by Erin Denk
Like many of us, in October of 2017, I read all the “Me Toos” on Facebook. Once I learned what these words referred to I felt both shock at the magnitude and diversity of this public claim of men hurting women and sad that women are objectified daily in silence, struggling for respect… still. I chose not to post “Me Too” on Facebook. Facebook is not reality. Reality is you telling me “Me Too” to my face and me not unfriending you. Can we do this? I decided to understand what is “Me Too” as a movement, its origins and how these two words may have opened our opportunity to create a space to finally listen, to be heard and be in relationship as men and women, without the archaic power and control structures.
In 2006, Taruna Burke founded the Me Too Movement to help survivors of sexual violence especially young women of color from low income communities find avenues towards support and healing. She created an environment of “empowerment through empathy” to ensure that survivors would know that they were not alone.
While I witnessed women speaking their stories after years of silence, there was the parallel world of the words of men around me who either made jokes about “Me Too”, criticized the accused men as being “stupid creeps”, or described their own discomfort with how to determine coercion versus consent in past and present interactions with women. This perceived line between coercion and consent became very murky as we all had to recall encounters that made us squirm. No matter what, I sensed that men around me agreed that sexual harassment and assault of women occurs, they know it occurs and the space between communications of boundaries is culturally confusing for all of us. “No means no” but then if she does this, then….and so on.
In the 1970s I had no words for sexual harassment in college or at my first job. I was grabbed daily and I was constantly admired for how I looked and rarely for my work.
I had to play the relationship game: laugh it and them off, act like nothing happened, smile and nod. I was acting within what Catharine MacKinnon described as “a system in which women were judged by the standards imposed on wives and concubines, used and discarded” within the workplace.
I created internally two women: intellectually assertive, cautious, strong as well as accommodating, quiet, and subservient. I learned to navigate and loose a bit of myself in order to be heard in an office or a classroom.
In “Sexual Harassment of Working Women”, Catharine MacKinnon’s 1979 book she presents a path for the legal system to more effectively handle instances of harassment as cases of sexual discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of
- The Supreme Court recognized sexual harassment as Title VII violation in the case Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson in which a bank teller had charged that a company vice president had coerced her into having sex with him repeatedly, “that he had touched her in public and raped her”. The court ruled unanimously that harassment resulting in a hostile work environment was discriminatory and unlawful. The structure was created yet the cultures of sexism and dominance within have remained the same.
In the last 30 years I have witnessed a slow deterioration of respect for the need to keep alive the feminist language of equality and mutual empathy that was fought by women in the 1960s and especially the 1970s. Have we lost the cultural acknowledgement of Betty Friedman’s “feminine mystique” the highest value and commitment a society can provide towards women, allowing them to fulfill their femininity rather than be undervalued? (p. 36) Whether 2017 or 1963, the communication between men and women has remained basically the same: complicated. “Me too” invites the female victim to speak a truth as well as break out of her isolation. “Me too” asserts to men and all women a time to listen, to listen with empathy despite gender, economic, and racial differences.
In witnessing this Me Too movement, I realize despite how we were raised, our training in sexual harassment on the job, or our past relationships these two words made us create a space to listen to each other, facing the “problem” that has had a very old name. In all the many women (and men’s) trauma groups I have facilitated in 30 years the overall benefit participants state in just being in the group is “I realized that I am not alone and I am not judged, I don’t even have to talk, I feel safe.” A “Me Too” space is created. Can we reach a state described in Women’s Growth in Connection (1991), as “being-in-relationship”? (p.13) These Relational Theory researchers observed that being-in-relationship is “mutual empathy” when two people “relate to each other in the context of interest in the other” despite differences. It is a key to our growth as human beings. (p. 89) I hope that the “me too” words can continue to impact all of us to move forward in creating and demanding a social structure that abides by the laws and ethics that elevate equality and end an archaic power and control system that I feel will only lead to a dark age for our society.
Bellafante, G. (March 19, 2018) Before #Me Too, There Was Catharine A. MacKinnon and Her Book Sexual Harassment of Working Women. p. 20, Book Review, New York Times.
Friedman, B. (1963) The Feminine Mystique. New York, N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Company.
Jordan, J.V., Kaplan A.G., Miller, J.B., Stiver I.P., and Surrey J.L. (1991) Women’s Growth in Connection, Writings from the Stone Center. New York, N.Y. : The Guilford Press.