The problem with #metoo in a society that normalises sexual violence

My newsfeed is flooded with confessions. The words are laced with a bittersweet sense of relief and defiance. The neon screen of the technological world that we have created feels like it is growing a deep, meandering fault line. We stand at the neon precipice and stare deep into the ugliness of society.

A memory from high school arises. A man hired by my school came and spoke to us about sexual assault.  I remember the asinine, if well-meaning strategies that he gave us girls to deal with sexual assault.

Then I think about the talk he gave to the boys. It was not a talk that any of the girls had been privy to. But I heard through the high school grape vine was that it involved oodles of moral condemnation and cautionary warnings about not engaging in sexual assault.

The boys were hurt and defensive. They felt negatively characterized as a group based upon what they reasoned were the actions of a few handful of men. Just like that, a conversation about sexual violence against women turned into an issue about demonising men.

It was not a memory I wanted to think about at that point. Not because it was unrelated but because my focus was on the boys and their reactions. That particular moment, however, this particular moment, is not about them.

This moment is about women and the breaking of our silence.

Isn’t it?

The rate of sexual assault in Australia is 92 people per 100,000. Not only is this one of the highest in the world, it is even more disconcerting when one considers that the reporting rate for these assaults is a mere 15% with only 11% resulting in convictions.

The countless number of women who came forward with their stories for the #metoo campaign provoked within me a multiplicity of emotions ranging from anger to despair to empathy. However, the one emotion that the campaign did not provoke was surprise.

We as women live with the harrowing but ubiquitous nature of sexual assaults. So normalised, so omnipresent, just like floral prints, wallpaper and elevator music. A threat so imminent, a reality so inescapable and a culture so toxic and so present that after some time, one stops questioning or even noticing it.

#metoo is inspiring and important as it attempts to challenge and attempts to counter this very issue. While there is nobility in the intentions of the campaign, in order to ascertain the effectiveness of the campaign it is important that a few essential questions are asked.

How much action does this campaign inspire in a society that culturally normalises sexual violence? And more importantly, to what extent does it in itself contribute to this normalisation?

It is essential to acknowledge that rape culture and sexual violence are inextricably linked to constructed notions of masculinity. The epidemic of sexual violence is very much linked to a culture of toxic masculinity which perpetuates an ingrained culture of subjugation and violence.

Undoubtedly, there are men who have been victims of sexual assault as well as people who do not identify as either gender who have also faced sexual assault. Perpetrators come in all forms and so do victims. Statistically speaking however, an overwhelming majority of sexual assaults are committed by men.

As evidenced by the Australian Human Rights Commission’s survey into sexual violence at universities, rape culture and toxic masculinity are particularly potent at universities. Many spaces within societies such as universities, schools as well as professional industries are spheres where sexual assault is legitimised.

I came across a series of poignant cartoons in The Nib that draw light to diverse experiences in relation to the campaign. One of them, by Angelica Frausto, draws upon the experience of a young girl on a school bus.

‘I learned sexual assault was normal when the bus driver kept driving and no one said a word.’

It is highly apparent that while society often displays outrage when sexual violence rears its ugly head in political spheres, it nevertheless continues to legitimise it in cultural and social spheres.

Judith Butler’s theory on the digitization of evil refers to the way in which the depiction of sexual violence through photographs and other mediums can play a significant role in normalising violence and therefore in providing perpetrators with a social licence for their behaviour.

The media and the internet are both mediums that legitimise and exacerbate toxic masculinity and normalise sexual violence. Television is littered with plethora of crime shows that turn sexual assault into entertainment, thereby normalising sexual violence. Readily available porn fantasies also perpetuate and exacerbate cultural violence.

In a society that culturally normalises sexual violence, social media campaigns like #metoo can run the risk of drawing responses from audiences that may end up trivialising the trauma of victims. Trauma becomes another fixture in our newsfeeds, something that can easily be scrolled past.

Trauma itself acquires a performative aspect. We as women perform gender, we perform femininity and now we are asked to perform our trauma so that it may perpetuate some action. We place the onus on women to enact change and we hand them the flawed mantle of social media activism.

