing women suffering. How to recognize our suffering when our liberation depends on not being the center of the world? I do not know. How to ask for empathy on our suffering when women feel the emotional labour as a heavy and mandated burden? I do not know. I do hope for men to be conscious of their pain, because the day that they can hear their pain will be the day that they realize that not hearing a no doesn’t turn a no into a yes, doesn’t take away our loneliness. And then our half of the World will contribute plentily to the movement the other half started. As always, Miki, I love reading your blog and it always inspires me.

    Reply
  8. NP

    Today, this story appeared in Australia: http://mobile.abc.net.au/news/2018-02-09/the-cost-of-making-a-complaint-in-the-police-force/9397864

    Reading it, I feel a knot of powerlessness as well as the relief of acknowledgement. Sharing it here as an expression of mourning as well as hope. I think it illustrates a number of the points made in your article, Miki.

    Do you feel some heartening that the systemic nature of individual behaviour is being written about in mainstream media? And also some overwhelm because these issues are not new, and it’s not the first time they’ve been made visible?

    Reply
  9. Miki Kashtan Post author

    Dear all,

    Men’s responses to the #MeToo phenomenon (Is it a movement? Hard to know…) have been varied. In addition to negation and dismissal, there are some who’ve accepted the challenge from women with no defensiveness and are searching for ways to respond and rise to the occasion. One of the most difficult paths to walk is the path of owning our own complicity in maintaining and reproducing the patriarchal paradigm. For men, challenging patriarchy means challenging notions of masculinity and all that they entail. Nothing simple. The line is thin and treacherous. One man has written to me privately about his dilemma regarding speaking up about his participation in unwanted sexual behavior. He also told me about the negative impact that someone he knows endured when he was aiming to speak honestly of his past. In the absence of restorative systems and within a harsh and punitive context, there is nowhere to expose such events without retribution.

    Because of this, whenever anyone speaks publicly about their complicity, I welcome it and want to celebrate it. This is why I want to bring attention to a post by author and dear friend Steve Wineman, whose manuscript Power-Under: Trauma and Nonviolent Social Change had a deep influence on my own thinking when I first encountered it 15 years ago (available free here: http://www.traumaandnonviolence.com/files/Power_Under.pdf).

    Here’s a link to the post: http://geo.coop/story/other-side-me-too. In it, he speaks of “the side of the Me Too movement that’s missing in action, a movement of men stepping up to say me too, this is what I have done, here is how I have been part of the problem, this is a moment in which I choose to start taking responsibility for my behavior.” He then tells his own such story. He concludes by saying: “We have an opportunity, in this moment of heightened awareness, to stand in solidarity with women and work toward a social transformation that can’t happen with men watching silently from the sidelines.”

    I have some mixed feelings about Steve’s post. I am so very glad that he speaks at all, and yet the particular story he chose happened many years ago. I agree with Steve, as I said in this post of mine, that the issue is pervasive. If there are so many women coming forward, there are also so many men whose actions are what women are talking about, and so many actions that each man took. I, myself, was involved in so much sexual activity with so many men that was clearly or ambiguously non-consensual. I would want all men to take responsibility not only for specific, and, in this case, isolated incidents. I would want men to take responsibility for the likely unconscious ways in which they may have routinely exerted pressure on women they have been sexual with, or even “just” subtly took advantage of our internalized complicity with sexuality that we may not be enthusiastic about. I want men to learn to recognize that anything less than enthusiasm on the part of a woman perpetuates patriarchy and is at least partially at our expense. This is missing for me in Steve’s account. Still, I am glad to see any step in the direction of taking personal responsibility, and I love Steve writing and personal integrity so very much that I wanted to point attention to this example, in the hopes that others may follow.

    Miki

    (Incidentally, Steve recently published a novel I totally love called The Therapy Journals. I highly recommend it.)

    Reply
  10. Harmony Gates

    “how will we understand what it is in human societies that produces violence if we refuse to recognize the humanity of those who commit it?” ahhh….so! so so true. and “Exeter has already paid lawyers seven million dollars to fight against the few (of many) survivors who filed lawsuits.” – what if this money was, instead invested in efforts of restoration, rather than protecting the image and legal liability of the school? indeed. thanks for this very thoughtful article. It reflects my views beautifully.

    Reply

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