We can decide not to let our culture be defined by toxic masculinity.
When I was in high school, I met with a college counselor who was a friend of my stepdad’s. We sat alone together in a living room, and he asked me to tell him what I thought my strengths were. I shyly responded that I worked hard in school and in sports. I was on varsity sports teams and made all As. I was able to be friends with all kinds of people. I was fluent in Spanish and loved languages.
But as I spoke, I became more nervous because he was smiling at me in a coy way, as if he had a secret. When I finished my answer he kept smiling, paused, and then said: “Well, Emily, you’ve forgotten something very important. You are also very beautiful.” This is my tamest story.
The #MeToo movement began over a decade ago as a way for sexual assault and harassment survivors to find solidarity and healing. In the last few months, the stories of so many women have finally not only been allowed airtime but been believed—by some at least.
When the #MeToo movement exploded on social media, friends and acquaintances I hadn’t talked to in decades started messaging me: “I saw your #MeToo . . . here’s mine. Did you know about this?”
The recent revelations reopened wounds for many women. Some stayed away from the news for a time so as not to trigger old pains they could not abide. Other women (and some men and gender-nonconforming people) unearthed and catalogued all of the unwanted touches and repeated innuendos from the basements of their memories.
Many women have hesitated to publically say “#MeToo.” For survivors of rape and abuse, the hesitation is about the very real fear of retribution. For those with less blatant but still very harmful histories, there is also hesitation. Because of the way women who speak up on this issue are questioned and threatened, we know that if we say “#MeToo,” even in a Facebook post, we need to be ready to respond to criticism.
Still, women everywhere started cataloging their experiences, evaluating the harassment and abuse they experienced. Sometimes women even asked each other: “Does this count? If it’s not rape, does it count?” And then we said to one another: “What an awful thing to be asking each other.” We told each other yes: “Yes, that’s awful. Yes, that counts.”
When I ministered as a college chaplain, I can’t count the number of times young women came to my office to break open with their story of a recent or long-ago sexual assault. I began to assume that the majority of young women at the college had experienced some kind of sexual abuse in their lifetime, or—tragically—would soon.
If you move through the world as a woman or gender-nonconforming person, chances are that you have experienced some of this. Chances are you have been taught or told to be quiet, to get a sense of humor, or to accept that you were somehow to blame for what happened.
It’s not a coincidence that it took the stories of celebrities to finally break through. We value the story of the movie star far more than the stories of the farm worker or hotel maid or secretary or even CEO. Celebrities are more likely to be believed and less likely to face poverty or death after speaking up.
It’s also not a coincidence that it is mostly white women who have been believed. Our country has a shameful history of believing the stories of white women over the stories of people of color. In 2017, more than sixty years after 14-year-old Emmett Till was lynched because a white woman claimed he had been sexually crude toward her, the woman who accused him admitted it was not true.
Sexism and racism are inextricably intertwined in our culture. The reason white women were believed in the Jim Crow days is because white women were seen as the property of white men. Black men who dared to go near white women were an affront to the power system. Many have pointed out that Tarana Burke, the black woman who founded the #MeToo movement, wasn’t included on the cover of Time magazine when it made the #MeToo women its Person of the Year. When the wave of claims kept descending on Harvey Weinstein, he didn’t break his silence to defend himself until black actress Lupita Nyong’o told her story. Of all the women, he chose her to publicly discredit. And many women of color have pointed out that President Trump, who was caught on tape bragging in vile terms about sexual assault, was elected by a majority of white women. Transgender women of color receive the worst of it. In a culture where white supremacy and toxic masculinity are the air we breathe, to be a person of color and resist gender norms puts you right in the crosshairs of the worst of our culture.
We hear the statistics about the number of women raped each year, and the number of women experiencing domestic abuse. We spend so much energy in our culture telling women how not to get raped. At what point do we start teaching men how not to rape? Where are the statistics about the number of men who rape each year? Where are the classes for boys about consent? (Our Whole Lives is one outstanding model.)
The #MeToo movement has gained steam because we are finally talking about the people—almost always men—on the other side of these stories. Some of them are finally facing the consequences of abusing women. This is hard stuff, stuff our culture doesn’t want us to think about. Often, defenses arise within us: “not all men” and “but some women lie about it” and “it’s not just women who are assaulted” and “but that man is a good man.” Maybe so, but these defenses distract us from the bigger reality.
We must learn to see sexism and toxic masculinity in the same way we see racism and white supremacy: It’s the air we breathe; it’s in our conscious and unconscious behaviors. This is on all of us, and so the cure is in all of us, too.
We do not have to be defined by what happened to us. We can define ourselves by the ways we have survived, by our courage in telling our stories, by all we have done despite what happened.
And we as a culture do not have to be defined by abusive misogyny. If we do something about it, we do not have to continue to be a culture of toxic masculinity, where boys learn that girls want to be overpowered, where boys learn that a successful man gets his way whenever and however he wants. We do not have to continue to be a society where “locker room talk” is acceptable, where boys “don’t cry,” where male loneliness is an epidemic, where some men turn to assault rifles and mass shootings to feel powerful. We can shift into a culture where, to paraphrase Judy Chicago, “both men and women [and everyone!] will be gentle. Where both women and men [and everyone!] will be strong.”
As Lindy West writes, for every story told we must remember there are also “invisible ripples of confidence lost, jobs quit, careers stalled, women’s influence diminished, men’s power entrenched.” Rebecca Solnit asks, “What would women’s lives be like, what would our roles and accomplishments be, what would our world be, without this terrible punishment that looms over our daily lives?”
I often think about the human genius, creativity, and variety that gets crushed before it’s even in the bud because a girl was groomed and raped and never believed, because a black boy was enslaved, because a boy was told “don’t be a pussy,” because a person who looked or acted different was disappeared, because a college counselor told a high schooler that her beauty was all that mattered.
We talk in Unitarian Universalism about our vision of the beloved community. This is what that vision is about: a world where all of our inherent worth and dignity, all of our marvelous variety and beauty, all of our diverse gifts and potential are given air to breathe, nourishing love, and the gifts of supportive community.
So, what do we do? Listen to the stories at the margins: if we are men, especially to the stories of women and gender-nonconforming people; if we are white, especially to the stories of people of color. We start healing the toxic masculinity around us. Teach boys it’s okay to cry. When we see a girl, don’t always say: what a pretty dress. Give space to men to feel. Stop interrupting women when they talk. Heal our culture’s association of sexuality with power and let vulnerability, courage, and authenticity be sexy. Teach consent. Let consent be sexy.
What do we do? We say #MeToo. We tell our stories. We trust that they count. We listen. We work for a world in which we can stop counting. We gain strength from one another’s courage.
Adapted with permission from a sermon preached December 10, 2017, to the UU Church of Midland, Texas.
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The Rev. Emily Wright-Magoon is minister of the UU Church of Midland, Texas.
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