I. Bring It On
Like many female authors digging for material in the darker recesses of personal history, I’ve written about my experience of sexual assault. And that of my sister, meaning actual blood sibling. And that of my sisters through history, starting with the sanctified sexual assault stories I grew up with—those in the Bible where, on God’s command, daughters are sold to older men, virgins are counted as war booty and a rapist can be forced to purchase and keep the woman he has violated.
I’m a middle-aged woman, a daughter, an aunt, a sibling, a cousin, surrounded by close female friends. If someone of my age and gender wants to write about sexual boundary violations, all she needs to do is close her eyes and shuffle through her internal file of stories—first-hand, second-hand, and those handed down for generations. The first time I opened that folder and wrote about my experience of sexual assault, I was trying to find some combination of words that might prepare my daughters for the inevitable—or at least inoculate them against the secondary wound carried by so many women for so long—the sense that we bearers of bad memories are damaged goods.
All of which is to say that, to my mind, this #MeToo moment is long overdue. In my mind’s eye, the waves lapping around us are small ripples in a sea of history, and we women stand on the shore of that history, fists clenched, staring at a stone edifice of male sexual entitlement that spans our horizons, with foundations so ancient and deep that only a tsunami of mythic proportions could possibly bring it down.
And despite my lack of belief in gods, I pray for that tsunami to hit.
Sweep it clean! hisses my well of bitterness. And oh, it is a bitter well! Because in my world African girls are still Still STILL traded in marriage by their fathers to disgusting old lechers, and married women in half the world don’t get to have a headache, and the much celebrated Arab Spring meant streets full of angry men demanding rights they don’t actually want for women; and here in America where all men are created equal, black men got the right to vote half a century before black or white women—and still today there are only 30 female CEOs in the Fortune 500.
Sweep it clean! begs my maternal instinct. Because every time my young adult daughter walks home from work at night, possibilities hang over me till I hear the door. And when she tells me that she jogs alone in the dark, I have to quell muffled memories. This week, when I put my other daughter on a plane for a foreign exchange program I wondered—Will she be careful? Does she recognize that it’s harder to read a man’s intent when he’s not of your culture? Does she know what she doesn’t know? And then I get mad that she should even have to, and I think, Bring on a tsunami the size of the world! Better yet, let’s be one.
II. Why Now?
The pressures behind #MeToo had been building for decades, maybe centuries when something, finally, broke. Harvey Weinstein’s sexual exploitations tripped the wire, but why were we so ready to go? Was it the outrage of watching a lecherous ignoramus destroy our dreams of a female president after a 200-year run of males? Was it having to explain this to our weeping daughters while we simultaneously prepare them for the touch of unwanted hands or the press of an unwanted penis? Was it witnessing oh-so-righteous preachers in the Evangelical Right so prioritize fetal “personhood” over female personhood, that they could glibly endorse Christian men stalking pubescent teens? Was it our broader sense of abject helplessness as we watch conservative men systematically erase Obama’s legacy—and ours? Yes, I think, and yes. And yes. And yes.
Of Americans who believe in democracy enough to vote, a majority asked to be governed by a woman who was, though far from perfect, one of the most qualified candidates ever to seek the American Presidency. We got, instead, a bloviating narcissist, born with a silver spoon in one of his orifices. We got a man who boasts of his sexual predations, who imagines that his wealth and power make them arousing when in reality few of us could imagine him up close with anything other than sheer revulsion.
It is the juxtaposition of Clinton’s competence and Trump’s ineptitude that makes the gender contrast in the 2017 election so unforgettable. Love Clinton or hate her—and I have friends in both camps—a contest with Trump would have been no contest had their genders been reversed.
In the months since Trump took office, an endless stream of inane tweets and leaked revelations have only underscored the fact that powerful rich men get exempted from normal rules. Let’s just rub that in one more time. Small wonder, then, that the man who tripped the wire was, like Trump, a brazen serial predator who believed himself untouchable. Trump couldn’t have laid a better trap for the Weinsteins of the world if he’d tried.
The election may be long over, but some of us are not over it, because for women who looked at the whole sordid affair through a gendered lens, Donald Trump’s degraded and degrading climb to the White House represented something much bigger. So does his daily invasive presence in our lives.
We can’t take down Trump—yet. But oh look who we can.
Most women have experienced sexual boundary violations, which means closeted offenders are all around us—guys who have been inept or pushy in their sexual overtures, handsy bosses who exploited power differentials, cocky frat bros, serial predators like Weinstein and Trump, and rapists. They must be terrified, because we are loaded and locked, armed with stories that some of us have been carrying concealed for decades.
III. Uprising Fast and Slow—The Fast Part
Taking down liberal icons, men whose transgressions are less archetypal and clear than those of Trump and Weinstein and who in other parts of their lives have been champions for gender equality, may not seem like a rational way to solve the problem of sexual boundary violations. But right now, many of us aren’t feeling terribly rational about the whole multi-millennial history of male dominance and the assumption that female bodies—especially our sensual and reproductive capacities—belong to men.
#MeToo is fundamentally not rational; it is a primal scream, and like Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter, even movement leaders don’t really know who’s running the show.
Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel prize for his work on behavioral economics, which laid to waste the idea that we humans are rational actors in the economic sphere—or elsewhere. His book Thinking Fast and Slow, lays out the evidence that human beings have two very different modes for processing information and generating action. One is intuitive and preverbal, optimized for survival in our ancestral environment, designed for making and executing instantaneous decisions. To that end it simplifies complicated information, applies rules of thumb, relies on hard-wired instinct, and generates emotion that produces judgments and behaviors that we rationalize after the fact. It can set our bodies in motion even before we consciously recognize why. The other kind of information processing—thinking slow—makes use of our higher order reasoning skills, the cerebral cortex, which evolved to help us survive in situations where those instincts and rules of thumb don’t work so well.
#MeToo, so far, is fast twitch—an eruption of raw aggregated emotion, with lots of big-brain words on top to make our outrage and punitive impulses sound reasoned. They are not. I’m far from the only woman brimming with bitterness about humanity’s priest-sanctioned history of sexual abuse and exploitation. I’m not the only one whose sense of violation feels raw and primitive, even primate. Little Capuchin monkeys notice when they are getting a raw deal relative to their peers; most women do too.
So, we talk about justice and outing the truth and all those things that our cortexes tell us are necessary to justify this moment and build toward real, durable, social change. But down in the deeper structures of the brain we’re just pissed as hell, and wounded or scared or scarred—and above all, feeling done being done to.
The conscious self is—to borrow a metaphor from another psychologist, Jonathan Haidt—simply a rider on an elephant, and in a collective uprising our conscious minds are riders on elephants that have been triggered into a stampede. We think—we hope—that we are stampeding toward a better future, but we won’t know for sure till the stampede stops and the riders have a little more say. And in the meantime, invariably, a bunch of folks on the ground get trampled.
We care about that, kind of, but not wholeheartedly, because we’re caught up in the fearsome euphoria of the ride, and casualties—whether fair or not—signal that the stampede is big and powerful, that we together may comprise a living tsunami capable of leaving the landscape permanently altered.
IV. On Power
Power is exhilarating, including—perhaps especially—for those among us who have long been denied it.
If #MeToo is upon us because anger and frustration built to the point of eruption, it is also upon us because women, and other victims of systemic oppression, are more powerful now than we have been in recorded history. It is precisely our increased power that has given us the courage to revolt.
How long has it been since goddesses ruled the netherworld of the human imagination and their female proxies ruled society? Since the golden age of Inanna? Since the age of the Amazons? Or are both hazy histories simply figments of female yearning and New Age fantasy?
And yet, the bleeding left edge of American culture is a domain of goddesses. In the new progressive order, status comes from membership in traditionally oppressed tribes: queer dark women on top, drawing standing and power from lived experiences of sexism or racism or poverty or better yet, all of the above. Narrative trumps data; emotion trumps reason; the bonds of solidarity trump the abstract universalism of the Enlightenment; and social sins trump all others.
In this reversal, white males sit at the bottom, their testosterone a liability, their proper role defined by circumstances of birth as it has been down long eons of history for those now on top. Socialized to think of themselves as leaders and initiators—and, often, the smartest guys in the room—they have been stripped of rank. Keep quiet, they are told, be listeners but not too active because that’s mansplaining and don’t ask us to explain our feelings because that’s asking us to do your emotional work, and don’t share yours because we really don’t want to hear them; you can be allies but not leaders, or better yet give us money and go away. Know your place. Brown is the New White and The Future is Female.
And here’s what we really don’t want to hear your feelings about. Male-female stuff. Or what it’s like to be male right now. Or that things aren’t what you were expecting. Or your sense of irrelevance and confusion and worries about what comes next. Or what you think about #MeToo.
My home city, Seattle, even more than most of America, is a place-time juncture where poles have flipped, especially in young and activist circles. Victimhood has become a kind of power that can compete with—and sometimes outcompete—money and brute force, the currencies that have long put men and colonizers on top, letting them take what they can and touch whom they will.
Human beings, as social animals, orient to status and power the way that many animals orient to water. We instinctively know where it lies; we practically smell it. And we instinctively do what we can to get some for ourselves. In our quest for social standing, we play the strongest cards life has dealt us. Some people—like models—lead with beauty; some—like scholars—lead with intelligence or education; some—like neoNazis—lead with whiteness; some—like old Olympians—lead with glory past. But none of us is unidimensional, and when the path to power changes, we reorient, centering on whichever parts of our identity give us the most standing in the new order.
I can think of a half-dozen women of color who, when I first met them five or ten years ago, led with competencies including strategic thinking, management skills, knowledge, education, and raw analytic ability, and who now lead with race and gender, or sexual orientation, or all of the above.
In this new order, each of us becomes both more and less than we are—more, in that we are taken as representatives of our respective tribe—spokespersons for the whole under some circumstances, guilty of the sins of the whole under others. And less, because in the heat of tribalism our individuality, our character or idiosyncrasies, our hard-won knowledge of subjects other than tribal experience (or lack there-of) become invisible.
Tribalism is ascendant on both left and right, the difference being that the right rewards and seeks to protect the old social order while the left seeks to upend it. Either way, the temptation to play the identity card is almost irresistible. I’ve done it myself. In a recent debate against a male opponent, Religion Good and Bad, I barely made it through five minutes before saying, “Look, from my vantage as a woman there’s no way I can imagine that biblical religion has done more good than harm.” . . . Bada boom. I’ve got positionality that you can’t touch. Debate over. After an appropriate pause, the male moderator and my gracious opponent, author Jonathan Tweet, moved on to the next question. Because what could they say? Nothing that wouldn’t get them pegged as mansplaining jerks.
That’s power, Baby.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.