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The Task Ahead for Feminism

The campaign for workplace justice has made stunning strides in a matter of weeks. But at what cost for gender politics?

Mark Mainz/Getty Images

Is this what victory feels like? A significant number of women are commuting each morning to a workplace that is either already rid of its abusers or humming with the music of oncoming retribution. The newspapers tell us that in these cases—of Harvey Weinstein, Leon Wieseltier, Louis C.K., Michael Oreskes, Robert Scoble, Knight Landesman, and more—justice has been served. The New York Times has already framed these downfalls in historical terms, calling it a “click” moment that has redeemed the accusations of women going back to Anita Hill. This movement is bringing sexual predators, harassers, and manipulators to their reckoning. Click, click, click: Watch the lights go out, one by one.

But this model for gender justice, in which a villain is brought low to give the public their satisfaction, does not eradicate the power imbalances and resulting fear that animate harassment. There is no on/off switch for sexual intimidation, and workplaces are not cleansed as if by magic when one man is fired, or even if many of them are swept away by the “tsunami” metaphor so favored by the press. More troubling still, this model oversimplifies the truth about sexual abuse, obscuring the experiences of marginalized women and fundamentally altering the way we address the problem.

The solidarity holding women together in this “click” moment is not as strong as it might appear. The media is treating women as a homogenous bloc, but the emotional reality of this process—indeed, the emotional reality of abuse itself—is not something we experience as a bloc but as individuals. Many women have been retraumatized by seeing their own experiences played out again on the puppet theater of social media. The deluge of #MeToo on Facebook turned our feeds into a bottomless inventory of rape and assault and harassment, into which was mixed the names and faces of a hundred, a thousand acquaintances. Everyone has a stone to throw, and the feeling is of being pelted with stones in the name of solidarity. Watch out—here comes another!

All of this may have been necessary. But all pain is isolating, and the trauma of sexual assault is specifically very isolating. It is a pain that is almost always experienced alone, that drives you into yourself and away from others. So it is a strange kind of paradox that, when a whole culture is exerting itself to acknowledge and redress your pain, it causes further pain, more isolation.

That feeling of isolation, which is an almost universal effect of sexual trauma, affects our ability to perform solidarity. While we take advantage of this heady moment to transform our working conditions, there is pressure among women to present a totally united front to the world, as if every woman is in conversation with everybody else. Indeed, this was a strategy against harassment for a long time: The sad old whisper network would work to keep our friends out of certain internships, to warn off this person from that. This idea of a united front is reinforced by the media coverage of the “click” moment, and so we try to live up to it.

But the truth is that there is no coordinated plan. There is only the ongoing demand that men refrain from sexually harassing, intimidating, and assaulting vulnerable people of all genders. This is a general and blanket demand, with few nuances: Do not abuse. Its simplicity is the source of great power, but also leads to a deceptively universal language of moral justice in the headlines. Meanwhile, the #MeToo campaign is not a positive assertion of feminist solidarity, but rather a shared experience of what has been done to us by others. It turns out that this is an extraordinarily effective way to raise consciousness online. But it has a passive quality. And this allows certain presumptions—about men and women, about feminism and misogyny—to rush in, so that they undergird a once-in-a-generation opportunity to redefine gender politics.

Intersectionality is a popular model for talking about gender, or at least it was before this spate of scandals. It accounts for the ways that different identities intersect, and shows how different modes of oppression (racism and homophobia, say) combine to form a systematic whole. It reminds us that sexual harassment is not a universal phenomenon, but always varies according to other aspects of the survivor’s identity, such as class or race. I say that it was popular, because the movement for gender justice in the workplace is so big and so total that it is rapidly changing the media discourse on feminism. And in the process, we have reverted to more traditional ways of thinking about gender and equality. As The New Yorker’s Doreen St. Félix wrote on Twitter, you “can just feel the intersectional framework, which hadn’t even truly been instituted, slipping from the discourse in favor of gender binary.”

