Rachel Laudan

The “Me Too” Outpouring on Facebook

Edit. I’d really love comments, whether here or on social media but please read through to the end before commenting.

By now, just about everyone in the US who uses Facebook or Twitter must have run across the following plea: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

I have felt reluctant to just say “Me too” on one of these forums. That’s not because I don’t think there remains a serious problem. I do. And the outpouring supports that intuition.

Rather it is, in part, because although it’s hard to do without Facebook, it has become a place I don’t trust for many different reasons.  In part, it is because “sexually harassed or assaulted” covers everything from a wolf whistle to the most violent of rapes.

I have been lucky never to have experienced sexual assault.

I did experience sexual harassment throughout my years in graduate school at the University of London (1966-71).  Nothing had prepared me for it.

Although I had gone to a rather sheltered girl’s day school, I had always roamed freely on foot or bicycle miles from home and had taken the 20-mile round trip from village to city where the school was daily, walking to and from the school through the city. I had spent a year teaching in a small town in West Africa. I had majored in geology at a time when this was almost unknown for a woman.

During all this time, I had escaped sexual harassment. I had had clumsy, over-eager advances that could be warded off, I had had lots of interest and many boyfriends, I had faculty who were perplexed about having a woman on field trips (where did she urinate on a wide open mountainside? where could she sleep on a field trip at an equitable price when male students slept many to a room?), and, yes, lots of wolf whistles. But sexual harassment, no.

Then in London it seemed that the skies fell. Faculty followed me home by day, chased me by night to railroad stations, refused to let me enter classes until and unless I promised to go out with them or their friends, and read each others’ comments on my looks aloud in seminars. Not all faculty, but a subset of about five or six.

I survived, as did one other female student a little ahead of me. Two never finished. (It was always a small cohort of at most half a dozen a year, almost all men).

After that I experienced very little that I would call harassment, though plenty of difficulties that stemmed from my being female. There was the Ph. D. examiner who, I only discovered years later, wrote damming letters of ‘recommendation’ because I had rejected him in favor of my husband. There were the many faculty in different universities who took the line that over their dead bodies would they do what is now called a spousal hire (this is actually a difficult issue, I think). There were the colleagues who announced in faculty meetings that I was only hired because of my husband. There was the colleague in my first job who shocked me by asking on our first meeting whether I knew any single women he could date (I now realize he was in shock from a divorce). That kind of thing, which I would not call harassment in the usual sense.

So I wonder if sexual harassment clusters disproportionately in certain circumstances? For the men who plagued my graduate school career, it was a kind of trophy hunting, a game.  I suspect certain clusters are particularly toxic: graduate school, the entertainment industry, politics, with powerful men and young and inexperienced women.

Bottom line. My heart goes out to those women whose lives were diminished or destroyed by sexual harassment or, worse, sexual assault. Awful.

Yes, I have experienced sexual harassment. It came close to derailing me, but luckily it didn’t. Although a major problem for five important years, it was just one of many challenges I have faced in the sixty-odd years of my adult life.

And I think it is worth adding that, having been in what were then almost entirely male fields (geology or history and philosophy of science) from the early 1960s to the mid 1990s when I shifted to history of food, most of my support in the bad times, and in the good ones as well, came from men.  Most of my friendships, too, were with men and I cherish them to this day.

So just how big is this problem, really?


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13 thoughts on “The “Me Too” Outpouring on Facebook

  1. Diane Wolff

    Rachel, as usual, largeness of spirit, great insight, balanced judgment, good character. Those of us who are pioneers in fields formerly dominated by men experience the power of the feminine in myriad ways. The men come after us.

    I have experienced sexual harrassment, nothing approaching rape. A transactional form of harrassment, usually from a male who might be less than attractive on the open market. Take care of my needs and I’ll take care of your job.

    I find this obnoxious on many levels, but most of all, one wants to be recognized for the quality of one’s work. Otherwise, what does it mean to be successful? Women of talent have bartered away their gifts for success and some admitted to it, among them, Marilyn Monroe and the model Lauren Hutton, the first woman to win a supermodel cosmetics contract.

    I am always persuaded by the arguments of the great Camille Paglia. She places the phenomenon of male pursuit in cultural context. It is worthwhile reading her book “Sexual Personae.”

