Outlook | Perspective
December 21, 2017 at 12:59 PM
It was 5 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 16. I had fed my newborn twins and settled them back to sleep. What I should have been doing was going to sleep myself. Instead, I was using my thumbs to type, delete, retype, delete. When my 3-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son woke nearly two hours later, I was still trying to determine how to join the #MeToo hashtag dominating my Twitter feed.
I, too, had been raped by a man whose power and wealth dwarfed mine. I was his intern, at the very start of my career. He had a contact list filled with people I aspired to work for, the backing of a formidable institution, tens of millions of dollars at his disposal. I typed out on my phone the threats he had made to destroy me. I wrote about how powerless I felt upon finding out he'd hired a private investigator to comb through my life as far away as my Australian home and about the fear that had led me to move out of my apartment. But by Tuesday afternoon, all I could muster was "#metoo" — a contribution devoid of any information that could possibly connect me to the man whose shadow has loomed over so much of my adult life or to those who should have protected me from him.
In the weeks that followed, I lurched between flashbacks and present-day responsibilities as ever more revelations of sexual assault and harassment by powerful men landed. Women were taking huge risks to speak publicly about the men who had harmed them, and the results were breathtaking. With so many women putting themselves on the line, what was wrong with me?
The media has emphasized examples of career-related sexual assault and harassment where this public naming-and-shaming has been the only action available to remove the power that enabled predators like Harvey Weinstein. But there are other scenarios, the most common of which involve perpetrators with no public profile.
In my case, identifying this man publicly would deliver a form of vengeance — against him and against those whose so-called prevention policy had been to "keep an eye out" for the young women he hired. But vengeance is only one part of justice. For me, deterrence matters most. And on that metric, naming him would achieve little beyond what had already been secured, while incurring debilitating costs.
More than a decade earlier, I had been elated when he offered me a position as his intern. The work was in the field I was passionate about, and the pay was double the going rate for an internship. I had no idea there was already an effort underway to stop him from hiring young female interns. I just felt incredibly lucky to be getting paid for the work I wanted to do.
I have no interest in recounting for public consumption the details of the night, nine months after my internship began, when he raped me. It is no help to me or anyone else to describe how it felt to regain consciousness naked in his bathtub, or to try to make my way out of his apartment. Later, at the hospital, I gave only the barest details to get the tests and treatment I needed. I tried to move on.
I had every reason to believe that he could make good on his threat to destroy me if I told anyone. So I sat, month after month, in an impossible space. I sought to avoid being in his presence while also doing what I could to placate him. I extricated myself from his payroll, but his name intersected with everything I worked on. The mental energy I spent continuing to get up each morning and interact with the world as though I were fine constituted its own full-time job.
Two long years later, I lodged an internal complaint. It was the most irrational decision I've ever made: I was an imperfect victim with a background I knew he would use against me. I had everything to lose and nothing to gain, save the knowledge that I would no longer be complicit in the system that had enabled him. The process of making my complaint exacted an unacceptable toll that I have still not recovered from. But by the end, his ready access to young women like me had been dismantled, bringing me a much-needed sense of peace.
I was the first in my family to go to college; the opportunity for a career of my choosing — outside the minimum-wage workforce — was hard won and not something I was willing to give up. I went on to work on the issues I care about as a lawyer and a journalist, in workplaces ranging from the International Criminal Court to Reuters. I'm now a law professor at American University. But the legacy of what happened persists.
The mental map of my professional world is defined by the man who raped me and those in our field who protected him; I navigate accordingly. I routinely assess, before each new interaction, how many degrees of separation lie between him and the person I will be speaking with. Initially, when setbacks occurred, it was hard to avoid questioning what role he or his allies may have played. Over time, I trained myself to stop dwelling on such possibilities; do better, work harder.
Naming him now would bring him back to the forefront of my existence. It would force me to relive, yet again, all the details of an experience that I wish had never happened. It would mean handing over another large chunk of my life to something that I never wanted in my life in the first place. And this time, it would be not only me but also my family, colleagues and students who would share the costs of that re-traumatization.
