If You Aren't Sure #metoo is Enough: Read This
by R.H. Lossin
In 2016 I was one of two women in a small graduate seminar on the history of slavery. I spent most of the semester feeling like a complete idiot. Insecurity always has its own very particular constellation and there were a number of reasons for me to feel less than qualified. But then I asked a very specific question and in response I got a long, slow explanation of unwaged, reproductive labor. The answer was so unrelated to the question and so obviously gendered that I actually felt relieved. It meant that I was neither paranoid nor stupid but was indeed being treated like a moron because I have boobs. The other woman—who was also the only African American in the slavery seminar—didn’t say a word from January to May.
I'm relating this anecdote rather than others because it is exemplary of how little, in most cases, the deleterious effects of misogyny has to do with actual sex. My professor didn’t try to fuck me. But that, honestly, might have fucked with my head a little bit less than the vague feeling that nothing coming out of my mouth made any sense.
This is not to say that actual sexual violence does not occur—or that my insecurities are unrelated to decades of wondering whether I was being listened to because of my ass or my brain. But the predictable media obsession with who touched who where and the salacious, and in some ways Victorian, fixation on proper sexual violations that have made headlines in the wake of #metoo, are missing the target. Or rather, they are aiming at a point when the problem is the plane.
Relative to the barrage of messages women receive concerning our mental and professional inferiority, our real value as objects to be had by successful men, actual sexual assault is an infrequent—if real, extreme and useful—method of oppression. Rarely does the disciplinary apparatus charged with keeping me in my place express itself as a quid pro quo exchange of professional tribute for a blowjob. Do men act like creeps? Of course. Do women engage in nasty, typically ‘feminine’ behavior? Yes. We all live in this shit together and it is dangerous to suggest that oppression necessarily produces morally superior beings.
The problem is not having my inner thigh stroked from time to time. Sometimes, if I am going to be honest, I even want my inner thigh stroked. My desire is as socialized as anyone else’s. What does damage—what makes these incursions by men in authority insulting rather than exciting--is a lifelong subjection to a low level murmur of inadequacy that functions as well as it does because I rarely hear anything clearly enough to be offended. And this is something that the collective voice of #metoo has thankfully amplified.
But this inability to clearly identify any but the most extreme instances of violence and oppression is a fundamental limitation of carceral models of feminism: Misogyny, like any other structural social problem, can’t be policed out of existence. Calling the metaphorical, literal and proxy cops on sexual encounters that are clearly in the black, as well as those occupying an expansive grey area, might put some very deserving people out of jobs or even into jails. But it also thickens the discursive status quo: women might be speaking their truth, but men are coming to rescue them. Calling on punitive legal structures—even if you do it with Oprah—is calling on patriarchy.
Alongside very real, individual accounts of violence, a disturbing cumulative narrative of female victimhood has begun to emerge. I’ll blame this on a sex-saturated and deeply misogynist media ecology rather than feminism itself, but the contour of the story that is emerging is something that feminists should be alert to. It is more than the sum of its largely valid parts and it is nasty. Women’s sexual purity, vulnerability and moral superiority (and concomitant mental inferiority) are not new and progressive concepts.
That this movement has come at a particularly reactionary time may be the result of a final straw, but it makes it all the more important to attend to the form that it is taking. At a moment when our sexual freedom is being threatened in real and material ways in the form of decreased access to abortions and birth control; when low wages and lack of job security combine with the erosion of social programs to keep women in abusive marriages and partnerships; and a far-right Christianity that is invested in women’s sexual purity and proper place in the home is politically ascendant, we should be very suspicious of a form of feminism that seems utterly obsessed with sex and protecting us from it. This is too close to a world that wants to keep good girls good for marriage. It is asking for chivalry, not equal rights. And it is loudly not talking about the situations that make women vulnerable to violence.
So what do we do about this? Think expansively, structurally and economically. It’s less fun—you don’t get to find out who sucked on whose tits—but it’s sustainable, involves actual movement building, isn’t limited to Hollywood and corporate elites, and actually gets at the problem: a society that depends on low wage, female workers and unwaged reproductive work. If we can start to chip away at these problems—vulnerability in food, housing, and health as well as sex--women will have more actual freedom and men will have less relative power.
This is not a way of avoiding the rampant problem of sexual assault or a denial that sexual oppression is real and particular. But sexual assault is an expression of power. It is not a biological mandate. To adapt a phrase from De Beauvior, one is not born a man but becomes one. Feminists need to undermine the structures that produce violent male entitlement and glorify female passivity rather than thoughtlessly reinforcing them.
So here is a list of unsexy articles to start thinking about #metoo in broader social context, as well as some thoughts on the messiness of sexual relations and the reactionary Deneuve letter.
Sarah Leonard, “From the Women’s March to #metoo: Building Solidarity in the Age of Trump,” The Nation
Barbara Ehrenreich and Alissa Quart “Talk to a Waitress or a Cleaner,” The Guardian
Laura Kipnis, “Kick Against the Pricks,” The New York Review of Books.
Laura Kipnis, “Has #metoo Gone too Far or Not Far Enough? The Answer is Both,” The Guardian
Jane McAlevey, “What #metoo Can Teach the Labor Movement,” In These Times
Sarah Lazare, “HR Has Never Been on the Side of Workers,” In These Times
Nancy Fraser, “Contradictions of Capital and Care,” New Left Review