TW: Rape, abuse, misogyny; CW: cis-gendered language
by Elizabeth Beckmann
Just over a week ago the #MeToo campaign, originally pioneered by black activist Tarana Burke over ten years ago, hit social media in the wake of news stories of Harvey Weinstein and the women he raped and sexually abused over the course of his career in Hollywood. Until now, the majority of the women he victimised had remained silent, pressured by the industry in which they work, confined by powerful ideologies that preach the superiority of men, the prominence of their reputations and subsequently the validation of their actions—as heinous as they may be. This culture has endorsed the continuous violation of women’s bodies and rights to the point of normalisation. This is evident through the actions of a collective Hollywood cast, whose silence on the issue has put them in the role of supporting actor to Weinstein: a man whose misogynistic behaviours and attitudes are comparable to those of President Trump, one of the most powerful men in the world.
The ideologies that keep women from opening up about their experiences with rape and sexual abuse are not located simply in Hollywood of course, but are part of a wider systemic problem the world over. Furthermore, when women do open up they are immediately shut down and silenced–sending a clear message to others that they do not have power, and that their experiences are negligible, unwanted reminders of the abuse committed by men against women in a society that still heralds men as superior. The experiences of women become labelled as insignificant. The #MeToo campaign however, resists these normative concepts, and though this is not its first outing, this recincarnation has allowed women and girls a platform through which to share and express themselves as a group rather than simply as individuals—a powerful tool for social change.
As I sat at home that Friday morning letting my morning tea go cold scanning through my social media feeds, I looked over hundreds of stories from friends and followers, overwhelmed, shocked yet unsurprised by the multitude of women in my network who had gone through similar experiences. Some of my male friends got involved, however many of them shared statuses expressing their appreciation that violence by men against women and femmes is a larger issue which deserves its own airtime—a sentiment I have to say I agree with vehemently. Others got involved with a simple “#MeToo,” whilst some shared more extensive and painful-to-read accounts of rape, sexual and sexist abuse. Looking at my inbox to check unopened messages, I found friends and acquaintances asking if I was going to partake in this campaign. As someone with a sizeable social media following largely based on my relentless sharing of feminist articles, videos and memes, I realised I was expected to chime in on this incredibly important movement. However, I found myself unable to craft my own #MeToo status despite having plenty of experiences and material with which to work. So what was my problem?
Though my writing career is in its infancy, I often put together papers which deal with difficult and potentially traumatising content for academic purposes. Researching topics such as fertility, masculinity and identity in the UK lead to the disclosure by many of my informants of varying kinds of trauma including death, physical and emotional abuse, rape, breakdowns, sexism and drug abuse to name a few. A handful of these relayed personal struggles with sexual and emotional abuse by partners, ex-partners, colleagues, strangers, family and acquaintances during their lives; experiences most commonly buried with years of practice, and which wait quietly for a moment at which to surface. During fieldwork dealing with such topics, I make sure to express my gratitude to my informants for sharing these difficult memories and ensure to my best ability that they feel not only supported, but important: they must be told what bravery it takes to divulge these often buried personal histories which have the potential to re-traumatise them. “I’ve never told anyone this before” was something I heard many times last year during fieldwork. I preach to my friends, family and informants the understated value in sharing these experiences: how will anyone know what people go through if we don’t share? “Thank you for this opportunity to tell my story” one informant told me after a lengthy and emotional interview about the difficulties of wanting children with her sexually abusive ex-partner. “Now I’ve told you, I can think about telling my friends and family.”
With this in mind, I sat considering why it was so difficult for me to share my own experiences when I myself have encouraged informants to do so, stressing the value in such a contribution to academic and public discourse. And I knew that there would be thousands of women, including strangers, friends and family, sat at their computer or with phone in hand unable to pen a status that included #MeToo. Why? Shame. Guilt. The struggle to be able to use words like ‘rape’ and ‘sexual abuse’ in relation to the self. Shame in admitting that this had happened after believing for years that it was our fault. Guilt in believing that perhaps that person didn’t intend to hurt us and that we ought to have given them the benefit of the doubt. The shame that so many women unwillingly go through during their lifetimes after experiencing rape and sexual abuse including catcalling in the street, overt sexist comments at work, a partner’s disregard for your consent during acts of sex and so on.
On my journey into campus that morning, it dawned on me that perhaps I needed an anthropologist through which to tell my stories, to locate my own trauma within a larger context, to allow someone else to frame my words anonymously and with validity. I sat there as both anthropologist and informant, conversing with myself about the theoretical framings of my lived experiences. This got me thinking about the power structures in place that feed into discourses of victim as guilty, are arguably fragile and in a constant state of potential demise. The #MeToo campaign has certainly caused a storm, but will this storm pass and its population revert to the way it was before, and what can modern anthropology do to ensure that it doesn’t?
My discomfort in publicly sharing is certainly a problem. Though keeping traumatic events to oneself is an absolutely valid coping mechanism, the insecurity, guilt and shame I associate with sharing, is not conducive to social transformation. As a self-identifying feminist that considers herself to be a strong, independent, switched-on person, experiencing difficulty in opening up about my experiences with rape and sexual abuse is problematic. The reason for admitting this, is to contribute to the emerging discourses in which women feel able to express their need to stay silent for the time being. Though the #MeToo campaign has given voice to many who were previously unable to express themselves, it has also (either intentionally or unintentionally) sought to unwilling force women into the limelight.
Though I have argued that sharing is invaluable, I would also reassure those of us who feel unable to do so just yet. Perhaps you and I feel unable to share at this moment due to the shame and guilt associated with victim-blaming, the re-traumatising nature of public contribution, or simply a refusal to take responsibility for educating others on what should be an obvious issue. However, this does not mean we are not part of social change. Admitting that we have a problem in sharing our experiences is part of that change. Change comes slowly, and I believe that academia as well as public platforms have a great role to play in that process, representing both those who are ready to share publically, and those who need a screen through which to whisper their histories steadily. What anthropology and anthropologists can do then is to share the weight of such a burden with women in both categories, but particularly the latter. Rather than leaving it to those affected by rape and sexual abuse to share and educate others on the realities of life as a woman, anthropology can give voice to those that feel unable to do this themselves—at least for the moment.
Elizabeth Beckmann is a student on the MA in the Anthropology of Development and Social Transformation at the University of Sussex. She is hoping to go on to do a PhD focusing on gender-based violence prevention, LGBTQ+ representation, masculinities and identity in the UK and S.E. Asia.