It seems a reasonable presumption that most, if not all, women have been victims of sexual harassment or assault at some point in their lives. Admittedly, I do not have the data to support this sweeping claim, but the #MeToo movement engendered by actress Alyssa Milano, who recently tweeted “if you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet,” has led to a flood of personal stories posted on social media, shedding much light on how commonplace sexual harassment and assault are in the lives of women.
As a result, I recently went on Facebook to express my solidarity with the movement. I wrote “Me too, and I believe you.” As a victim of sexual harassment, I also hoped to lend my support to the movement by reposting an article I wrote earlier this year about being sexually harassed by a manager during a summer stint as a waiter at a restaurant in Philadelphia when I was in college. Throughout the summer, I was propositioned, groped, called pet names, and looked upon repeatedly as a sexual object. But that is not all. I’ve been groped, catcalled, and propositioned by both men and women since I was sixteen years old.
I was always bothered by these experiences, but as a man, I also trivialized them, in part because, among many men, these types of experiences are fodder for flippant wisecracks rather than cause to make men aghast. As a result, given how women also wrestle in silence with the psychological and emotional repercussions of harassment, I shared my experience as an attempt to empathize with all the women coming forward.
It did not escape me, however, that I am not alone, and that sexual harassment of men, while likely less endemic than sexual harassment of women, is probably not an isolated, infrequent occurrence. Thus, the #MeToo movement struck me as an opportunity for male victims of sexual harassment to join hands with female victims of sexual harassment. However, I invoked my experience with some trepidation. Ms. Milano started the #MeToo movement with women in mind. Her aim was to show how commonplace sexual harassment is for women. I feared that some militant types might pounce on my post and accuse me of trying to hijack a movement meant for women.
But was I hijacking the cause of sexual harassment? According to an article in the Daily Beast, actor Corey Feldman “has long alleged that pedophilia is the worst problem in Hollywood and that it’s in part responsible for his best friend Corey Haim’s eventual death by drug overdose.” In a 2013 interview with Barbara Walters, however, Mr. Feldman encountered some resistance from Ms. Walters, who challenged his claim by saying: “You’re damaging an entire industry!” (Imagine if a man said that to the women who have come forward in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal!) Moreover, serious rumors have floated around that actor Kevin Spacey engages in predatory behavior with young men. Actor Terry Crews tweeted about his experience being groped by a high-level Hollywood executive when he was with his wife at a Hollywood function. Actor James Van Der Beek tweeted that he had experienced “older, powerful men” grabbing his derriere and cornering him into “inappropriate sexual conversations.” Who knows how many more actors have had these experiences?
Nor is sexual harassment of men confined to Hollywood. I have a friend who is currently embroiled in a discrimination suit he filed against the top brass at a venture capital firm where he worked, claiming he was fired after he refused the advances of the CEO of his firm. During a night out, he was allegedly invited to join the CEO of his firm at the Burning Man festival as “one of his boys;” was mortified when the CEO allegedly touched and massaged his body without consent; and was allegedly subjected to pressure by the CEO to orchestrate a threesome with him and his ex-girlfriend. In addition to my friend’s experience, I once worked under the supervision of a male economist at a consulting firm who was caught engaging in clandestine predatory harassment of a male analyst under his supervision (not me); he was eventually caught, but instead of being arrested and prosecuted, he was quietly allowed to tender his resignation. Who knows how many men have experienced similar harassment in the halls of corporate America?
In other words, there is a “there” there, so I decided to post about it. However, I had strong reservations about doing so, lest I confuse male sexual harassment with the cause of female empowerment. It was for this reason that I included a passage from the article in which I recounted my own experience being harassed. It is a passage which explicitly acknowledges that female disempowerment is an insidious consequence of sexual harassment: “My boss was gay and crossed many lines of workplace decorum, but I was still a straight man in a straight man’s world. No one would take me seriously if I complained, but no one would hold it against me either. In a Mad Men world, and even in today’s world, women do not often have the same luxury. People might or might not take her seriously, but she has no guarantee they won’t hold it against her.”
