By Harini Amarasuriya
The hashtag #MeToo started trending in 2017 when American actress Alyssa Milano tweeted a request asking women who had been sexually harassed or assaulted to write Me Too as their social media status.
This was at the time that sexual abuse allegations against Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein were beginning to gather steam. Milano’s tweet generated a huge response and #MeToo became a global phenomenon with women from various parts of the world using the hashtag to talk about sexual harassment that they had faced.
The phrase ‘Me Too’ was originally created by American activist Tarana Burke, who works with survivors of sexual violence. The Me Too movement not only led to the exposure of many instances and perpetrators of sexual harassment throughout the world, but has also generated a broader conversation about sexual harassment and sexual violence. Predictably, there has been a backlash against the Me Too movement, mostly concerns about the possibility of false accusations.
However, almost four years into the movement, it is clear that the space that the Me Too movement has created for women to speak out against sexual harassment has led to a much needed conversation about men’s behaviour towards women – especially that of men in positions of power. Globally, well known men in the entertainment industry, media, academia and politics have been exposed by women. In Sri Lanka, there has been interest in the movement and although not widespread, similar conversations and initiatives have been taking place especially on social media platforms.
The backlash to the Me Too movement has also revealed how easily society reverts to ‘blaming the woman’ trope when men’s power is challenged. We know how common it is to hold women responsible for ‘putting themselves in danger’ whether it is the clothes we wear, the alcohol that we consume, or daring to believe that we have a right to expect not to be leered at or worse in public spaces or not to be taken advantage of in our intimate encounters.
The Me Too movement provoked a host of reactions about shrill and self-righteous women who don’t understand or appreciate ‘fun’ or have Victorian ideas about sex and sexual relationships. Even more than the lack of systems in place to protect women or procedures to deal with allegations of harassment and violence, the greatest challenge to opening up about experiences of sexual harassment and violence are the reactions women have to deal with when they choose to speak out.
Socialised as we are to always seek the approval of others and not to make ‘scenes’ many of us tend to swallow the indignity, pain and trauma of sexual harassment and carry on. It is this barrier that the Me Too movement really broke through by encouraging thousands of women to speak out, letting them know that they will be heard and that they will be supported.
The significance of that support and space cannot be underestimated. While it is extremely important to support women who want to speak out about their experiences, it is equally necessary to recognise that there are as many who do not speak out – often for very good reasons. It is not simply lack of access to social media or support that prevents women (and men) from speaking out about sexual harassment. Much of the silence around the harassment and violence is about incidents that take place in intimate circles: within families, close friends and colleagues.
How do you call out someone for inappropriate behaviour when you have every day close and personal interactions with that person at many different levels? How do you deal with someone like that even if you have not been personally or directly affected? For instance, what do you do when you hear about a colleague who regularly sends inappropriate texts/ images to women but who has always treated you with care? What do you do when male colleagues whose work you respect, constantly cracks sexist jokes around women? Or worse, behaves abusively towards other women? What do you do about a dearly loved relative who makes you uncomfortable with his overly affectionate behaviour, especially when you are the only one who seems to notice or care? The point is that much of what makes us feel uncomfortable, scared or violated, raises certain fundamental questions about how we interact with each other and what we understand by things such as respect and consent.
And drawing strict lines about what is ok and what is not ok in our interactions with each other is extremely difficult. How many times have we been in situations where we go along with jokes or conversations full of sexual innuendoes, even when we know it makes us uncomfortable because we don’t want to be spoilsports? What constitutes sexual harassment is on a spectrum and each one of us may have our own threshold of comfort/discomfort.
Yet, what constitutes our threshold is contingent on so many factors – not least the relations of power and sense of agency that shape our interactions with each other. For instance, the allowances granted to charismatic and intelligent men are much more than what is granted to men who are more direct (or cruder) in their behaviour. Social context also shapes behaviour.
I still remember what a very dear, male friend told me when we were discussing the issue of sexual harassment: “Never try to check the intentions or feelings of a man – only how he acts on those intentions and feelings”. The same friend told me how the men who leer at you in dark corners at the Majestic City or on a lonely street will behave quite differently if you bump into him at say, One Colombo.
This also brings me to a much more difficult point: if what is determined as sexual harassment is on a spectrum, so are the perpetrators. No human being is one dimensional or defined in totality by a single characteristic or act. Human beings are endlessly complicated and human interactions even more so.
As much as the Me Too movement created a space for women (and also men) to speak out about sexual harassment, there will also be others who are still hesitant to speak out. We may choose to continue to interact with people whose actions and behaviours have made us uncomfortable or whose actions and behaviours we condemn. Sometimes, we may not have the luxury or opportunity to avoid such people.
In such situations, we choose other strategies to manage those interactions as safely as possible. As much as we celebrate those who speak out, it is important that we hear and support those who do not.
My worry about the power of movements such as Me Too is that they sometimes present us with a set of certainties and fixed choices in situations filled with uncertainty and the possibility of a multiplicity of responses. Or rather, that sometimes, the certainty and choices before us are overemphasised especially when the discussions are confined to or conducted primarily on social media platforms.
At the heart of all of this is the quality and the humanity of our interactions with each other – whether in public or intimate spaces. Just as much as we interrogate the individuals complicit in abusive and predatory behaviour, we also need to interrogate the conditions that enable such behaviour, conditions that give rise to de-humanising behaviour. This includes our education system and mainstream ideologies that justify exploitative and abusive relationships in subtle and not so subtle ways.
It is also not enough to expect victims to seek legal interventions – very often these incidents cannot be presented to or resolved satisfactorily within a legal framework. Even when they are pursued legally and concluded successfully from the point of view of the victim, they rarely deliver justice in the broader sense.
Ultimately, it is the quality of our forms of sociality and human engagement that we need to focus on – while acknowledging its full range of complexities and nuances.
Acknowledging complexity and nuance is not an excuse or loophole for unacceptable behaviour, but rather appreciating the spectrum of human experiences, feelings, emotions and interactions. In the meantime, let us keep supporting each other to talk and to be heard, in whatever manner each of us chooses to be heard.