Art by Sarah Eisenlohr. 

#MeToo, a Movement Reliant on Reporting, Reveals the Limits of Journalism

Because of legal obligations, writing—and reading—journalism about #MeToo means suspending belief in people who come forward about sexual assault.

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Oct 5 2018, 8:11pm

Art by Sarah Eisenlohr. 

“and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid

So it is better to speak
remembering
we were never meant to survive.”

—Audre Lorde, “A Litany for Survival” (1978)

“I came of age in the 60’s and 70’s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different,” wrote Harvey Weinstein in a statement to the New York Times on October 5, 2017. “That was the culture then.” The document is presented as a brief, unsigned one-pager, written in the gently curving letters of Microsoft Word’s default font, Calibri. I find myself hyper-fixating on the font as I read. It’s a bare step up from a Notes-app apology. You know the ones: saying little, meaning less, admitting nothing.

“I appreciate the way I’ve behaved with colleagues in the past has caused a lot of pain, and I sincerely apologize for it.” For what? “I’m trying to do better.” At what? “I so respect all women and I regret what happened.” What did happen, Harvey? The weak curves of the letters feel like an embarrassingly obvious metaphor for his side-stepping rhetoric—a double tap of low-effort and insincerity. I return, again and again, to those first sentences. “The culture then,” in the 60’s and 70’s. Harvey, whose culture are you talking about?

Notably, in a subsequent interview with Page Six, and then again when the New Yorker came forth with three women stating that he had sexually assaulted them, Weinstein responded more stridently. “Any allegations of non-consensual sex are unequivocally denied by Mr. Weinstein,” said the new statement issued to the New Yorker by his spokesperson, as if “non-consensual sex” could itself be anything but an equivocation—a verbal duck-and-weave misdirect to conceal an unspoken truth.

Reflecting on these statements one year later raises more questions for me about the work of what has been called the “#MeToo movement” than it does about the patterns and patter of abusers. My worry is that we have earnestly lost ourselves in the same rhetorical fog within which Weinstein deliberately shrouded himself. (Assume for a moment that there can be a coherent “we” to this or any movement.) And that the methods of disruption the movement relies on are too useful to existing structures of power to be anything but ultimately self-annihilating.

In 2006, Tarana Burke created “Me Too,” a Myspace page and movement to promote conversation and build community among young women of color who were survivors of sexual violence. #MeToo is something different—Burke herself noted this in a conversation with TIME: “What the viral campaign did is, it creates hope. It creates inspiration [...] But hope and inspiration are only sustained by work."

On October 15, 2017, actress Alyssa Milano instigated this viral campaign when she called for women who were survivors of violence to respond “me too” to her tweet about sexual harassment. The outpouring of stories that followed, like a hemorrhage across every social media platform and out of the mouths of seemingly every woman—and some men—so captured our vocabulary that it became the representative title of a new era and a rebranded anti-sexual harassment movement. A declaration of unity turned into an all-purpose modifier and umbrella term. “#MeToo accusations” and “#MeToo allegations” took over the news: The New York Times chronicled a newsletter of updates on the conversation as “The #MeToo Moment;” elsewhere, it informed us that “Trump Sees ‘Very Scary Time’ for Men in the #MeToo Era.” Vox warned in December 2017 that “The women reporters who sparked the #MeToo movement are already being written out of the story,” while the Guardian announced this August that “Ronan Farrow says #MeToo reporting made possible by US first amendment.”

There is a particular irony to the ubiquity of “reporting” in this movement. Other kinds of reporting—to human resources, to police—are so aggressively unsustainable for survivors. Women who report are often worse than disbelieved: they can have their jobs threatened, they can lose their family’s support, they can be treated like the guilty one and interrogated, rather than questioned, to the point of retraumatization. Meanwhile, this journalistic reporting has become the effective leader of the movement, and is expected to dismantle the oligo-patriarchy and save us all.

That irony is telling, because many of the same problems persist. In an anti-rape movement so hyper-focused on storytelling, on women coming forward and journalists vying for scoops, I am forced to ask: Who is being excluded? Who is being appealed to? What is being missed?

A movement founded on and almost solely reliant upon the legitimacy of journalistic reporting is, of course, limited by the principles of journalistic practice. Although I understand why they’re necessary, the legal and ethical standards in journalism and the limits of fact-checking have put a gag order on our vocabulary. There are “allegations.” There are “claims.” There are “accusers.” In an era post-Gawker being bankrupted by a lawsuit covertly funded by Peter Thiel, an era in which the president of the United States has convinced large swaths of the country that newsmedia makes up sources, journalists must be more on their toes than perhaps ever before. And that means not using language that implies belief in a story without full proof.