    Paglia also advises a working class attitude toward the baser conduct of men, meaning, women, do not be nice, do not be passive. Defend yourselves.

    Paglia’s idea is that the manners of the upper orders have no place in the arena of relations between the sexes when the will to power arises. The idea that a working class woman knows well the dangers of the over-libidinized male and has made a career of giving it right back.

    I am amazed that after decades of those in the women’s movement advocating self-defense classes for women so that women could protect themselves from assault and rape, not one of these women claimed to have used a self-defense technique to put the male in his place.

    I realize that many of these women in the Hollywood film world were fooled into going to meetings that seemed to be attended by other women executives or employees.

    But no one had a pepper spray. Not one of them reported telling old sick Harvey to stick it in his ear. Except for perhaps the Latina who called him out.

    We must become like our superhero Wonder Woman and become woman warriors.Like the Amazons of Ancient Greece. Or the Celtic warrior queen Boadicea. Or Joan of Arc. Or the Mongol warrior princess Khutulun, whose story formed the basis of the opera “Turandot.” These are the archetypes to be invoked in our time.

    I realize that the physical size of the male is a problem and also the unequal power balance, but I think the discussion might be broadened to go beyond post-incident exposition of the crime. What I think is the most awful is the manipulation of the woman’s desire to get ahead, the retaliation for the advance rejected.

    I make my comments based on the heritage bequeathed to me by my own mother. My mother was a Scotch-Irish spitfire. I can only tell you that a husband of hers, soon to be ex-husband, tried to physically threaten her and she picked up a pot of boiling water–she was making a cup of tea–and threw it on him as he escaped out the back door.

    My mom, the woman warrior, was of the working class. She was known to deploy a cast iron fry pan at this same bully, just before he got his walking papers.

    Is it permissible for a woman to deploy violence when threatened physically, psychologically or sexually? I give you the example of Lorena Bobbit, who sliced off her husband’s private part when he attempted to rape her. None of us wants to be violent. That is the problem.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks for this long and thoughtful reply. I find myself wondering about the contradictions we seem to be living at the moment. Women by their dress and behavior want to be at least noticed but feel it is their right that the noticing is always hands (and wolf whistles) off. It’s curiously desexualized in some ways. Lots more to say about this but work calls.

      1. Diane Wolff

        This is a thought-provoking topic. I thank you for bringing it up. I have written an op-ed piece about it because the current discussion has left out the whole subject of self-defense. I included in my op-ed the concept that women have been considered spoils of war, of status, of success from time immemorial. I say this as a scholar of medieval warfare. Chinggis Khan began with a harem of 30 to 50 women. As the conquests expanded across the world, the size of the harem grew to the thousands.

        I give you a quote from the Maxims of Chinggis Khan. “A man’s greatest pleasure is to vanquish his enemy, to take from them what was theirs, to hold in his arms their women.”

        Is this as primitive as the desire to reproduce, the payoff of power, the availability of the partners perceived to carry the DNA of survival and of course, the trophy.

        I believe that the culture is over-sexualized. The pendulum has swung so far in the sexual revolution. Popular entertainment borders on what used to be called soft core pornography. I am not a prude, but it gets old.

        1. Rachel Laudan Post author

          Yes, trophies. Yes, self defense. I’d say hyper-sexualized and desexualized simultaneously.

          1. Diane Wolff

            Funny you should say de-sexualized. Again, Camille Paglia derives her analysis from nature and from the canon of Western art and religion. She thinks that in periods when the sexes are differentiated, there is heightened electricity between the sexes. In periods of androgyny, there is boredom with sex. Vive la difference. She attributes androgyny to periods of decadence. I keep thinking of the Fellini film “Satyricon” about Caligula. All that sex and all that boredom.

          2. Rachel Laudan Post author

            Hi Diane, the American cheerleader would be an example to my mind. And I’m all for electricity between the sexes.

