Yesterday, at approximately 12:47 pm, I decided to abandon my workday, go home, turn off the internet, eat six slices of the pumpkin pie I baked the night before, cuddle up with my pups on the couch, and call it. Seeing every woman, trans, and nonbinary person I know post “me too” was fine. Expected, really. The #notallmen posts got an eye roll out of me, but come on. Also expected.
My sudden and crisp breaking point, however, came when my news feed started congratulating people for publicly and nonchalantly admitting on their social media platform of choice to sexually abusing children. Yep, that happened.
That is happening.
It seems to have started as a somewhat admirable attempt to call attention to the fact that behind every “me too” post made by someone who has been harassed or assaulted is at least a second person, if not 10 or 25: the one(s) who did the harassing and assaulting. And why should those people get to be anonymous? Addressing this problem is going to require the countless number who perpetuate and perpetrate it to admit what they’ve done and take some responsibility for their actions already. Yeah? Yeah.
But that’s not quite what happened here.
A few calls were made for people who have perpetrated sexual violence to post “I have,” and – low and behold – the “I haves” appeared. Some disclosed having sexually abused young children as older adolescents charged with the children’s care. Some left all details wanting and let the their simple “I have” hang starkly in the social media wind.
Perhaps, even more eerily, there were likes and hearts. The comments voiced affirmation and applauded those disclosing their sexually abusive behavior for demonstrating “real” bravery.
As opposed to the fake bravery of the “me too” posts?
And what about the potentially frightful impact it could (just kidding: did) have on survivors who were already feeling extra exposed in the height of the “me too” frenzy to watch their friends respond to perpetrators of abuse with the very same admiration and applause those friends were dishing to “me too” posters?
Do you see what’s off here? I think you do.
The logic behind the “me too” campaign is that if we make all the people who have been harassed and assaulted simultaneously visible, we will also sense viscerally how commonplace it is for women, trans, and nonbinary people to experience these forms of harm. The point is to show how normal the experience of harassment and violence is so that we can be collectively moved to 1) awareness that we who experience harassment and abuse are not alone, and 2) readiness to act for change. It’s an impromptu movement of harassment and assault survivors making themselves present to each other publicly and in large enough numbers that coming forward is safe(ish) because the usual responses survivors are met with (disbelief, shaming, etc.) are momentarily considered socially unacceptable by the public majority.
While it is important that people who perpetrate sexual harassment and violence become willing to own up to their behavior, it is not remotely appropriate for the safety-in-numbers dynamic of the “me too” campaign to be coopted and used as cover for disclosing the perpetration of sexual harm. And that, my friends, is what is happening here.
“I have” mimics “me too.” In doing so, it invokes and claims for itself the social protections that “me too” has rightfully earned: respect, affirmation of bravery, no questions asked. Only, “I have” has no right whatsoever to share in those protections. “I have” ought not be met with likes and hearts and “wow, you’re so brave.” The “me too” campaign has fallen entirely on deaf ears unless we all come away from it understanding a little more clearly that we have a responsibility to respond to every “I have” with “Ok, and what are you doing now to be accountable for the harm you caused?”
This is a moment when, theologically speaking, it is crucial to differentiate between the different kinds of narratives we are hearing and the different forms of witness they demand. I like to think of witnessing as hearing with your whole body. To witness something is to take it in, turn it over, let it impact you, and respond in a way that reflects the truthfulness of what you’ve heard.
The truth core of “me too” is “I have been wrongfully harmed.” When we are gifted with the difficult opportunity to witness the truth of one’s experience of wrongful harm, authentic witness means allowing ourselves to be moved by that person’s pain and wisdom. We show them we have heard them by offering them respect, affirmation, and control over both the narrative they have disclosed and any process of response that follows.
The truth core of “I have” is “I have wrongfully harmed another person.” When we find ourselves the recipients of this kind of narrative, authentic witness means letting what has been spoken sink in. We are not hearing rightly if we are not disturbed. We don’t do the speaker’s disclosure justice if we don’t respond with concern for the one the speaker harmed. In other words, to show we have heard the one disclosing perpetration, we take the harm they’ve caused seriously and we do that by insisting on accountability.
I admit without hesitation that we have a problem when it comes to creating space in the world for people who have perpetrated this kind of harm to come clean about it, especially those few who really are attempting to be accountable. Most of us have a ways to go when it comes to learning how to confront perpetrators of sexual harm and to address that harm well. In that task, stigma isn’t helping anyone.
But let’s not let ourselves be fooled for a micro-minute into believing that treating disclosures of sexual violence perpetration like disclosures of harassment and assault survival is the way we are going to make progress. The fact that the difference between these two kinds of disclosures is slippery enough for one to be exchanged for another in our collective social consciousness and in our social media rituals tells us, if anything, that we have quite a long way to go before our listening skills will be up to the task of witnessing narratives of wrongful harm, narratives of wrongful perpetration of harm, and the vast and complicated distance between them.
Listening is a challenging practice. It’s not simply a matter of hearing or seeing or touching. It’s not exhausted by the sensory. It requires attention and thought and vigilance. Often, it can’t be done without courage, and listening well to one voice is going to look different from listening well to another.
Right now, in response to the “I haves,” listening well means saying no. No, this is not the time or the place. No, your disclosure will not be met with uncritical affirmation. No, you may not have a slice of the “me too” safety-in-numbers that survivors of sexual harm deserve and enjoy far too little as it is. Our first step toward enacting some accountability here is going to be to practice boundaries – listeners setting them and “I haves” respecting them. Here they are: No.