The barrage of sexual harassment coverage by the mainstream media has yet to relent. Almost daily since October when the New York Times published its report by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey exposing film producer Harvey Weinstein’s years of predatory, manipulative, criminal, and violent behavior, another successful man is outed as the harasser that many already knew him to be. Their crimes have always existed—whispered about through gossip channels, hidden in plain sight in the punchlines of jokes. The only difference is that now, people and news outlets actually seem to care.
This past year has been unrelenting in its agony and yet, I keep expecting to feel catharsis while watching these men—too arrogant and assured to ever expect consequences for the harm they’ve caused—be forced to reckon with what they’ve done. But there’s been no joy or relief, not even the strange relief of vengeance, in witnessing their downfalls. Maybe it’s because of that, for every guilty man, there are seemingly a dozen women who have had to flay themselves open, bare both pain and fault before they can be believed. Even then, that may not be enough.
We carry emotional scabs, rough and raised over our past hurt, but it’s only women and other marginalized groups that are expected to rip them off to tell a story. We are supposed to bleed, to excavate past muscle, nerves, and bones as proof of our pain. I have no desire to pick at my scabs, no desire to dig up old memories and share them with strangers. They are better forgotten. But it can feel as though there are few other choices than to share our pain, our stories, no matter how intimate. Women are told that this is our unique responsibility, a gendered requirement to aid in progress. But what if we’d rather avoid revisiting our past trauma? Then everyday can feel like navigating a minefield, triggers holding us paralyzed with the fear that something might explode deep within us and bring up a memory that we’d rather avoid.
In the right circumstances, confronting pain can be healthy, but not—as has recently been the case—when it’s forced out of you and dragged into the unfriendly court of public opinion, another violation in a lifetime of violations. Also undeniably good is that a small portion of abusers are now being held accountable for their actions. I just wish it didn’t always have to come at our expense. Where once I was full of rage, I’m now exhausted by this endless bombardment, constantly reminding me that our abuse is systematic and insidious.
So how do we cope? The way we always have, I suppose—by putting one foot in front of the other and shifting our focus to the mundane day-to-day because, through centuries of experience, we’ve trained ourselves to carry oppression not like a backpack, noticeably burdensome, but like our own bodyweight. So ubiquitous that it becomes background, but corrosive and mutilating over time.
“God should have made girls lethal/when he made monsters of men” reads a line by poet Elisabeth Hewer. The line has stuck with me since I stumbled upon it in another book, not just because it’s striking, but because I resent its truth. I’m bored with dissecting my own victimhood but I also feel choked by it, held in place by its reality.
As French feminist Virginie Despentes wrote in her manifesto King Kong Theory, “A woman must remain open and fearful. Otherwise, how would masculinity define itself?” And if you’ve suffered the further indignity of sexual assault, she adds that “post-rape, the only acceptable response is to turn the violence inwards, onto yourself.” This seems to extend to all forms of violence towards women—and what a bogus deal that is! We doom survivors to live in a continuous loop of pain, first at the hands of perpetrators and then by way of public speculation and skepticism if and when they’re bold enough to come forward. How can we believe in justice and progress when—as we’ve seen throughout this year and the course of time—the punishment of abusers will come at the cost of their victims’ physical, emotional, and mental health?
I’ve had many men (and it’s only been men) tell me that the Weinstein fallout is a watershed moment. While I wish otherwise, I simply can’t believe they’re right. Donald Trump—accused of sexual misconduct by nearly 20 women—is still President. Roy Moore, an accused predator of teenage girls, would have won the recent Alabama senate race if it wasn’t for the inspiring turn out of black voters. Democrats and leftists didn’t want Senator Al Franken to step down despite his own admission to sexual misconduct. We’re fighting an uphill battle that can’t be won with the downfall of a few convenient scapegoats. Especially considering that those most likely to face the worst kinds of abuses—trans women, women of color, immigrants, and the poor—have barely entered the conversation.
We’re going to have to start over completely; pull apart our cultural DNA and rebuild something new, something equal. History demonstrates that few have the will or energy to make such a changes happen, but maybe—I’m pessimistic, but maybe—now is the time. If so, it will take a lot more to tip the scales than a few men finally recognizing that microaggressions are real (and turn into macroaggressions) or wealthy white ladies donning the right shade of resistance red and getting massages from impoverished immigrant women in the name of self-care. We’re going to have to accept that change itself can be dolorous and tedious, but that trauma should be healed at the expense of the abusers and not the abused.
Very few are willing to give up power for the sake of equality and even fewer want to take on pain if they have the choice not to. And so this triggering (a word stripped of meaning since being appropriated in jest by both the far right and far left, but still apt) landscape remains as dangerous as it ever was—perhaps more so as critics openly wonder, haven’t these abusers suffered enough by of losing a job and damaging their reputations? But the truth is that these men—embarrassed and unemployed for what might be their very first time since becoming successful—know nothing of pain and shame. Nor will they until, like us, they’re forced to repeatedly rip open their scars in order to be seen as human. Until then, suffering (and resilience) remains our domain.