Margaret Renkl: The raw power of saying #MeToo

Actress Alyssa Milano launched a "Me Too" Twitter hashtag requesting  people reply on the social network if they have been victims of sexual assault or harassment. Picture: CHRIS DELMAS/AFP/Getty Images
Actress Alyssa Milano launched a "Me Too" Twitter hashtag requesting people reply on the social network if they have been victims of sexual assault or harassment. Picture: CHRIS DELMAS/AFP/Getty Images
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A few years back, when there were still three teenagers in this house, I got a little wound up at supper one night and kept going on and on about the brilliance of a novel I was reading by an Irish-born writer. “I can’t believe you’ve never been there,” one of my sons said. “As much as you love this stuff, I can’t believe you’ve never been to Ireland.”

“Well, it’s expensive,” I said. “First I had no money, and then I had a bunch of kids. And you all need shoes more than I need Ireland. I’ll get there one day.”

The sceptical teen was not satisfied with this answer. “Dad biked around Europe all by himself for nine months before he even went to college,” he said. “You could have done that, too, if you’d wanted it bad enough.”

And it’s true: My husband did in fact earn the money to bike his way across Europe at age 19. Alone.

I taught my sons to stand when an adult enters the room. I taught them to look people in the eye and extend a hand when introduced. I taught them to put their napkins in their laps, not to speak with their mouths full, to stand up for children being bullied. What I had not taught them, it suddenly dawned on me, was how it feels to go through the world as a woman, the mental calculations involved in parking a car downtown or riding an elevator at night or taking a walk in the woods.

“It’s dangerous for a woman to camp alone,” I finally said at the table that night. “There are women who do it, but I’m not that brave.”

My children grew up with stories of their father’s adventures. They did not grow up with stories of mine. I didn’t tell them the story of the 16-year-old family “friend” who babysat while his parents and mine went out to dinner the year I was 11, how he followed me around the apartment, tugging on my blouse and telling me I should take it off, pulling at the elastic waistband of my pants and telling me I should take them off, how I finally locked myself in my bedroom and didn’t come out till my parents got home.

I didn’t tell my children the story of walking with my friend to the town hardware store when we were 14. I didn’t tell them that my friend used her babysitting money to buy a screwdriver and a deadbolt lock to keep her older brother out of her room at night.

I didn’t tell my children the story of my first job, the job I started the week I turned 16, and how the manager kept making excuses to go back to the storeroom whenever I was at the fry station, how he would squeeze his corpulent frame between the counter and me, dragging his sweaty crotch across my rear end on each trip.

I didn’t tell my children about the time at university when I had to call the police because there was a man crouching in the bushes next to my front steps, or about the former professor who told me that my impending marriage put an end to the “longest-running act of foreplay” he had ever engaged in. What I had thought of as an avuncular interest in my career he had thought of as an unrealised act of seduction. There is nothing unusual about these stories. They are the ho-hum, everyday experiences of virtually every woman I know, and such stories rarely get told. There will never be a powerful social-media movement that begins, “Today I ate breakfast” or “Today my dog pooped and I cleaned it up” or “Today I washed my hair with the same shampoo I’ve been buying since 2006.” We tell the stories that are remarkable in some way, stories that are surprising, utterly unexpected. The quotidian doesn’t make for a good tale.

And maybe that’s why the avalanche of stories on Twitter and Facebook this week has been so powerful. It started on 5 October when The New York Times first broke the story of accusations of sexual harassment against the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, but it became a juggernaut ten days later, when the actress Alyssa Milano tweeted, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” Within minutes the hashtag #MeToo was all over Twitter, Facebook and Instagram — over 500,000 times on Twitter and 12 million times on Facebook in the first 24 hours alone — and the deluge shows no sign of slowing. The numbers keep ticking up as women tell the stories of men who used their power to overwhelm or coerce them.

I don’t know any woman who is surprised by these stories, or by the sheer, vast numbers of them. But men are. Some — by one account 300,000 of them — are writing to point out that they have been harassed, too, because of course the abuse of power isn’t gender, or orientation-specific. Others have started their own hashtag: #IHearYou. These are men, like my sons, who have not consistently heard these stories before because for too long women have not considered them stories worth telling. Or because too often such stories are not believed.

It’s an irony worth pointing out that the novel I was telling my children about at dinner that night was “Room” by Emma Donoghue, the story of a woman who was kidnapped from her college campus and kept as a sex slave in a backyard shed. Even reading that beautiful, heartbreaking book, it had not occurred to me to tell my children the story of all the times I wanted to go camping or hiking or travelling myself but didn’t dare because I couldn’t find anyone to go with me.

We have bigger things to worry about than whether producers in Hollywood are sexual predators, and the #MeToo movement is bound to fade again into the background, the way it did after the Bill Cosby allegations.

This kind of activism inevitably moves out of the news cycle when the possibility of thermonuclear war becomes a more pressing concern, when global warming becomes a more pressing concern, when desperate refugees in mortal danger become a more pressing concern, when women’s ability to make decisions about their own bodies becomes a more pressing concern. The list of urgent dangers we now face goes on and on and on. But it’s worth noting that most of them can be directly attributed to a man who boasted of being able to violate women at will, and face no consequences at all.

©2017 New York Times New Service