The way we talk about sexual assault isn’t really changing anything.
Content note: this article discusses rape, sexual assault and abuse.
The allegations that Harvey Weinstein committed multiple rapes and sexual assault while operating as, essentially, a leader in Hollywood shook the world and triggered the #MeToo movement where women came forward with their own experiences of sexual harassment and assault. Seen as a founding member of this unofficial movement was Asia Argento, who was the first to make public her allegations about Weinstein’s conduct. Yet since then, it has been revealed by The New York Times that Asia Argento paid $380,000 to someone who accused her of sexual assault when he was just 17 (the age of consent in California where the alleged incident took place is 18).
This news has stunned the world and is being used by some to try to undermine the #MeToo movement. However, what it actually highlights is how overly simplistic our conversations on sexual assault are and that is contributing to so many victims being failed.
#MeToo was used by mostly cis women to talk about their own experiences of sexual oppression, targeting and abuse. It was such a powerful force and even helped audiences worldwide connect with shows like The Handmaid’s Tale and Big Little Lies on a deeper level. This wasn’t a bad thing, but it wasn’t done in the most effective way.
Generalisations don’t particularly help discussions. Focusing only on cis women’s oppression may help that one area, but that doesn’t mean it helps all victims of sexual assault and/or oppression. The narrative around sexual assault is almost always that cis women are victims and cis men are abusers. While women do face a heavy weight of oppression due to gender, it isn’t so binary when it comes to assault and we have a duty to have the difficult and complex conversations so that all victims can be supported.
“Generalisations don’t particularly help discussions”
Toxic masculinity does indeed contribute to the huge statistics that show women are at huge risk of violence and sexual assault from men in their lifetime. However, that’s not the only danger of toxic masculinity. The ideas around toxic masculinity mean that men, boys and even just masculine (or masculine presenting) people are never believed as victims, and women and non-binary people are never thought of as potential victims from women. This one dimensional focus on toxic masculinity then allows potential predators to operate knowing that society, and even the most progressive movements, won’t hold them to account or believe that they are predators or that the people they target could possibly be victims. This isn’t helped by false notions of what sexual assault can entail.
False ideas that ejaculation, orgasm and/or erection equal consent disrupt all conversations and just leave survivors feeling guilt over very common and completely unremarkable body experiences. Stimulation in any way can equal a reaction from the body. That does not equal consent. Survivors too should never have to listen to ideas that they actually ‘really wanted it’. It’s disgusting victim blaming.
We also approach the words ‘abuser’ and ‘abused’ as static categories that people are placed in for life and that can never shift. Some people who are abused go on to then abuse. Some people who are abusers may then be abused themselves. A rape survivor may also be a rapist. A rapist may also become a survivor of rape. This does not muddy or tarnish rape allegations. Society should push always for the accountability (and prosecution) of rapists, even if they too have been raped. That is how we do tackle sexual assault – by demanding accountability from all abusers.
But too often we approach such discussions with such a narrow view point that we inevitably erase survivors, which then makes it almost impossible to dismantle rape culture and to seek to effectively tackle abuse in society. We need a movement that encompasses all survivors (particularly trans women of colour and sex workers) and demands accountability. We’re not getting that. We worship false idols of the movement falsely conflating it with solidarity, instead of focusing on the discussions and issues through which we will finally be able to deliver justice. The latest news about #MeToo isn’t shocking. That so many think it is, shows just how much we’re getting this wrong.