#MeToo Is Making Us Realize We’re All Complicit. Now What?
It’s been a rough month. The #MeToo headlines have gotten so voluminous that, paradoxically, they are almost becoming easier to ignore. Twitter feeds overflow with stories that toggle between causing mild discomfort and outright disgust, and then, after a while, they all start to blend together. First, we were shocked; then we were angry — now we’re just tired. But in this downtime, after the outpouring of accounts, and before a real societal shift in how we define the boundaries of acceptable behavior, #MeToo has already scored one victory: It has forced us all to confront our own complicity.
What does it mean to be complicit in a culture that perpetuates sexual harassment? It means we witness non-consensual exchanges and choose to ignore them. Before last month, it’s likely that many of us considered the word ‘consent’ in a remote, theoretical- sex-ed rulebook kind of way. Now, we have been forced to reevaluate our own actions, not in the context of our own intentions, but rather, of the impact those actions might have had on someone else.
If you ever witnessed a colleague being hit on in a meeting, and didn’t say anything — you’re complicit. If you ever heard a sexual harassment complaint in the workplace, and thought to yourself offhand, “She’s probably making it up,” — you’re complicit. If you ever had inklings that a friend pursues the company of young women in his employ, and you never questioned the behavior, laughed it off, or ignored the gossip — you’re complicit. If you ever cajoled your own child into giving you physical affection when they said no — you’re complicit.
When we see men in positions of power and influence using that to objectify women in their offices, ignoring it, or even laughing at those jokes, serves to reinforce that the behavior is acceptable. When we invade a co-worker’s personal space to touch the lapel of her jacket, we are really saying that we don’t care if it makes her uncomfortable. When we teach our children that they don’t have agency over their own bodies, and can’t decide for themselves when an authority figure should be allowed to kiss or hug them, we are priming them to understand that someone more powerful can override your own feelings about what you do and don’t want to do.
All of these actions seem harmless, or even well-intentioned, in a vacuum, but vacuums only exist in fiction. The sustained message these actions convey in real life is a dangerous and harmful one: that some people’s personal boundaries can be ignored if they are inconvenient. #MeToo is forcing us to see the world through a different lens, from our day-to-day interactions, to the fictional vacuums we idealize. For instance, most of us grew up believing that Snow White was a lovely fairy tale about a young woman who is wronged by her stepmother and then finds true love — but now, well, that fiction is dashed. Now, that story comes across as one about a sick young woman who is sexually assaulted by a stranger while she’s in a coma — a far less enticing storyline.
There is good news in this collective reckoning, however: we each have power to change something, however small. We can approach others with a more sensitive perspective on how and whether we are violating their personal space or boundaries of comfort. We can speak up when we see or hear someone else’s discomfort. We can believe people who have been sexual harassed or assaulted. We can examine how some of our own privilege and care for our own comfort may have prevented us from recognizing indefensible behavior before.
There is a long way to go, still, to achieve women’s equality and safety in all aspects of life — work, home, public spaces. And while we celebrate the ouster of men who have abused their power, we should also celebrate a subtler, ultimately more pervasive victory of #MeToo: It has forced all of us to introspect, and that is no small feat.