The rising trend of social media activism is an understandable if problematic one. The political use of social media can be empowering. It is highly accessible and therefore has the potential for widespread impact. While hashtag activism has its merits, it can also foster a sense of apathy and complacency.

Social media as a medium for activism can feel like a confessional court of law where trolls have as much power as victims and the perpetrators remain nameless and faceless. In a society that normalises sexual violence, the use of social media can potentially lead to further normalisation of sexual violence.

Hashtag activism can be limited in its ability to produce institutional change. It is essential that online campaigns are transitioned into real world action. Otherwise, for the sections of society that so desperately need to hear the message of this campaign, namely the perpetrators and institutions, online campaigns become very easy to dismiss and ignore.

The campaign is a response to an abject failure on societal, legal and institutional levels to address and even acknowledge this epidemic. It is a call to action and movement that forces the spotlight on the issue. However, unless accompanied by systemic action, campaigns like this one can become instances of hashtag activism that invite widespread condemnation today but become faded beacons tomorrow.

Another question that must be asked in relation to the campaign is; To what extent is accessibility to the campaign based upon social and economic privilege?

Another cartoon in The Nib draws attention to issues of accessibility within the campaign. Cartoonists Jay Edidin and Dylan Meconis document the experiences of trans masculinity within the scope of the campaign.

‘The only place where it feels like there’s room for me in #metoo…is falling through the cracks.’

The campaign is not necessarily accessible to experiences of sexual assault that lie outside the heteronormative realm. Additionally, this campaign is premised on the testimonies of a few privileged and famous women. Ordinary women and people have been telling their stories for a very long time. Why does it take women in the spotlight speaking up to raise awareness of this issue?

Furthermore, when women is the spotlight come forward as they did in the case of Harvey Weinstein, their confessions result in quick action and condemnation. However, for most women that came forward who are not celebrities, there will be no justice or action.

This campaign is only accessible to women who have the privilege of coming forward, whose lives will not significantly be altered by their confessions. Uttering the words metoo itself is a sign of privilege.

When we look at campaigns like this, it is essential to consider the expectations that they place on victims, the extent to which underprivileged and marginalized sections of society have access to it as well as how much action the campaign ultimately inspires.

Undoubtedly, the campaign is beneficial in terms of de-stigmatising the experiences of assault victims and empowering them through telling their stories. #metoo shatters the silence that women have been skating on like the thinnest of ice. There is undeniable value in that.

It has value in terms of acting as a mass healing process for the processing of trauma. I am sure that for some it is incredibly cathartic. It raises awareness on a global scale and it shifts the focus of the conversation. In the rare instances that perpetrators are named and prosecuted, it is invaluable.

The campaign also showcases the beauty of female  solidarity in the face of trauma and oppression. However, while there are many things that women struggle with, female solidarity is low on the list.

I turn once again to another cartoon from The Nib. Kendra Wells writes,

‘…I’m tired of performing trauma for people who haven’t cared and will continue not to care.’

While this campaign has noble intentions and obvious and powerful benefits, it is impossible to escape the question; What about the sections of society that so desperately need to hear the message of this campaign?

What about the men and what about the institutions? What about toxic masculinity?

I wonder about the men from my high school who were ‘lectured’ for an hour about sexual assault. I wonder how they respond to the campaign. I wonder about all men in relation to this campaign.

I wonder how they act when someone they know talks about their experiences with sexual assault. I wonder if they stop for a moment to grieve. I wonder if they consider an action they might have taken and look upon it in a new light. I wonder if they display their support in a love react or a cry face react. I wonder if they reach out. I wonder if they reflect on their own actions. I wonder if they make a conscious decision to not perpetuate the toxic culture that normalises such behaviour. Perhaps some do.

But perhaps some stop, are momentarily saddened or indifferent or frustrated and then keep scrolling. I am sure that many others do the same. The difference is that for those who have experienced sexual assault and lived with it daily, there really is no scrolling past.

Image: Milada Vigerova


Neha Mulay is an English major, a radical deconstructionist and an ardent Feminist. Her writing has appeared in Overland and Demos Journal. She has a self indulgent blog.

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