None of the stories I’m telling here are about sexual harassment. But these people abuse their power in the same way.
This is the story of the story I can’t write.
The “#MeToo moment” has cut a righteous swathe through the elite, bringing down once unassailable men in entertainment, news, and the world of politics. The legions of us it united became 2017’s Person of the Year, fitting for so desolate a year that we women who yelled out “Enough!” in unison should be esteemed for it. I have #MeToo stories I’ve not gone public with in any detail. But they’re not what this piece is about.
Rather, this story is about what lurks in the penumbra of #MeToo, what is occluded by the press coverage and the jokes (so very many late night jokes) about the sexual dimension of male power. Power, as a whole, remains in the shadows.
A few women have tried to bring this more complex analysis forward. Journalist Melissa Gira Grant, for instance, wrote for The New York Review of Books about how sexual harassment is a projection of power, rather than something purely sexual. “Sex has overshadowed harassment,” she writes. But this moment points to larger, more systemic issues of men in power silencing and marginalizing those they dominate — whether or not they use sex to do so.Power, as a whole, remains in the shadows. Click To Tweet
“[W]omen are not supposed to let on that we know how power works,” Grant writes, “Consciously or not, we know how rote male dominance is, and that it often feels like nothing. It is the weather, and it is a form of discipline.”
This was a subtle but powerful point that was also made by Rebecca Carroll, a journalist who produced Charlie Rose for years. She wrote for Esquire about her experience of Rose’s racism. Describing a “toxic and degrading” environment, she recalled how Rose tokenized her for being black, and belittled her for forwarding innovative ideas on how to discuss race on Rose’s program. “If I pushed back on anything race-related, I was silenced or punished,” she wrote, adding that after she suggested a panel discussing the history of the slave trade to frame a piece on the movie Amistad, he became “so irate that he cancelled the whole segment and didn’t assign me anything else for days.”
“It was an environment that all but erased me, while simultaneously exploiting me as a black woman,” Carroll wrote. “I felt like an exotic anomaly he could move around the chessboard at his whim — and I was supposed be grateful for it.” None of Rose’s behavior toward her was sexual, notably. It was a parallel form of toxicity that degraded her, specifically, for being a black woman. But would Carroll be considered part of this “moment,” then? Even when her story feels so central to what #MeToo is really about? It exposes a form of male power and entitlement that imbricates deeply with a white supremacist power structure. We should not be surprised that Rose’s intense misogyny was twinned with racism, after all. Lest we forget, Harvey Weinstein tried to publicly discredit only two of his accusers: Lupita Nyong’o and Salma Hayek.
Yet Carroll’s story points the way to a larger understanding of white and male power. This isn’t about sex. As Grant, writes: “Our conflict is not over sex, or with men in particular or in general, but over power.” The even more challenging point she makes is that this reckoning should not just be about whether we “feel” violated, or pained, which reduces everything to a personal experience and slots neatly into the trope of tearful white woman as victim who must be rescued (and thus the only person whose harms must be, narrowly, redressed). Rather, it is about the fact of our power being reduced, our time being frittered away, our energy being spent on “dealing with” our abusers, our careers dissolving through it all against our will.
And thus we come to the story I can’t tell.
Whisper networks have been in the news lately, but they don’t just exist for discussing sexual predators. Marginalized folk of all genders have networks where we discuss other kinds of malefactors — not all of them men, but most of them white, certainly. They are people who prey on us; we’re resources to them — “informants,” “sources,” even when we’re actually supposed to be colleagues. We may be “inspiration,” or “muses,” colorful little characters in a story with a punchy headline. But we are never ourselves.
Once we outlive our usefulness we become so much trash to be dumped, and we are perpetually reminded that, whatever qualifications we hold, whatever we’ve done in our fields, whatever our titles, we are not their equals.
