Bravado Isn't Bravery: Silence, #MeToo and Sexual Assault

You might think that all women generally agree with the #MeToo campaign on social media that erupted in response to the Harvey Weinstein revelations. Let me amend that: you might think that all women who’ve been sexually harassed or molested might agree with it. Yet I have been surprised that even within my group of (relatively educated, undeniably privileged) female friends, some major disagreements exist.

Recently, I was with a group of women friends I’ve known for well over a decade and asked them about their reactions to “Me Too.” They are, like me, white women with privileges both given and earned. They are smart and hard-working, loyal friends and devoted mothers, and if I ever have my back against the wall these are the fierce women I would want fighting for me. Some of them are also more politically and socially conservative than I am, which is why I was especially curious about their responses to this recent flare-up over sexual harassment and assault.

When I said how infuriating it is to me that women have to live in a constant state of danger, they were surprised. “That never crosses my mind,” one said. “I don’t think about it like that,” another added. Yet when I asked them whether they’d ever been harassed or assaulted, every one of them said yes, of course she had, either at work, or traveling, or on a date. Then another friend—a woman who has forged a successful career in a male-dominated field—told me, “It’s not that it doesn’t happen, but it’s how you handle it that matters.”

This has been ringing in my head ever since I heard her say it. Since the 1990s, when my generation of women were college students trying to figure out our place in the world, there’s been a divide between the feminists who highlight the victimization of women—“Take Back the Night” marches, with their searing accusations of seemingly unavoidable rape, were a major feature of campus life in our day—and the ones who argue that accepting a position of victimhood was self-defeating. The writer Katie Roiphe was an early spokesperson for the latter group, warning in a 1993 New York Times opinion piece that “rape-crisis feminists reinforce traditional views about the fragility of the female body and will. […] The suggestion lurking beneath this definition of rape is that men are not just physically but also intellectually and emotionally more powerful than women.” If we redefine rape to include any sexual attention given without consent, she argued, we risk defining women as passive and weak. The women she calls “rape-crisis feminists” are, from this perspective, actually damaging women by making them sound like victims.

This is the side some of my friends are on, whether they know it or not. They don’t believe they have been—or could at any moment become—victims, because that’s not how they view themselves. It’s not simply that they possess wealth and privilege and the safety that comes along with that, but also that they they refuse to be defined as weak, passive or damaged. I understand that, absolutely; I don’t see them that way either.

And yet. Every one of them—of us—has been at best shamed or objectified and at worst assaulted by a man at some point in our lives. And each of us did the same thing: nothing. We were either too shocked or too proud or just too clueless to say or do anything when that moment came for us. As time passed, that silence metamorphosed into a strange kind of pride: sure, we went through that, but look at us, we’re fine. Now we can recount what happened and even laugh about it: ugh, remember when that guy did that? We survived; we weren’t ruined forever by what some sleazy jerk did to us once upon a time. If we go around crying about something that happened 20 years ago, what good does that do us? What kind of weaklings do you take us for?

But we were also lucky. Lots of women don’t “get over it.” And these behaviors continue. Our silence, though flavored with bravado, does not equal bravery, and it does not move us closer to a solution to the problem of sexual abuse. However uncomfortable it makes us, we must speak out about what happened to us: we have that obligation to each other, to less-privileged women, to our beloved children. Perhaps you really are “over” what happened to you, perhaps you prefer to see it as ancient history, but what about the men who are shoving their hands into young girls’ pants on a train or molesting them at a sleepover right now? Are we really just going to tell those girls (or boys) to do what we did: suck it up, deal with it, move on? If, horribly, this happens to your children, are you going to tell them to have a stiff upper lip?

By buying into the idea that strong women don’t complain when they’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, we unwittingly support a culture where perpetrators can continue unchecked. Staying silent in the face of assaults on our bodies and minds only supports the status quo. Calling out unwanted and inappropriate sexual attention, whether it’s catcalling or date rape, doesn’t make you weak. It makes you fierce. It makes you a warrior. You aren’t a whiny baby if you are outraged about a stranger’s hands on your breasts or in your pants. And if you want to protect your daughters, as well as your sons, from growing up in a world where people’s bodies are routinely violated, a world where not everyone escapes as intact and lucky as you did, you have to talk about this. You have to be outraged. You have to speak out.

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