Why the #MeToo movement has been worth the pain

FILE - In this April 15, 2015 file photo, Rose McGowan arrives at the LA Premiere Of "DIOR & I" held at the Leo S. Bing ...

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 If you have any kind of life on the internet, you’ve probably seen women of your acquaintance posting a #MeToo hashtag across social media this week. Launched partly in response to allegations of the rampant sexual assault and harassment perpetrated by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, the #MeToo campaign has resulted in a stunning outpouring of testimonies from victims and survivors in a not dissimilar manner to 2014’s global #yesallwomen phenomenon.

As the hashtag gathered steam, I watched the posts reach a crescendo in my own online communities as more and more women added their voices to the mix. Some of them did so while acknowledging this was the first time they’d spoken about their experiences. Others talked about how long it had taken them to type the words.

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None of this was surprising to me, because the knowledge that women hold an ocean’s worth of pain inflicted by men is well known to those who swim in it. Still, I thought I would be immune to the self doubt and shame that other women are conditioned to feel by the woman-blaming, victim-shaming culture we live in, solely because of the kind of work I do in challenging it.

But when I went to post one of my own #MeToo moments, I found myself feeling both shame and self doubt in equal measure and I paused a long time before I decided to hit publish. As it turns out, no amount of exposure and feminist vigilance can completely undo the work of decades of cultural conditioning. I’m just the same as the next woman who wonders what she could have done differently and fears that the whole thing is an overreaction anyway.

On Twitter, I wrote a thread referencing an experience I had at 13 in which an older male boss (one of those good men with a wife and a daughter that we keep hearing about) groomed me over a number of months before inviting me to his upstairs apartment, plying me with alcohol and telling me I was “all talk”. In the thread, I talked about how difficult it had been to make that story public. Not because he did any lasting damage, but because I still carried the residual fear that I had imagined it all, or misinterpreted somehow. I have known exactly what happened in that apartment for the past 23 years, but voicing it out loud still comes alongside a whispered voice saying, “But are you really sure?”

One of the most compelling arguments against the sharing of #MeToo stories is that men shouldn’t need to keep seeing women’s pain to accept that it exists. This is undeniably true. There are only so many times we can tolerate watching the men in our communities protest that they didn’t know how bad it was, or vow to “do better” without any real plan as to what that actually looks like.

If the response from men was the only thing at stake here, I’d be tempted to agree with this assessment wholeheartedly (especially when the men who do speak out are nauseatingly bombarded with accolades and gratitude, even as the women who’ve prompted their momentary awakening are further abused and ridiculed).

But maybe something we overlook in these critiques is how powerful it can be for women to see each other speak out against commonplace experiences that we’ve dismissed ourselves, or brushed off and tried to tell as light-hearted stories.

Women do not silence ourselves willingly. We become silenced over a sustained period of time in which everything we do and say is subject to questioning, cross-examination and ultimately dismissal.

As Molly Ringwald wrote in her excellent New Yorker essay, “I could go on about other instances in which I have felt demeaned or exploited, but I fear it would get very repetitive. Then again, that’s part of the point. I never talked about these things publicly because, as a woman, it has always felt like I may as well have been talking about the weather.”

Women have been so conditioned into giving men and their intentions the benefit of the doubt that all the doubt left over becomes absorbed into our own memories. Even now, I worry that my former boss will find out that I told on him. Worse, I worry that something so formative to me was something so conversely casual to him that he doesn’t even remember it, and that because he can’t remember it it may as well be as if it didn’t happen.

But perhaps worst of all is the feeling I can’t shake of wanting him to continue to think well of me. Because you can’t just kill off the 13-year-old parts of yourself that have been so cleverly taught to crave one man’s approval, no matter how much your adult self identifies him as a threat.

I understand why some people have refused to participate in a campaign like #MeToo, because of everything from its capacity to retraumatise to the sense that we have been here with men so many times before, and none of this should be new to them. But for me, the potential of #MeToo is in the way it’s helped women to reframe as significant the experiences we learnt at some time to absorb as meaningless or irrelevant.

It is powerful to be reminded of stories even we have forgotten, because at some point they just became part of a larger weather pattern that nobody else seemed interested in.

I don’t know where we go from here. But maybe it’s enough for now that while we figure that out, there are millions of women who will – at least – refuse to go back to feeling ashamed.

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