It’s the white cis woman who tells me that she loves my work but that she’s just so disappointed in my anger over her prejudicial statements on trans people; and she makes sure all of her (much larger) base of followers is aware of that. It’s the white cis man whose personal brand controls a newsroom with such force that it could turn an entire city against a trans activist who complained about unfair coverage. It’s the white trans man in a prominent community perch who gatekeeps the careers of so many aspiring trans women while degrading their talents in private, glorying in his power over them. In each of those cases, we had to smile, bow politely, and commit our time and energy to smoothing things over. We withdrew a little bit more of ourselves from public life, devoted more of what was left to mollifying them.
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I think also of the man who essays from a prominent media platform about the supposed threat posed by trans women like me. Liberal concern trolling, if you like. I have the temerity to publicly criticise him on social media, while speaking to another woman.
Before long, I find a furious email from him in my inbox angrily accusing me of spreading lies, belittling my professional qualifications and claims to expertise. Shut up and go away, he said. And yet months before, he had taken to social media to loudly denounce me, and spuriously accused me of professional malpractice to all of his followers, not a few of whom were in my line of work. I couldn’t send him an angry email of course.
That required power I simply do not possess.
Each of these cases is marked in a graveyard of text files that may never see the light of publication. Each case is marked by a singular lack of singularity — there are other people who’ve been harassed by the powerful folks in question, after all. But they don’t want to, or can’t, come forward. There’s never enough critical mass of testimony to go to press; without their story, there is no story.
Thus I’m so often alone with the man in the inbox.
He emailed more than once— because of course he did. It’s his privilege to vent to me in a manner unbecoming of his profession, to try and isolate me in a dark corner of my inbox. Who knows, he may recognize himself in this story and email me yet again.
My role in his life is that of a strange helpmate; a sounding board for his anxieties about his targets talking back.There are other people who’ve been bullied by the powerful folks in question. But they don’t want to, or can’t, come forward. Click To Tweet
I was not hurt by these emails, I wasn’t even sad. The first time I tried a little emotional labor — who among us, as women, hasn’t felt the need to soothe a man who is yelling at us? That’s what you do, right? The second time, I merely rolled my eyes and didn’t respond. This is a man who sought to make claim on my psyche, deliberately preyed on my insecurities, and tried to poison my profession against me. Because I’m a trans woman with an “agenda.” That had to be put down; I could not be regarded as an expert or an equal, only a shallow fraud who needed to be silenced.
Another man, with another email, sent after a talk I gave at a major professional conference. He started off by asking me not to make his words public before he launched into a belittling tirade about how awful I was for not including slides in my presentation and how he’d “never seen so many people walk out of a talk” before. I was at the podium, I saw the crowd, and the statistical feedback, I heard the exact opposite about that talk from so many people, and thus I knew all the ways he was wrong. But he still wanted to make a claim on my consciousness, eroding my expertise to feel more secure in his own.
This, then, is about all the bitter little ways our power — as women of color, as queer people — is diminished. It hangs together with quotidian online harassment from people who seek to reduce you to a witless ethnic stereotype; my favorite was an angry gamer calling me “Home Depot Anita Sarkeesian,” get it? Because I’m Latina? Hi-larious. But when slightly more highbrow variations on that theme come from your white male “peers,” it takes on a different shape because they really have the power to degrade your professional standing.
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It’s worse when they think they’re on your side. A cis man wants to be regarded as an ally of trans people; I explain why his ideas are actually transphobic, he responds by trying to erase me and telling the world I have no credentials to question him. In private, he condemns me; he casts me as the aggressor, says I am unprofessional, that I have no claim to any expertise on, say, online harassment or trans rights. He’s the real victim. As it so often is with the men whose heads you must sympathetically pat while they scream at you. Keep yourself safe by playing your preordained role in the drama he’s scripted, fret your hour on his stage, move on.
I’m not hurt — much less “violated” in any sense. But time and energy that could’ve gone into other things is now lost to the four winds. And I have to be concerned about what all those emailing men, the ones who don’t want me to reveal their splenetic rantings, could do to my reputation in the public sphere they so comfortably own.
