I’m often unenthused, to put it mildly, about social media campaigns. I’ve expressed my… reservations… about #WISH and #DoItInADress previously. While invariably well-intentioned, such campaigns often become little more than opportunities for shared selfies and trending hashtags, regularly lacking (albeit certainly not always) in measurable outcomes.
Across the course of the week I’ve had almost every conceivable reaction to the #MeToo campaign. Initially it was all outrage. In an era where we have data up the wazoo on the prevalence of women’s harassment and assault by men, why do you need to see me bleed so that you can believe that this is endemic?
Whenever a woman tells her story, whenever a report is published documenting our abuses en masse, there’ll always be people - men, commonly, but that’s another can o’ worms - ready to furrow a brow, wrinkle a nose and look for ways to doubt us. And if not doubt us then, at the very least, question our complicity. About the role our attire, our route home, our employment played in our abuse. To downplay and minimise us.
So what’s the point? In a world where evidence apparently is insufficient to satisfy, why should any of us believe that our harrowing confessions will make a difference? All too quickly #MeToo came to feel like gussied up voyeurism.
Yet, as more and more stories appeared in my feed, as more celebrities exposed their wounds in the press, I’d make my way through feelings of sympathy, empathy, upset and shared recognition. I’d experience renewed passion about women’s rights to tell - or not to tell - our own stories on our own terms. And then I’d reflect on the reality that every single woman has a cache of such stories even if the majority of us aren’t offering them up on Facebook. In my case I can tell tales of workplace sexual harassment, street harassment and a few months of being stalked; the latter, culminating in “advice” from a police officer to get closer to the perp and shout out some expletives. The extent to which these stories impact us vary, as do our inclinations to report them, to (re)tell them and our successes in coping. What doesn’t vary though, is women’s intimate knowledge of our vulnerability based on sex.
I’ll end the week though, at a different point in my thinking. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, an academic one.
I recently completed an 8000 word chapter on radical feminism for an anthology. (It’s not due out until next year though, so alas, no link). Part of my research led me to reading up on the consciousness-raising activities of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Women coming together to share stories - to, borrowing from Maoists, speak their bitterness - about the downsides of their sex. Such sharing lead to the realisation that action was necessary; action that became the activism of second-wave feminism.
In writing that chapter I wanted a section on how, half a century on, we can assess the contribution of radical feminism. It’s consciousness-raising that’s the big success. Women talking to one another and uncovering the prevalence of workplace sexual harassment, of rape in marriage, of domestic violence. Consciousness-raising is credited for enlightening and educating women and, notably, giving us a new - and uniquely political way - of thinking about our subordination. For all the ways that radical feminism doesn’t speak to me in 2017, the framing of sexism as institutionalised continues to be profound.
So here we are, fifty years on, and we’re doing it all again. Stories are being shared with our sisters and a global audience has become privy to our awfullest secrets. Half a century on and apparently it’s still women’s job to broadcast and police our own abuse.
If I’m honest, it mortifies me that we have to keep doing this. That we have to keep repeating out stories in the vain hope that one day we’re believed. That we have to keep reading each other’s hurt to remind ourselves that we’re not alone, that it’s not just us. And yet, women doing this very thing yielded some fruit in the 1960s and 1970s. Maybe it will again.
I’m going to end the week trying to be less cynical and instead hope that in another five decades, we can point to a handful of good things that emerged from 2017. I’m going to try not to dwell that, for all the successes of feminism, fifty years on and we’re still trying to raise our own consciousness while simultaneously prodding the conscience of men.