Cats, Dogs, and #metoo
There seems to be an emerging awareness of sexual harassment and sexual assault as more “open secrets” are exposed as some powerful men have recently been fired from their jobs.
The hashtag #metoo has recently been circulating on social media to encourage women to share if they have experienced sexual harassment and/or sexual assault. Alyssa Milano’s tweet suggesting it created this current wave of #metoo’s across the Internet. However, the term was first used by Tarana Burke to support and empower African American women and girls who experienced sexual assault and exploitation. The idea of the current Twitter and Facebook firestorm is to show highlight how many people have dealt with this issue.
Many questions arise, such as “will this awareness continue and actually change our culture to be one in which sexual harassment and sexual assaults are no longer hidden devalued, or ignored?” Time will answer that question although the sociology of norm-breaking – and repairs – suggests we will slowly move back into the typical patterns of life, especially when the next highly publicized situation emerges.
Our society’s gender structure is at the root of this problem. In America, patriarchy informs the structure of power: men (as a group) have more power in society than women (as a group). Men are socialized to be “masculine;” that is, to be leaders, financial providers, compete and win, control their emotions and not show weakness, to love women and not other men. Women are socialized to be “feminine;” that is, to be the “support staff,” to nurture and emotionally support their loved ones, to care for the living spaces and have primary responsibility for child rearing. While women are increasingly encouraged to be, well, everything, such as financial provider and take on more “masculine” traits when they are in leadership positions, men’s socialization into their expected gender traits has not changed as much.
Someone recently said to me that she heard that women are like dogs and men are like cats. The idea is that women are viewed as docile, subservient, and dote on the attention of their masters, while men are predatory, independent, and show affection when it suits them. This is certainly a sexist idea but it mirrors the socialization patterns and norms about gender traits in American culture. The expectation that women ignore, endure, or accept inappropriate behavior in the workplace is built into these notions of gender, as is the acceptance that these kinds of behaviors are natural for powerful men.
Exposing powerful men who regularly practice such behavior, whether in Hollywood, politics, the workplace, or anywhere, often results in their apologies and sometimes in court case dismissals or financial settlements (and non-disclosure agreements).
Ironically, the power of many who harass enables them to avoid serious penalties. In many instances, they can go on to continue such behavior and just apologize again or settle cases with money. This does nothing to hold them accountable.
Does losing their position, often the position that gave them the power, financial resources, and possibly fame, result in changed behavior or serving as a lesson for others? Not necessarily. They might move elsewhere and continue their profession and behavior. Or, with the passage of time, be allowed back to resume their powerful position.
Likewise, resolving a case with financial settlements most likely come from corporate funds, not personal funds, and the amounts are not always enough to be a loud message about the inappropriateness of sexual harassment and sexual assault.
These are all individual solutions, specifically tied to individuals involved in the situation. Those who are harassed or assaulted are not protected from future experiences nor is any resolution, apology or settlement, enough.
It is a systemic problem, tied to social structure, thus many women and some men have experienced sexual harassment and sexual assault through no fault of their own. It is not a problem that can be addressed in ineffective simplistic individualistic ways, it must be dealt with by addressing the root of the problem: systemic and narrow binary definitions of gender.
Linking masculine traits with power, competition, controlled emotionality, and heterosexuality contrasts with defining feminine traits as supportive, nurturing, mothering. When two groups in society are formed in opposition to each others, it should not be surprising that one group is much more likely to perpetrate violence towards the other.
While the women’s movement has enlarged the list of expected traits for women – they can be providers now, too – the same has not happened as much for men.
Will the #metoo hashtag popularity expose the extent of gendered sexual harassment and sexual assault to the point that society will be changed? It would have to focus on changing our definitions of gender itself, not just saying that one gender groups shouldn’t experience sexual violence at the hands of the other.