In the light of the #MeToo campaign and the almost daily revelations about sexual misconduct, many people are talking about “this moment” and the “turning tide” of the acceptance of sexual harassment and assault. I’ve been thinking about this along with every other woman, and wondering if we really are turning a corner. We are at this moment in Vermont, too. This follows a year when one of our state Senators was tried and finally convicted (of a prostitution-related misdemeanor) after he forced a woman living in a trailer on his farm to have sex with him and at least one other man in exchange for paying the rent she could not afford. This case made it easy to see how poverty and desperation were used as a tool of violence, and how addiction, race, housing instability and the promise of a dream all become tools for assaulting women, and for assaulting men.
I was recently at a dinner party where the men (all gay) entered our conversation about Harvey Weinstein with some expressions of disbelief about his victims’ sotries. The women at the table informed them that virtually every single woman has experienced some form of sexual harassment and most have experienced sexual assault. Then the men started telling stories – how one of them was presented with a sexually explicit birthday gift by his boss, how bosses and priests and others with power had touched them, and threatened to out them if they didn’t comply. In the end, 100% of us had experienced sexual assault and harassment.
Lately, I find the word “accountability” to be despairing. Our use of accountability has been focused on individuals, allowing society and our culture to ignore our collective complicity. In this moment, the focus on “bad men” misses the cast of characters who support men with power, from the White House to a Vermont dairy farm, and who look the other way or even facilitate sexual assault. Accountability needs to go beyond a singular individual and all the way to the systems and social norms that support that behavior. That means that accountability has to be more than punishment or retribution. Accountability has to go beyond apologies and all the way to a telling of the whole truth and to reparations.
The reality is that the same social norms that support a guy like Harvey Weinstein, also support the guy raping his undocumented domestic worker, or the person cat calling the teenaged woman, or the gifted artist exposing himself to a woman with whom he as a professional relationship.
The day that men hold other men accountable for sexual harassment and assault, especially the sexual harassment and assault of women who are marginalized, is the day that the tide really will be turning.