And I must emphasize here: None of this behavior was sexual. None of the anonymized stories I’ve told here are about sexual harassment. But these people abuse their power in the same way; certain white people and men try to control the narrative in public, while cribbing you in private, making sure you can’t say what happened there. The consequences will be yours to reap, after all. You’ll be unprofessional if you come forward. You’ll get sued.Keep yourself safe by playing your preordained role in the drama he’s scripted, fret your hour on his stage, move on. Click To Tweet
#MeToo has already become a vast and sprawling conversation about complex, important issues regarding sex crimes. But there is connective tissue between sexual harassment and platonic forms of abuse, for each is rooted in a privilege no one should have. This is a venerable feminist insight that should not be forgotten.
“If it wasn’t about sex, why didn’t he just hit her?” asked Catharine A. MacKinnon, when trying to sort out whether rape was motivated more by sex or generic power. Like so many of her points, this aphorism is so simple as to seem inarguable, but it won’t reckon with the people who do hit us, or who try to destroy us without laying a finger on us.
Sociologically, it is more sensible to see sexual terror as existing on a continuum with abuses of every other kind of power, every other kind of social interaction. The point of abuse, and why it’s so insidious, is that it takes the material of ordinary life and turns it into a weapon: touch, sex, communication, privacy. These things are not inherently evil; their uses can be. Sometimes that use is neither violent nor violating, it just causes you to wither.
Grant’s essay reminded me of this. In a media economy that prizes women’s suffering as an Ur currency, it helps to be reminded that exercises of power don’t need to “hurt” to be harmful. Just because you can’t “sell” your story doesn’t mean it’s not important or informative.The point of abuse, and why it’s so insidious, is that it takes the material of ordinary life and turns it into a weapon. Click To Tweet
It’s vital to recognize that feelings are real and worth respecting, but we must be wary of the ways in which our stories are commodified as trauma porn for safe consumption. The larger fight? It’s not about feelings, but actual diminishment of real power: power over my time, my life, my work.
Back in the whisper networks a familiar dialogue proceeds. “Watch out for him,” “He creeped me out too,” “He does this to everyone,” “I got receipts,” “He came after me when I said x.” It’s all we can do to keep ourselves safe, and to retain the modicum of power that comes with knowing you aren’t alone. Same as it ever was.
Through it all, certain people will try to deny your power, or your ability to connect their fell deeds to a fell system.
They demand privacy because they know that “privacy” individualizes your story, makes it “he said she said” drama, and keeps it away from the bright lights of a larger analysis that would suggest these men aren’t the towering gods they think they are, but so many interchangeable parts in a larger machine.
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The strangely viral New Yorker short story, “Cat Person,” serves as a case in point — not just for how it sharply divided opinion along gender lines, but for the fact that so very many people, even those who approved, thought the story was an “article.” So commodified are our personal stories that something labeled FICTION in bright red ink was still presumed to be a “confessional” essay. Non-fic chick lit. It’s just so gratingly difficult to conceive of women’s experience of sexism, however subtle, as an analysis (or as art) rather than a personal story.
The confessional form itself, like its Catholic forebear, is a suffocating space where you submit to anonymous male judgement. There is no real redemption, and you are not allowed to survey, or assess, or judge for yourself.
Thus, on the one hand, you can read this essay as tragic, for it confines abusers’ identities to whisper networks. And, indeed, their anonymity is an exercise of power. On the other hand this form has been liberating: This isn’t a lurid drama of pain and tears which must, invariably, center the abusers as co-stars. This is about territory I’m more comfortable in: analyzing social structure, as a woman qualified to do so, regardless of what my emailing “friends” preferred me to believe.
There’s a reason that Rep. Maxine Waters’ invocation of parliamentary procedure, “I’m reclaiming my time,” spoken during a committee meeting where she was being interrupted and talked over by a white man, has gained immortality as an anti-racist/feminist slogan. The resources sapped from us by white patriarchy are that fundamental, and daring to reclaim them assertively remains a painfully radical act.
One day, perhaps, I’ll learn to reclaim mine.