Let me say first what this post is not:
It is not an indictment of women and men who have posted #metoo in their Facebook timelines and Twitter feeds.
It is not a denial of the seriousness of sexual abuse and sexual harassment.
It is not meant to shame into silence those who need their voices to be heard.
This post is merely an attempt to articulate my own inchoate discomfort with the #metoo meme and my own choice not to participate. My hesitancy surprises even me.
And, look, it’s not as if I don’t have my own stories. I do.
Story 1: Working as the receptionist in a law firm between college and grad school. I notice that one client in particular lingers by my desk for long conversations. It’s distracting me from answering the phones and doing my own work, and when I catch him looking down my blouse I get irritated enough to complain to the attorney handling his case. The client never speaks to me again beyond just professional communication. Was that harassment? It didn’t feel like it, then or now. I’m a smiley, engaged person, and that may have read as “interest” to him. If I had been interested in him in that way then perhaps he would have asked me on a date, and then his earlier behavior would have been “flirting,” not “harassment.” The difference between the two lies in my openness to receiving the attention. And when he got the message that I wasn’t open to the attention, he ceased.
Story 2: This one’s about actual sexual harassment, and it was scary. I was in high school and home alone. The phone rang, and, given that this was 25 years ago, I answered it. The caller said he was conducting a survey about women’s fashion. I was young and hated to be “rude” to someone, so I reluctantly said I’d participate. He began by asking about clothing choices (did I prefer to wear pants or dresses? slacks or jeans?) and he gradually moved to more and more personal items of dress. I began to be uncomfortable, but I didn’t know how to end the call without being, yeah, “rude.” When he finally asked whether I preferred tampons or pads, and could I describe how I inserted those tampons, I squeaked out a question: “Who did you say you are?” He hung up. I sat there stunned for a moment, then burst into tears. I felt dirty and shamed and powerless and afraid. Was this someone I knew? Did he know I was home alone? Should I lock the doors? I blamed myself for not ending the call sooner.
I have more stories, but these two suffice to illustrate at least one aspect of my discomfort with the meme. The power of a meme, any meme, is that it elides narrative difference. Memes strip narrative variation and collect all stories into one, powerful narrative. The #metoo meme invites me to lump these two stories together, to lose the tonal difference between the two, to lose subtlety.
On the one hand, the single powerful narrative lends itself to useful action. It’s a propelling force that can be directed toward a social good.
But on the other hand, single, collapsing narratives also invite abuses of their own.
One final story by way of illustration. This #metoo moment has reminded me of another time in my life when I felt enormous social pressure to share my stories publicly. When I was a sophomore at Wheaton College (Il.) the campus experienced a revival, a revival being experienced on a number of Christian college campuses. The moment was remarkable enough that The New York Times picked up the story.
I remember sitting in one of the chapels for hours as student after student walked to the front, took the mic, and tearfully confessed to sins. I remember being impressed by their courage, but also deeply embarrassed–embarrassed for them (porn and masturbation figured large in these confessions), and embarrassed at my own lack of desire to participate (was I just not “spiritual” enough? too prideful?).
I’m not equating the two sets of stories–confession of one’s own sins is very different from the testimony of abuse. But I merely want to note that in both cases these personal narratives, when they become public, begin to elide difference and detail. Public confession and meme culture reward collapsed stories, not nuanced narrative explorations. Damon Linker has a thought-provoking piece in The Week that explores this new tendency toward secular, public confession, and I encourage you to pop over there and read it.
Again, as I note above, there is a powerful utility to this compression. I don’t deny it. And I should note, too, that some #metoo expressions have made space for those of us who don’t want to participate, although that space is generally granted for psychological reasons (it would be retraumatizing) or political reasons (women shouldn’t have to share their stories to get men to stop abusing them) rather than for narrative or storytelling reasons.
So here I am. I see the value of this conversation–or, at least, I hope it has lasting value–but I’m uncomfortable with the narrative trend, itself.
Sarina Gruver Moore teaches English literature and writing at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.