#Me too—but it’s complicated.
The first thing you should know is I have spent the last twenty-six years married to my high school sweetheart. We married at the age of eighteen and have two beautiful daughters. From day one, my husband, Jason, has been intentional about empowering them. This is what makes my ‘me too’ story so complicated.
Some of you may have read an earlier draft of this essay. I initially posted it to my blog and shared it to my other social media accounts. Unfortunately, I haven’t written a blog post since 2014, and since then, I had forgotten my password. I tried resetting it, only to learn that I was a contributor of the account, but not the administrator—huh? I realized I had initially opened the account with another email address, and after some serious difficulty, I eventually recovered my account. To prevent similar trouble in the future, I deleted the extra contributor account, only to have all posts I “contributed” with it disappear. Noooooo!!! In the meantime, I’ve had time to let this essay percolate a little more. Although my initial intent was to join the movement with my own #me too story, I realize that that is not the part I feel most pertinent to the discussion. Most women (1 in 4 being one current estimate) have a #me too story. I am not unique in that. What I want to add to the discussion, however, is the line we often walk between victim shaming and taking ownership of our own behaviors. Wearing a short skirt—flirting—posing for a selfie—does not equal consent. On the other hand, what role do young women play in giving the impression that harassment, objectification, and innuendo are permissible?
“god help you if you are an ugly girl/course too pretty is also your doom”
(Ani Difranco, 1997)
I have experienced sexual harassment throughout my life. One of my earliest published poems, “Chicana,” is a flashback of the sexual harassment I experienced in middle school and the feelings of shame and frustration that came with it. I recall wanting to somehow talk to my father about it, but I could never get up the courage. I thought getting married would take me “off the market,” and perhaps it did to some extent, but I still had a fair amount of catcalls, innuendos, and inappropriate jokes thrown my way. It just became commonplace, and I settled into an acceptance—it’s just the price you pay for being a woman.
During my undergrad years, I wanted desperately to make it as a writer. It would have been my dream career. Just as with most dream careers, it takes time and dedication. I participated in writers’ workshops, open mics, and conferences. I volunteered as a literary magazine editor, as a poetry contest organizer, and I worked in the university writing center. Outside of being a wife (followed shortly by motherhood), I lived and breathed in that space. In my case, that space proved toxic. Every one of those activities came with more attention—some harmless, some decidedly not so harmless. There’s a difference between harassment and attention, and having to navigate between the two was exhausting. It was also good fuel for more inflamed feminist writing.
In the end, rather than continue to pursue the fulltime writing career, I took a job as a writing center director, finished my Master’s, and went on to teach. Eleven years after our first daughter was born, we were blessed with our second. Eventually, with my still supportive husband by my side, I finished a Ph.D. program. This isn’t to say I don’t still struggle with conflicting feelings about the roles I’m supposed to play and don’t still struggle to navigate boundaries with the opposite sex. It just means I am much more self-aware of the gray areas.
I want you to pay me for my beauty/I think it's only right/ 'cause I have been paying for it/all of my life (Ani Difranco, 1994)
There’s an uncomfortable scene in Game of Thrones where one of the strong female characters becomes “The Mother of Dragons.” Her husband (whom she had no say in choosing of course) is taking her from behind while she grips the bedding, silently crying. She looks up and gazes on the dragon eggs she was given as a wedding present, and you see it—this is the moment. No longer is she a victim of circumstance. Daenerys learns to assert the power most readily available to women. She learns to climb on top.
As the mother of two beautiful daughters, and as a woman who has experienced more than I’m willing to share with the world on the topic of sexual misconduct, I am grateful this ‘me too’ moment has come to pass. However, I think we have to be careful to discern harassment from harmless interest. Attraction is a part of life. I also think we have to recognize when we might (consciously or unconsciously) be buying into the system.
I work on a college campus. I can’t tell you how many times I have found myself walking behind a young woman with her butt cheeks peeking out of shorts or wearing a skin tight skirt. I am fortunate cell phones/social media weren’t yet prevalent when I was in my twenties. The selfie can be so dangerous—and again, the way a woman dresses or makes eye contact should not mean she deserves to be a victim of sexual harassment (or assault, or rape).
In this ‘me too’ moment which gives us an opportunity to educate one another about inappropriate behavior we need to include the education of girls to empower them to realize they do not need the shorts or the tight skirt in order to be seen. Posing to get likes has become a norm. The attention we receive feeds our self-esteem. We are beautiful. We are seen. Of course that feels good, but what does it say that we aren’t posting our thoughts in order to get likes? Instead, we post memes or puckered lips. We post photos of ourselves looking into the camera—come hither. We add self-deprecating captions: Bad hair day! So unattractive. Then come the comments—you’re beautiful. Love this pic. Sexy!
This is part of the discussion that should not be left out. I don’t blame women for these actions—and I’ll gladly admit I participated fully at different times of my life. But let’s stop to consider the latest—Al Franken. In his apology to Leeann, he is forthright in saying “I’m sorry” but he also throws in “I remember it differently.” The impression there is that there was unspoken consent. In Leeann’s account she makes it clear there was not.
And yet, it gives us a reason to think more deeply on this issue. Women’s actions—or lack there of, can sometimes be confusing to men. Sometimes we fail to be assertive in the moment. We remain silent. Often because we are not in a position of power to do otherwise. Some of us, myself included, may have come to accept it as the price we pay for our gender. As an unearned privilege, we may even have come to tap it as a valuable source of power.
No needs to be spoken aloud, as difficult as it sometimes is to do. More importantly, we need to confront the murky area where we objectify ourselves. Another short illustration—our youngest is now in eighth grade (heaven help us!). Most of her friends have boyfriends. At least one boy we know of has expressed interest in her, although I am sure there are others we have not yet heard about. She’s walking with a friend to the convenience store along a very busy street. They return with tales of not one—but three instances of honks, whistles, and yelps. Another time, both of our daughters are out together and a young guy tries to pick up our oldest. When she tells him she’s too old, he turns to our youngest—how about you? These occurrences are stacking up. They are helping her form her identity. She will be someone who attracts by no fault of her own.
As terrifying as that knowledge is, it gets worse. One of her boy-crazy friends snaps a picture of herself in her bra and sends it to one of her other friend’s boyfriends. It’s a Snapchat, so of course, it’s “safe.” There is nothing safe about that. It warrants a serious discussion with our own daughter. And that’s the point I’m trying to make. I hope we can use this moment to educate our young women as well as men. The issue is complex with many related issues to confront. Daenerys learns to climb on top by learning to assert her sexual prowess. It’s a fictional world, but it mirrors the limited power historically available to women. I think we’re all pretty hopeful that this marks a change in that. We didn’t get our first female president, but we are getting more women elected, more female CEOs—for the first time in my university’s history, we have a woman president. There is a great deal of potential in this moment. It’s the perfect time to say, No! not only with words but with the way we dress, the way we act—and with the way we post.