Still, when an article turns a nonsensical phrase like “C.K. did not address the multiple sexual misconduct allegations he admitted to last year during last night’s set,” or like, “C.K. later admitted to the allegations,” the dirty work of legal or ethical equivocation becomes clear. By its effects, something that is true and admitted can still be locked in the stasis of “allegation.” “And an experience that haunts women for a lifetime can be minimized and blurred over with a phrase as toothless—as empty of meaning—as “sexual misconduct.”

Pretending a journalist has never met a euphemism is like pretending a thinkpiece writer has never met a high horse. But there is very little clarity for survivors in naming their truths as “allegations.” Rather than suggestively gesturing at the writer’s journalistic objectivity, terms such as that one gesture harmfully at their subjects’ subjectivity. In our current context, words like “allegation” and “accuser” are already bent slightly in the direction of power’s innocence, like the crooked half-smile of a frat boy who simply "likes beer."

These unquestioned mechanics of the “#MeToo movement” keep us from effectively seeing and responding to sexual violence as a structuring force in our society, and as part of a larger machinery of misogyny.

Elsewhere, it’s even worse: the official Twitter accounts of various news outlets regularly spit forth content like this tweet from NBC news, which states that “four members of the U.S. Navy have been accused of engaging in a sex [sic] with an underage girl on a naval base and recording and photographing the illicit encounter.” Those crimes, by the way, are colloquially referred to as “statutory rape” and “child pornography.”

What we have is a cycle that only barely and occasionally serves victims of abuse, who are overwhelmingly women. Survivors announce their experiences of abuse en masse; a spare few are selected—for reasons of je-ne-SEO-quoi—to have their claims investigated and found credible; and finally, once the exposé breaks, the news machine churns out headline after headline after headline, losing a little nuance, context, or intent with each one like some hellish game of telephone.

And there is, apparently, a right way and a wrong way to go about this. The much-castigated website Babe.net caught hell this year for writing an admittedly messy piece about an anonymous woman and Aziz Ansari. The critiques weren’t only that it came off as just a “bad date,” although many people certainly thought so. Others, like Jezebel, thought it was a problem of bad journalism: too focused on lurid or peripheral details; too suggestive, too unclear. Like Maureen Dowd’s Opinion column on Uma Thurman, there was simultaneously too much melodrama and too much normal going on for the story to be believed. There was too much of the subject’s subjectivity, fully supported by the text.

Andrea Long Chu wrote about the Aziz Ansari mess in her n+1 essay “Bad TV,” arguing that the everydayness of the events described by the piece was exactly the point:

“You guys are all the same,” she had told him, “you guys are all the fucking same.” The internet went up in flames. Harassment in the workplace was one thing, but a national referendum on heterosexuality? What were we supposed to do, not have sex? Bari Weiss, with the New York Times feeding quarters into the back of her head, figured that if Grace had been assaulted, so had every woman, including Bari Weiss, which obviously wasn’t the case.

This is perhaps the crux of the matter. When the adjudication of what qualifies as truly an offense—as traumatic enough to legitimized—is made the purview of the media, not the purview of survivors, it becomes impossible to truly look at, name, and take action against the larger picture. It also places a certain kind of story-telling at the forefront of a movement, to the exclusion of all other kinds of stories—and of many, many survivors. That may perhaps have been the root of the intense fear and anger that the Shitty Media Men List inspired. The vast, unauthorized sprawl of women’s truths, and the equally vast, unedited sprawl of men’s shittiness was a step too far. It was excessive; by all accounts, an overreach. God forbid women talk to each other directly, unfiltered by fact-checkers.

These unquestioned mechanics of the “#MeToo movement” keep us from effectively seeing and responding to sexual violence as a structuring force in our society, and as part of a larger machinery of misogyny. In that sense, their acceptance often feels to me like a reluctance from some women to cut loose investments: in men, in wealth, in whiteness, in colonialism. But if the #MeToo movement can only address distinct instances of sexual harassment and assault, and not the founding briarpatch of snide remarks, aggressive sexual and romantic overtures, dismissal, condescension, entitlement, and other quietly abusive behaviors that so often shape dynamics between boys and girls, men and women—let alone the histories of disenfranchisement that all of that is predicated on—then the #MeToo movement is no use to us at all.

An op-ed in the Washington Post appeared in my Twitter timeline as I outlined this essay, declaring that “Press coverage of Kavanaugh is imperfect. But imagine if we didn’t have it.” Its author, Margaret Sullivan writes:

“What The Post and the New Yorker did is the very basis of good journalism. So is the important reporting from the Times and elsewhere on the extreme limits of the new FBI investigation, as dictated by the White House.

Post Executive Editor Martin Baron’s celebrated description of his paper’s approach to journalism in the Trump era — ‘We’re not at war, we’re at work’ — addresses this point.

I’ll dare to add: It’s not resistance, it’s reporting.”

Sullivan’s addition is true, and I can appreciate its flair. But I’ll venture to make my own addition: Her very point is part of the problem. What women need right now is exactly what journalism can’t give us: an organized resistance.

