After co-opting #MeToo, white feminists and liberals continued to frame sexual assault as individual instances rather than as a systemic issue.
TW/CW: This article discusses sexual assault, victim-blaming, anti-Blackness, and anti-indigeneity.
As the Tara Reade allegation came to the forefront in recent months, several proponents of “Believe Women” demonstrated that they do not, in truth, believe women. They believe women, selectively and in alignment with political interest.
First conceptualized by Tarana Burke as a “catchphrase” specifically for women of color and more greatly “from survivor to survivor to let folks know that they were not alone,” #MeToo — in its bastardized, hashtagged form — lays in ruins.
From white feminist Alyssa Milano, to former presidential nominees Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as well as former Georgia gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, in the case of Reade, each have chosen to side with and to actively support the alleged perpetrator — Joseph R. Biden, Jr. Meanwhile, U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez deemed Reade’s end objective, in disclosing the allegation, to be “messy” and “not clear-cut.”
#MeToo, or the viral movement co-opted by Milano, is in disarray for myriad reasons.
The bastardized movement placed heavy focus on white women — framed, however unwittingly, as the most viable victims of rape. BIPOC experience of rape became quickly sidelined to instead illuminate the experiences of “respectable” victims, i.e. white, middle class.
This had ramifications on several levels, from the institutional to the personal, such as in the level of emotion given towards a case. More specifically, the amount of anger.
Anger, in the wake of assault, is called for. Anger, after all, “is a claim of injustice.” However, the form of anger that was seen as most righteous remained that of Uma Thurman or Christine Blasey Ford, or a “suppressed anger…of diminished emotional intensity” that is then “modeled…as an appropriate and ‘relatable’ response to #MeToo” — as Emily Winderman analyzes in “Anger’s Volumes: Rhetorics of Amplification and Aggregation in #MeToo.”
The anger of people of color, specifically Black women (who are discounted as “angry Black women”) or Indigenous women (who experience the highest rate of sexual assault nationally), remains policed and not “heard for what [it] communicates.”
RECOMMENDED: Surviving Rape as a Prison Abolitionist
From Cosby to Weinstein, the movement also relied on incarceration as its terminus. But mass incarceration—and with it, the prison industrial complex—poses considerable harm to the multiply marginalized.
“Sexual violence is an integral component of the prison system, and the people most vulnerable to sexual violence are also most frequently targeted by policing and criminalization,” writes V. Jo Hsu in “(Trans)forming #MeToo: Toward a Networked Response to Gender Violence.” For the multiply marginalized, incarceration has been deployed as a “‘comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control.’”
Incarceration treats sexual assault as an individual or one-off phenomena, not as a form of systemic violence that is entrenched in other forms of systemic violence. Prison abolition is more of a terminus to sexual assault than prison, precisely because “scripts that criminalize blackness, queerness, gender nonconformity, and other boundary crossings are magnifications of the same unexamined fears that pervade public life.”
This leads to the most pressing limitation of #MeToo: its focus on “individual stories and experiences.”
When #MeToo received traction, in the wake of Milano’s 2017 tweet, it formed an international repository of survivors and subsequent testimonies. By the sheer number of interactions and replies, it affirmed that there existed an epidemic of sexual assault and more greatly, gendered violence against women.
But, sexual assault does not exist in a vacuum, and a survivor of rape cannot be seen as an abstraction of just their assault. Their singular experience is important, but it cannot be seen singularly.
The epidemic of sexual assault, of violence against women, that we witness today is a byproduct of numerous historical and transnational processes.
Most notably, it can be traced to the rise of capitalism, whose first (and most necessary) objective remained to subsume “the generative and productive forces of women…under patriarchal control.” Capitalist accumulation is thus synonymous with an asymmetrical division of labor precipitated on the “control…over women” — a control that has been sustained by the imposition of a nuclear family based on heteronormativity and reproduction as well as by “the state…and powerful ideological systems [like] patriarchal religions, law, [and] medicine.” Maria Mies delineates this important connection in Patriarchy and Accumulation On A World Scale.
Furthermore, rape was an integral part of the colonial project. Gendered violence was used to destabilize Black and Indigenous communities, and thus it must be seen as a “complex social problem that (often in seemingly contradictory ways and at various intersections) reinforces White supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, binary Western epistemologies of gender, and capitalist logics.” The colonial project, however, has not ended.
This is echoed by many Indigenous feminists like Sarah Deer who reminds us, “…we can only build an honest anti-rape movement if it confronts colonial violence by addressing rape as a political construct and a product of colonialism, rather than associating rape with an epidemic like ‘a contagious disease’ or framing it as a ‘short-term, isolated problem.’”
Because sexual assaults continue to be framed as individual instances rather than a systemic issue, personal stories (like that of Reade and Blasey Ford showcase) can be co-opted for political gain, since the context of their experienced violence is severed from “‘wider systems of historical, cultural, and material local- and geo-politics.’” When individual stories and experiences are linked to the wider systems that ultimately produce them, the “elaborate social arrangements that sustain widespread inequality” can be unearthed and liberation — in its heterogeneity — becomes clearer.
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