This is not an academic debate. Intersectional analysis is crucial not only for accurately identifying harassment, but also for addressing the problems in our workplaces. Let’s say that a television producer persistently invites his female employees to “work events” that turn into sexualized one-on-one meetings in bars. He only pulls this trick on black women. If he is fired for sexual harassment, but his pattern of targeting black women is not acknowledged as part of the offense, is the problem solved? The offender has been ousted, but the situation is more complicated than the “click” moment allows for, and so the conditions for abuse are not fully rooted out. Women, or at least certain women, remain at risk. And aren’t all women equally important?

But in the consciousness-raising work of #MeToo, the specific experiences of abuse were flattened to send a more generalized message. For example, The New York Times initially credited the actress Alyssa Milano for beginning the #MeToo Twitter trend, before acknowledging a few days later that Tarana Burke, a black woman, had begun the campaign years earlier. “Initially I panicked,” Burke told the Times. “I felt a sense of dread, because something that was part of my life’s work was going to be co-opted and taken from me and used for a purpose that I hadn’t originally intended.” Burke’s work specifically aimed to build support for vulnerable women in the communities without rape crisis centers, and without effective sources of aid.

The problem of sexual intimidation and assault is (as feminism has always known) widespread. It has been suddenly made visible by a huge public news story, and it is as if a tablecloth has been whipped off by some magician and the truth revealed. Obviously the table was there all along, but the newfound shock of its existence has degenerated the conversation back to a “gender war” between man and woman. This conversation is reaffirming a binary split—as in headlines like CNN’s “Training men and boys to honor women in the age of #MeToo”—erasing the distinctions within those categories that a framework like intersectionality helps illuminate.

Trans, nonbinary, and non-conforming gender identities have been shunted to the side. The Office for Victims of Crime describes how transgender people experience “shockingly high levels of sexual abuse and assault” of between 50 percent and 66 percent. In the ongoing war between those who advocate for trans visibility in feminism and those who think that advocacy detracts from the mission of protecting ciswomen, #MeToo became another hot topic. Trans-exclusionary feminists in America are happy to tweet #MeToo, while downplaying the need for trans women to have access to safe bathrooms in their own workplaces.

Important contextual information—that Roy Moore allegedly chose working-class women and children to abuse, for example—has been lost. A new, insistent solidarity has taken its place, but this great vehicle for progress has been tacked together quickly, haphazardly, and that is why so many of us are in the paradoxical situation of feeling alone in a huge, huge crowd.

This dichotomy also falsely suggests that men are the sole source of misogyny. It is worth remembering that the “Shitty Media Men” list—a digital version of the whisper network that was meant to be seen by women only—was first made public by a woman. The news value of the document aside, that move to publish was a klaxon announcing that solidarity can be undermined by people other than men guilty of misconduct. Misogyny does not only reside in the perpetrators of abuse. It is ambient in the air that we breathe, and has a thousand collaborators.

The task ahead for women returning to transformed workplaces, or preparing to face down the bad actors in their lives, is immense. It’s nothing less than a utopian project. That includes being specific and rigorous about the terms of the demands, and not accepting a reductive, simplistic version of them. The blanket, overarching demand remains: Do not abuse. But as we move forward, we need to be clearer about the lives we want to live and the feminism we want to espouse.

At the same time, the task ahead requires us to be forgiving of our own emotions, even when they seem out of step with the tenor of triumph in the newspapers. I’ve been angry a lot lately, and not just at men. Then I feel guilty about being angry at women, and berate myself into yet hotter anger. But our emotions contain a lot of information. When we sit to consider the contours of our loneliness or our anger, we can find coded insights into our world that we might not otherwise notice. We can share these insights with our friends, and that can feel like a different kind of solidarity, cleansing and generative. Unlike belief in a better possible world, victorious exultation is not a requirement for membership in the revolution.