As a feminist and a scholar of women’s studies, I often get the feeling that we are so collectively embarrassed by the failings of the second wave that we’ve disavowed the whole era—in order to avoid realizing our own failures, especially. But now, caught in the wave of a movement that could not in a million years be called “grassroots,” perhaps it’s time to look back. The anti-rape movements of the 70s and 80s learned from the civil rights and Black Power movements that came before them, instituting totally new-to-them ways of organizing: self-defense initiatives, street patrols, and survivor support networks.The creation of rape crisis centers and battered women’s shelters were the work of these movements. ( What 60s and 70s culture does Harvey Weinstein remember? How determinedly was he blocking his ears to the sound of their shouts?) By contrast to these movements, the endless cycle of neutral reporting and marches, the appeals to journalistic objectivity and to legislative indifference seem hopelessly staid.

The women of that era wrote like they were on fire. They wrote like they were the fire; like the whole world was underbrush that had been piling up on top of them for decades, and with each word a spark came closer to incinerating the forest from the bottom up. In 1975, Angela Davis wrote for Ms. Magazine about the court case of Joan Little, a young Black woman charged with murder after resisting sexual assault. Davis pointed to the difficulty of convicting white men of sexual violence, referring to this as ultimately a “social and judicial encouragement given to rape.” The permissibility of white men’s assaults, she wrote, must serve some purpose:

“The social incentive given to rape is woven into the logic of the institutions of this society. It is an extremely efficient means of keeping women in a state of fear of rape or of the possibility of it. It is, as Susan Griffin wrote, ‘a form of mass terrorism.’ This, in turn, buttresses the general sense of powerlessness and passivity socially inflicted upon women, thus rendering them more easily exploitable.”

The minor abuses of sexism become permissible, and possible, because of women’s ever-present (and ever-enforced) fear of violence. This is a structuring force in our world. It is overlaid with and shaped by the equally structuring forces of racism, and capitalism, and ableism, and cis-heterosexuality. Until we can grapple with this structure of violence, we can’t begin to understand the other violences that are informed by it: abuse within the queer community, or by women or nonbinary people against men. These are the realities of violence against women—messier, more complex, and more omnipresent than the rigors of journalistic standards can perhaps encompass.

In 1989’s “Rape: On Coercion and Consent,” Catharine MacKinnon wrote that “the level of acceptable force is [legally] adjudicated starting just above the level set by what is seen as normal male sexual behaviour, including the normal level of force, rather than at the victim’s, or women’s, point of violation.” In the era of #MeToo, this is also how many adjudicate emerging stories; how the press decides what is credible; how many of the women who make up the ranks of the Women’s Marches undoubtedly feel about some of the women standing beside them, when their stories are too wild, too quiet, too close to home to really be believed. So many of our judgments are based on the assumption that there is some base level of force that is normal.

Under “conditions of male dominance,” MacKinnon writes, consent by itself is too simple a BAND-AID, too much a hall pass for abusers to slip by with near misses, small slights, aggressive negotiations, and miscommunications. “To know what is wrong about rape, know what is right about sex. If this, in turn, proves difficult, the difficulty is as instructive as the difficulty men have in telling the difference when women see one.” In other words, if the two seem too close, if everything seems grey, that’s because the fog of patriarchy—its alibis, its misdirections, its excuses—pre-exists every encounter of every kind that a woman has with a man. Sometimes things just feel wrong. Sometimes it’s like, well, you can’t know, right? So you hedge. You step carefully. You wouldn’t want to ruin one man’s life.

The value of a man’s life is the foundational ethics of our country.

The insurmountable value of one man’s life is the silent implication underlying the entirety of the Brett Kavanagh hearings, as we watch the full weight of the American government come down on a woman for daring to say she has been harmed by its chosen one. The value of a man’s life is the foundational ethics of our country.

But it’s never about one man’s life. Mackinnon’s claim that (as some have paraphrased it) sexual assault is a gendering force that asserts and imposes womanhood on its victim has been controversial; however, what does #YesAllWomen do but insist that gendered violence is constitutive of the experience of being a woman?

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If I have any hope, it is that this is where the current masses of angry women take us next: to furious activity, to outrageous creativity, to steadfast righteousness. And, yes, to excess. To overreach. My anger has filled my lungs and pricked my eyes for so many years that it transcends words; it is, at best, the shrill scream of a kettle sat on a burner too long.

So let’s boil over. Enough simmering; enough compressing ourselves into moderation so our voices come out level. That’s not how they feel when they’re rattling against the walls of our chests, clamoring and chaotic. Let’s want more than is reasonable. Let’s reach, united and teetering, farther than the span of our arms. By all this I mean: we must not let ourselves be limited. We have enough generations of anger and love carried between us to throw the world out of balance.

With thanks to Laura Ciolkowski’s Rape Culture Syllabus, and to Dr. Randi Nixon at the University of Alberta for sharing her course syllabus for WGS431: Feminism and Sexual Assault with me.