SWAGS Holds Panel to Examine #MeToo Movement
Issue   |   Tue, 03/20/2018 - 22:36

Since the #MeToo movement moved to the forefront of national conversation last October, a vast number of people, mostly women, have come forward with their own stories of sexual harassment and assault by people in positions of power. In an effort to process the movement, the sexuality, women’s and gender studies (SWAGS) department hosted a panel on March 6 called “Making Sense of #MeToo,” which featured Masha Gessen, award-winning journalist and John J. McCloy professor, and Loretta Ross, key player in the creation of the reproductive justice movement and a professor at Hampshire College.

SWAGS Professors Manuela Picq, Khary Polk, Sahar Sadjadi and Amrita Basu also participated in the panel.

The event opened with Gessen and Ross answering questions posed by Basu, the chair of SWAGS. Picq, Sadjadi and Polk then discussed the movement in more specific contexts, such as internationally and in the U.S. military. Gessen and Ross spoke again, after which all the panelists answered questions from the audience.

Gessen began by speaking about her concerns regarding the #MeToo movement, especially when looking at the story of “Grace,” written by Katie Way, on Babe.com, that accused comedian and actor Aziz Ansari of inappropriate behavior.

“It really brought to the forefront the basic assumptions underlying the part of this conversation that’s about sex,” she said.

“The basic assumptions are that women give sex and men get sex and what we’re negotiating are the terms of that arrangement,” she continued.

“That seems so problematic to me and so incomprehensible to me as a non-heterosexual person. I don’t understand why we’re talking about it that way and why it’s not challenged.”

The need for longer and more in-depth discussion within the current movement was another concern that Gessen expressed.

“The danger here is the trivialization of rape and the criminalization of bad sex,” she said. “This is one place where very clear categories, very detailed discussions and nuance is necessary. I don’t think we’re getting much of that.”

Ross then spoke about the history of the American movement against sexual assault, of which she has been a leader and activist since the early 1970s.

“What is not know about the early anti-rape movement is that its leadership was largely African-American women,” Ross said. “One of the things that I question about the current #MeToo movement is why things only matter when the white gaze notices, because in fact, this work has been going on quite a while. I’m just a little impatient with these foreshortened narratives.”

Ross went on to talk about where #MeToo and the fight to end sexual violence should be positioned in relation to activism.
“I don’t think the move to end violence against women should be situated in the women’s movement,” she said.

“Violence isn’t something that just happens to women. It’s something done by men, so why aren’t we situating this entire conversation in the conversation around toxic masculinity and how we need to have better or different men, not more women better at communicating their desires?” Ross added.

Picq spoke on the reception of #MeToo in a transnational context with a focus on France and Latin American countries.

“Politics gets transformed in translation,” she said. “In France it [#MeToo] became naming the rapist and the hashtag became #BalanceTonPorc or ‘out your pig’ … In Latin America, there was a lot of interest. The first reaction was the usual: feminist women and black women have been doing that for decades, so there’s nothing new, but it generated interest … The main mobilizations of women in Latin America and the hashtags that are most useful are to stop femicide. #MeToo was of limited resonance in that context.”

During her segment, Sadjadi talked about some of the details of the language used in the movement, specifically the term “unwanted sexual advance.”

“Anyone who’s in the position of initiating sex knows that you never know in the first place whether it’s wanted or unwanted,” Sadjadi said.

“We should think about that question and these terms such as unwanted sexual advance and what it means. It’s the question of what happens when there is a rejection of the sexual advance, and I think that’s the important point,” Sadjadi added.

Following the panel, audience members asked questions to all of the participants. Beni Dieujuste ’20 asked about what comes after someone has been accused and found guilty of sexual assault.

Polk answered Dieujuste’s question by asking people to consider other perspectives on the topic.

“If we’re thinking about forms of restorative justice, or something that is different than the criminal justice system, I would say that students have to think deeply about what kind of repercussions we want for ourselves and for each other,” Polk said.

“What does it mean to imagine yourself as the person accused of sexual assault and what would you want for yourself? I wonder if we can have a discussion on how we think about ourselves and if that will allow us to come up with new forms of justice when these situations occur,” he added.

Lisa Zheutlin ’21 attended the panel and said that she thinks more events of its kind should be held on campus. She found Ross’s historical perspective on the movement to be helpful.

“I was really interested in Loretta Ross’s point that these white celebrities in Hollywood did not start the movement,” Zheutlin said. “ ... It’s important to recognize how and why we are now focused on the issue which we, as a society, need to address.”