  2. Margot Finn

    Thanks for this. It helped me think through my own reluctance to claim “me too.” I’ve been torn between feeling supportive of the meme for all those who find it empowering. Also, given that some of the harm done by sexual harassment and assault is caused by the shame associated with it, I think sunlight and solidarity are good (if partial) antidotes. But as your closing question gets at, I’m unsure whether the meme actually serves the stated goal of “giv[ing] people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

    I think I like the idea of people standing and being counted in the the abstract, but in practice, I’m uncomfortable with how it has reduced a stunningly complex spectrum of experiences into the binary “me too” or “not me.” I suspect you’re right that certain contexts are are more likely to cultivate the kind of toxic culture of sexual harassment you encountered in grad school, and conflating that phenomenon with wolf whistles and other street harassment or the nightmare of violent sexual assault that’s been documented among women farmworkers doesn’t help me understand the scope (or causes or consequences) of any of those things.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Exactly. And thanks for the example of the women farm workers. A friend who knows a lot about illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America told me that the first thing immigrants are told when even thinking of leaving their home countries is to get on the pill because they are certain to be raped.The choices some people have to make.

  3. ganna ise

    I dont mind wolf whistles. I actually loved the sight of the guy who ran his lawn mower into a bush as I passed by in a mini skirt. Those are compliments, although crude ones, and make me feel a certain sexual power. I am not doing anything to attract them, yet they turn into slobbering apes. Circe, ha!

    I do mind actual assaults. As I grew up in a criminally active region I got grabbed from behind entering my own apartment complex, in broad daylight, at age 14 coming home from school. Loud shouting saved me as well as the wooden clogs, height of fashion, I used to stomp on his toes.

    For 20 years I had a knife scar under my pubic hair. We had some beer at a concert and the boy promised to show me his poster collection and I was 16 and those beers were my very first ones. He was too drunk to use whatever illy willy he possessed so he sought for that hole with his knife. I managed to escape but carried the scar until a major surgical operation.

    Things happened but I always fought free. I always fought free.

    And I shall not ‘me too’ some meek cry in social media. I am a fighter. If a man attacks you, stomp on his toes, scratch at his eyes, scream, and try to hit his balls with your knee or your heel. That last doubles him up quite nicely. Run at the moment you can, report him whenever you can.

    If your teeth are fine you can accept fellatio. However, after you chomp down, your clothes will be ruined forever. I know. The one time I had to do that I was wearing my favorite skirt with all the pretty fish on it. The blood never washed out.

    Nah, I am a nice person. Long graying hair, most dresses straight out of 1917, corset included, or the first Woodstock festival, and old friends still call me Little Hippie. I love cooking and pets and am good with children, I just cannot stand violence.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks Ganna. I have the same sensation that social media communion, although therapeutic and helpful in making the varieties of experience covered by this blanket term, is not going to do much to change things. And I don’t mind wolf whistles either.

      1. ganna ise

        This ‘me too’ campaign might even encourage some predators. After all, they rape or rob us, and we just go and bleat on the Net. I still say we should teach our kids, female and male, to never attack first but act when attacked.

        The last goon I had to beat up was not a sexual offender, the poor bastard just thought my purse might buy his next fix. Handed him over to the police. Attacking a granny for her handbag or a kid for their cell phone are just as bad, and who is protesting that?

  4. Kim L

    I feel like it’s too early to know whether this effort can start a broader conversation about what to do about this problem. After the obvious misogyny of last year’s election, I think many women are no longer feeling alone and are fed up with feeling like they have to put up with this kind of treatment.

    And I definitely don’t think it’s specific to certain industries or situations like graduate school. I was abused in different ways by a babysitter, by a friend of my father’s, by a customer and a couple of co-workers in two different restaurants where I worked, etc. It happens to all types of people in all types of circumstances. That was physical stuff, not even mentioning the cat calls and explicit descriptions of what strange men said they wanted to do to me.

    I think it’s important to recognize what a broadly based issue this is and how deeply entrenched it is in society. That’s the only way to find effective ways to reduce it and change the perception that girls and women asked for it in some way.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hi Kim, Thanks for writing. I agree it’s a bit early to know whether any actions will follow from the Me Too meme. I hope so which is why I posted. I agree it’s not specific to certain industries but occurs everywhere. I do think, though, that certain industries in the past, and I suspect in the present permit or even encourage this kind of behavior more than others. I also agree that this is broadly based. However I am not sure that a single strategy does for all situations, which is why I would like to get a better grip on the contours of sexual harassment and assault. Whatever happens, I am very grateful to you for sending your own reflections.

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