#MeToo, and Who Gets Left Out

Like most women, trans men and gender nonconforming people living under patriarchy, I have stories I can tell you, about harassment, assault, rape.  Usually I don’t tell those stories, but I’m not afraid to let you know I have them.  When the #MeToo hashtag, originated in 2006 by  Tarana Burke, resurged following the disclosures of the massive sexual abuses of Harvey Weinstein, I felt, like many people I know, a sense of vindication and a sense of siege.  Every time I looked at social media for awhile there, there was a reminder: Sexual assault. Sexual harassment. Rape. Fear. Patriarchy. A visceral reminder (not that we ever actually forget) of the ways that our lives are impacted and limited, the ways our potential is cut down by men who use sexualized power to ensure their place in the world.

I have my own emotional response to what comes up with the #MeToo hashtag, and with the ongoing flood of revelations of powerful men assaulting women.  I feel rage and grief, and a desire to either burn everything to the ground, or to check out and hide from the world.  But as a activist and an organizer, I’m called to look at this moment through the lens of: what is made possible by this moment that wasn’t possible before?  If the #MeToo movement is a crack in the edifice of the heteropatriarchal power system, how can we exploit that crack, make it bigger, and ultimately bring the whole damn thing down?

At the moment, as more and more male movie producers and other powerful entertainment and political figures are exposed as molesters, abusers, and rapists, there’s an element of the moment that feels like a spectacle.  For those who feel powerless, there’s a deep joy in watching the powerful abusers fall.  At the same time, the people stepping forward to publicly say “Me Too” are mostly white women who are in their own ways also powerful, by dint of race, wealth, and platform.  Meanwhile, although numerous women have stepped forward to speak of assaults at the hands of Harvey Weinstein, the only one he has publicly responded to (to deny) was Lupita Nyong’o, a woman of color.

Those of us who have been targeted by sexual harassment, assault, and rape, know that it is not only white actresses who are targeted in this way.  The assault of less powerful women, by powerful men and by less powerful men, is just as rampant, just as overlooked, just as painful, damaging, and limiting.

In 2011, when Nafissatou Diallo brought sexual assault charges against the then IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the subtext of the story was that men assault hotel housekeepers regularly.  In 2015, Unite Here Local 1 issued a report detailing the high levels of sexual abuse suffered by hotel and hospitality workers in Chicago.  There is no reason to believe that Chicago is unusual in this, or that things have changed.

Similarly, domestic workers also suffer astronomical levels of sexual assault and abuse, with very little recourse.  As detailed by Alicia Garza of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, poor women and women of color can have many reasons to hesitate before coming forward, including the likelihood of retaliations like losing their job, increased harassment, threats of deportation, and the real likelihood of simply being ignored, disbelieved, or vilified.  The more overlapping levels of oppression and exploitation women experience, the less likely they are to get any support or help, and the less likely their attackers are to ever face consequences, leaving them free to continue to assault the same and other women.

In the 1980s, scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw named the theory of intersectionality (when systems of oppression are overlapping, creating multiple levels of social injustice) to increase the understanding of the gender aspect of race.  Meanwhile, white feminists have continually overlooked the racialized aspect of gender, and if we take a race conscious look at this #MeToo moment, we can see the danger of this happening again.  And we know from history that gains made by white feminists that fail to take into account race and class end up at best making cracks in the edifice that go nowhere. At worst, they can reinforce white supremacy and capitalism, which counteracts any attacks made on the patriarchy.

So, this moment calls upon us to stay aware of racism in the midst of our anger, rage and despair, to remember that intersectionality means that while women are the primary targets of sexual assault and harassment,  women who are people of color, women who are poor and working class, women who do not have citizenship, women who are trans and non binary, are under more pressure, are more likely to experience assault, less likely to report, and are less likely to be believed and supported if they do report.

Right now, white women in the entertainment industry are the face of #MeToo, even though the movement was started by a Black woman. But if this moment is to challenge and destroy patriarchal, white supremacist, capitalist hegemony, then Black women, Indigenous women, women of color and working class women (white and of color) need to be centered.  Those of us who aren’t women of color do this by lifting up their stories and experiences, by remembering how history has minimized and justified assault of women of color, by looking at what’s really going on and doing our part to amplify the voices of the people most affected, and by standing with them in the struggle against patriarchy AND white supremacy.

Men also suffer sexual assault and harassment (most often at the hands of men), and there is a complex interplay of masculinity that can make it difficult for men to report or seek support.  So, when we say this is a men’s issue, we mean that both because it’s mainly men who assault, and therefore need to take responsibility for changing behavior, and also because men and boys are targeted and harmed too, and also stand to benefit from the destruction of patriarchy.  Non trans men more than anyone else however, are given a choice.  Who do you want to be in this world? Do you want to be a man who uses your patriarchal power to harm others, to use sexual assault to buttress your own power, or do you want to choose to side with the rest of us, to take a stand against sexual assault and patriarchal power?

At Catalyst, we believe in the potential of men to effectively resist the patriarchy. We recognize that the weight of the world pushes men to join the rapists, misogynists, collaborators and creeps, and that there are not enough resources for the men who want to work with each other to reverse this pull.

In that spirit, we offer this workshop curriculum we helped develop aimed at white (trans and non-trans) men and people wrestling with masculine privilege who are interested in getting involved in racial and gender justice, and this list of tools for men from our friend (and former Catalyst member) Chris Crass.

When white women choose multi-racial solidarity over racism, when men choose gender solidarity and feminism over sexism, we will be well on our way to collective liberation. Those who currently hold power in this country should be afraid.  We’re coming for them. Together.

Until then,
Rahula Janowski