Being Tough Won't Save You From Sexual Harassment


“For many weeks now, the conversation that has been going on in private about this reckoning is radically different from the public one,” Daphne Merkin contends in an opinion piece on the Me Too movement in the New York Times. Merkin’s piece joins an increasingly repetitive chorus of opinion writers who wonder about the effectiveness of Me Too, diagnosing the public-private rift that she posits as evidence of “social intimidation that is the underside of a culture of political correctness, such as we are increasingly living in.”

Merkin’s arguments are by now familiar: She worries that romance—or, in this case, flirting—has been stolen by the dismal realities of political correctness; she contends that “due process is nowhere to be found”; she frets over “life-destroying denunciations” that have entangled men whose saving grace is that they are not as “heinous” as Matt Lauer; she conjures up witch hunts, inquisitions, and sex panic. She takes issues with affirmative consent and laments that sex has been stripped of “eros.” As seemingly demanded by this genre of writing, Merkin offers up a dystopic warning, replete with a carceral metaphor as a conclusion. “Next we’ll be torching people for the content of their fantasies,” she writes. The invocation of mass hysteria combined with a series of open-ended questions that a writer has no intention of answering are, at this point, the platitudes of the genre.

If Merkin’s arguments depart from the Me Too-skeptical point of view that op-ed pages are so enamored with, it’s because she worries that this particular moment is a return to what she terms the “victimology paradigm.” This paradigm, Merkin argues, is the retrograde stuff of Victorian housewives, defined here by frailty, as well as lack of “agency.” Merkin asks:

What happened to women’s agency? That’s what I find myself wondering as I hear story after story of adult women who helplessly acquiesce to sexual demands. I find it especially curious given that a majority of women I know have been in situations in which men have come on to them — at work or otherwise. They have routinely said, “I’m not interested” or “Get your hands off me right now.” And they’ve taken the risk that comes with it.

For Merkin, agency is a kind of personal resilience; a feminist toughness to confront a harasser without fear of reprisal or consequence. Such feminism is what ostensibly prevents a woman from devolving into victimhood. Confronting sexual harassment is best, Merkin implies, when it is done at an interpersonal level. The broader conversation, the Me Too movement with its reconsideration of the very public-private borders that define Merkin’s piece, seems to lack that very agency. Personal confrontation is agency, she suggests, while institutional reform is victimhood.

 Precarity and vulnerability, such a point of view implies, is a choice. And yet, this is a lie.

The insistence on personal action, or agency, as a form of empowerment—and its fundamental truths—might be personally appealing, but is ultimately empty. It relies on a persistent lie of empowerment: that women are in possession of either legal or cultural agency, and they simply need to seize it. Those who cannot or do not, are victims by choice. No doubt that agency is a great slogan, an easy summary of the kind of folksy feminism that capitalism has repackaged and sold as a t-shirt. Precarity and vulnerability, such a point of view implies, is a choice. And yet, this is a lie. It is hard, if not impossible, to point to a time in history when agency was truly in the possession of the less powerful.

Women, in particular women of color and trans women, are precarious under the law. We are vulnerable within our institutions, our infrastructure, and the broad terms of culture. This precariousness is exactly why the Me Too movement exists in unregulated public spaces—because there is no legal or institutional recourse for the precarious, even while those same systems work hard to establish empathy for the abusers. (Though Merkin and other writers have invoked due process, virtually none of the men accused are facing any legal repercussions.) For Merkin, acknowledging this fundamental vulnerability is retrograde rather than, as Judith Butler contends, “part of the very meaning of political resistance.”

To be a victim, or to be vulnerable, does not require the paternalistic response that Merkin seems to believe that it does. To be a victim is not, as my colleague Kelly Stout recently pointed out, even particularly remarkable. It simply is. To acknowledge abuse is not a demand for more paternal protection but rather to expose the flaws in our institutional architecture; to point out that their foundations were laid for the protection powerful, purposefully rendering other vulnerable. To do so requires an acknowledgment of precariousness—of vulnerability and, to a certain extent, victimhood. It requires an acknowledgment that power has been “imposed upon us in ways that we never chose,” and that “individual sovereignty” cannot possibly offer a solution.

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