In short, I believed I was doing my part to highlight the curse of sexual harassment for women, but I saw no harm in raising awareness about the sexual harassment of men. It seemed to me that condemning sexual harassment was the paramount issue. Sure enough, however, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed later that day and came across a post imperiously explaining that #MeToo is a woman-only movement: “Just as ‘Black Lives Matter’ is meant to draw attention to the marginalization and murders of African-Americans in the US and is not about ALL lives mattering or POLICE lives mattering, ad infinitum, so is the Facebook ‘Me, Too’ movement a way to draw attention to the widespread sexual harassment and abuse of WOMEN and not a way of excluding the sexual harassment and abuse of men. It’s women banding together to say ‘Yes, this happened to me, too, and more people should be aware of how widespread it is.’ To the men on my Facebook friends list, to other men on Facebook and men in general, please don’t hijack this and try to make it your own. And, please stop the ‘man-splaining’ thing.”
Just as I feared. Given my initial reservations, I obviously was inclined to concede that a fair point had been raised. Except, that is, for one thing: inter-sectionality. “Inter-sectionality,” a term coined by critical race theorist Kimberle Crenshaw, has gained much currency in progressive circles in recent years. It refers to the idea that in spite of all their differences in identity and experience, oppressed groups share the status of being a victim, and that solidarity takes precedence over sectarian loyalties if systems of power and privilege which unconscionably exploit their victims (often or usually regardless of sect) are to be confronted and overturned.
In her own words, citing a case that proved seminal to her inspiration, Ms. Crenshaw explains: “In 1976, Emma DeGraffenreid and several other black women sued General Motors for discrimination, arguing that the company segregated its workforce by race and gender: Blacks did one set of jobs and whites did another. According to the plaintiffs’ experiences, women were welcome to apply for some jobs, while only men were suitable for others. This was of course a problem in and of itself, but for black women the consequences were compounded. You see, the black jobs were men’s jobs, and the women’s jobs were only for whites. Thus, while a black applicant might get hired to work on the floor of the factory if he were male; if she were a black female she would not be considered. Similarly, a woman might be hired as a secretary if she were white, but wouldn’t have a chance at that job if she were black. Neither the black jobs nor the women’s jobs were appropriate for black women, since they were neither male nor white.
Wasn’t this clearly discrimination, even if some blacks and some women were hired?”
In short, inter-sectionality is about oppression. It is the study of how prevailing social, cultural, and economic norms and institutions oppress marginalized groups. Racism and sexism are experienced in different contexts by different people who have different group identities and different individual experiences. However, their experiences “intersect” because they occur within a permissive institutional framework that facilitates racial and gender oppression. All must be acknowledged and redressed through change and reform.
In the case above, black women and black men were denied the opportunity to work “white” jobs, while black women and white women were denied the opportunity to work “male” jobs. But black men and white women found jobs, while black women did not. Black men and white women presumably continued to suffer from oppression in other ways, but in this case (at least among those who obtained employment), they escaped discrimination. Black women did not, and presumably still suffered oppression in other ways.
Similarly, while men may be less likely to experience sexual harassment and assault, it is nonetheless the case that men, like women, frequently suffer harassment at the hands of people in power. When I worked as a waiter, my manager hired me, and he could fire me at will. Moreover, when he propositioned me, groped me, or called me sexual pet names, the other waiters and waitresses, as well as bartenders and kitchen staff, found it amusing. Thus, I felt compelled to go along to get along. Given this and other experiences, it does not strike me as far-fetched to suggest that sexual harassment is a regular, if not chronic, occurrence for men too, and that it often goes unnoticed or unappreciated. The #MeToo movement seemed to offer an opportunity to highlight the plight of male victims of sexual harassment in addition to female victims.
In fairness, I have thus far only seen one Facebook post exemplifying the kind of blowback I feared. It remains to be seen whether the #MeToo twitter surge, and the culture at large, will welcome the inclusion of men recounting their own experiences with sexual harassment. Corey Feldman, Terry Crews, and James Van Der Beek have come forward, and I have not witnessed any resistance or hostile reactions to them doing so. I hope it will stay that way. But I remain wary. Will the #MeToo movement welcome men’s stories of sexual harassment and assault? If we are to take seriously the progressive aims and insights of the “inter-sectionality” movement, it should.
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