I study large-scale advocacy movements. I've led them, observed them, written about them. Each is a product of its time and place, so making generalizations is tricky. But one common thread is that they replicate the dynamics of the societies where they arise. So it should surprise no one that the people spearheading this moment of cultural scrutiny are the people who have the privilege of voice in our society more generally.
Social media campaigns such as #MeToo tend to view "raising awareness" as an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. In this case, the spread of the hashtag has been valuable — it has expanded participation beyond those victimized by people whom the news media has an interest in reporting on. It has revealed the true scale of the problem and demonstrated that it is not confined to high-profile sectors such as entertainment, journalism and politics.
But campaigns like this often lose steam before achieving anything concrete. And even those that avoid this trap can run into another problem: They use the power they amass through raising awareness primarily to push for visible solutions that can be swiftly implemented — such as the recent firings of famous men. These immediate steps create a feel-good feedback loop.
There is nothing necessarily wrong with some quick victories to boost the morale of all involved. But such responses have their limits: They are superficial fixes. Over time, they crowd out lower-profile work that could ultimately create the structural changes needed to really resolve the problem.
My fear is that the immense power of #MeToo is about to be squandered. We risk congratulating ourselves for a slew of high-profile dismissals that address particular harms suffered by a privileged subset of victims, without ever grappling with the harms occurring across the board.
Related: [#MeToo: A movement or a moment?]
For many observers, the past few months have been gratifying; previously unimaginable actions have been taken in the name of women. That has not been my experience. For weeks, the night I was raped, my reporting of it, and the power inequities, indignities and degradations of the situation have run on a mental replay loop I've had no control over. I've felt pressure to participate in the act of public unveiling — this man, at this time, with these details. A moment of mass empowerment for women has been overwhelmingly disempowering for me.
What I have needed is the time to untangle my feelings and carefully question what I could lose or gain at this moment. I've concluded that, having spent the past decade trying to reach a vaguely livable status quo, I'm unwilling to upend it all for vengeance alone. Others may have decided differently. But if empowerment means anything, it must entail the ability of individuals to make their own choices based on their own circumstances as they see them. For me, speaking in this limited way still frees me from the dead weight of silence and allows me to contribute to what is finally a serious conversation about sexual assault and harassment.
If the power of #MeToo has been to reveal the pervasiveness of work-related sexual assault and harassment, then meaningful change demands solutions that tackle the depth and breadth of these problems. This means acknowledging the inherent conflict of interest that arises when human resources departments are tasked with addressing allegations against their own companies' employees — while remembering that many working people have no human resources department to report to. It means challenging the gaping disparity in access to legal services in this country, while recognizing that not all harms are best addressed through the legal system. It means getting more women into leadership roles, but not assuming that women are always better at dealing with the abuse and harassment of their staffers than men are.
As #MeToo becomes a movement, we need to be meticulous about distinguishing criminal and noncriminal behavior, without minimizing the chilling effect that even noncriminal behavior can have. We need to listen to the many women (and men) whose stories do not involve newsworthy perpetrators, and not demand that the signature "name and shame" action of this moment be the price of entry into the conversation about how to deal with all of this.
We also need to overcome the failure of imagination that prevents us from seeing that we may have colleagues who treat us well yet treat others badly, and that people can do admirable — even heroic — work while behaving in ways that violate the very values they purport to stand for. It is natural to want to believe that the people our society holds up as "good" would not engage in sexual assault or harassment, or protect those who do. But, as the philanthropy of the likes of Weinstein and Bill Cosby demonstrates, that is not always true. And believing that it is only strengthens those perpetrators who already have social capital to protect themselves.
Most of all, we need to avoid deluding ourselves that behaviors our society has normalized over decades will be banished over the course of a few painful months. Social change is always an iterative process. The backlash against the current moment is inevitable. The challenge will be to push past the backlash and keep working, even as the nation's attention turns to the next crisis. The downfall of predatory men with household names is worth celebrating. But it is not nearly enough.
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