In a few days, we will mark the first anniversary of the Women’s March on Washington. Though we could not have known it last January, the entire year that followed saw unprecedented, constantly resurgent public debates about women’s sexual rights and experiences. These debates appeared to culminate in Time magazine’s recognition of “The Silence Breakers” as the Person of the Year this past December and a new sense of feminist solidarity—but in recent weeks, fissures have appeared within the global #MeToo movement and commemorations of the women’s march at home have also be riven by tensions between factions. Debates over the nature of consent, what exactly constitutes harassment and whether young feminists simply need to grow up have blanketed social media. Clearly we have not yet fully articulated the consequences of this year’s confessional outpourings–or the challenges they have set before us. What is left to be addressed and what will shape the conversation in the years to come? Here are nine challenges before us as we look back on The Year of the Pussy Hat.

 (1) How do we talk about sexual harassment without talking about cats? The viral New Yorker story “Cat Person” and the pussy hat did much to spark public discussion about sexual norms and expectations. But as has recently been pointed out, such cat metaphors draw unwarranted attention to genitalia as the thing that supposedly ‘makes’ one male or female—an assumption that trans activists have fought for years. And in general, it’s hard to have open conversations about female pleasure and the politics of consent if our vocabulary remains feline. Our cultural obsession with this double entendre, and the nervous giggles that often surround it, highlight that we are still grappling for a more open and less normative vocabulary through which women can discuss their sexuality in public without feeling exposed or shamed.

(2) How do we talk about women as sexual aggressors? Coverage of #MeToo has tended to focus almost exclusively on male harassers. But the recent survey conducted by the Association of American Universities suggests that a not-insignificant proportion of anonymously reported incidents of sexual harassment are perpetrated by women. These statistics challenge the prevalent view of women as the perennial victims of men’s unbridled sexuality. They also remind us that non-heterosexual relations–except for relations between men–have been overlooked by these public debates. We haven’t yet been able to separate our attitudes toward sexual harassment from naive preconceptions about gender roles–even as we continue to insist that such preconceptions are at the heart of the problems #MeToo tries to confront.

(3) How should we (and when should we) talk about harassment in public? #MeToo began as a Twitter hashtag. Then it went viral in parallel with a series of more public, individual and collective confessions. There followed a spawn of responses that were somewhere between a show of solidarity and a public accusation: anonymous crowdsourced lists of sexual predators, online collections of paragraph-long, decontextualized testimonies, think pieces about famous predators whose guilt no longer needed proving, and many others. It seems that, as a public, we’re in the process of testing the efficacy of these various strategies, and the protections afforded by their varying degrees of anonymity and disclosure. But we are not yet talking about what these experiments in protest have taught us, or how they can be mobilized into longer-lasting social habits. As the dust settles on the collective shock and catharsis of the past few months, we are due for these conversations.

(4) How can we say no and mean it? Over the last two years, many communities and governing bodies nationwide have raised their sexual consent standards. These reconsiderations have come alive again as we are being reminded that saying ‘no’–even when one feels technically free to do so–is often not an easy choice for someone put in an ambiguous situation. “Cat Person” seems to have touched a nerve in part because of the frankness with which it explores such grey zone situations. Whatever else one feels about this story, it was right, and incisive, in pointing out that sex acts we wish hadn’t happened don’t always involve clear-cut manipulation or a power imbalance. As we strive to communicate better about sex, in public as well as in intimate situations, we need to keep these situations in mind as well, and the reasons why they might make one hesitate to say no when one wants to.

 (5) What can men do about it–and is the solution really in their hands? Several controversial pieces, including Stephen Marche’s op-ed in the New York Times, have suggested that sexual harassment, misconduct and discrimination can only be resolved if men control their biological urges, whether through techniques of self-control, self-reflective analysis, or social pressure. But this approach indulges once more in gender binaries and implicitly suggests an (inevitable) physiological basis for inappropriate behavior. While seeming to place the blame squarely on male perpetrators (itself a problematic claim–see (2) above), it paradoxically absolves individuals of ethical responsibility by locating the problem in masculinity itself. Men alone can’t change a culture of complicity–many women enabled Harvey Weinstein’s hotel-room rendezvous, and a significant number of women have voted to elect serial sexual predators to positions of power. We have to move beyond a gender-based blame-game to confront the darker networks of power, fear and insecurity that make harassment possible at all.

 (6) Should we talk more about sex or less? Horror at the widespread prevalence of sexual misconduct across all industries has prompted a backlash against shifting social norms around sexuality: was Aziz Ansari a harasser or just a bad date? Is there still room for the office romance? Should we follow zero-tolerance policies? Is the solution to banish any hint of the erotic or any talk of sex from public places? There are signs that #MeToo might be inspiring a turn to moral prudery and the social policing of sexuality. Paradoxically, however, the Year of the Pussy Hat and the Silence Breakers, alongside the crudeness of the infamous Trump Tape argues for the opposite: we need to talk more about sex, but with greater empathy, respect, openness and understanding. More reflection and better insight into the complex dynamics of sexuality and power can only help us understand our own experiences better and intervene to help others in need.

(7) How can #MeToo feminism become less racist (and better acknowledge its racism in the first place)? Tarana Burke started the #MeToo hashtag years ago, but media failed to acknowledge her for weeks. A belatedly criticized #MeToo cover story in The LA Times only interviewed Caucasian women. In general, with very few notable exceptions such as Oprah Winfrey, white women who speak out about sexual harassment tend to receive much more publicity and social goodwill. It’s good that we’ve started talking about these inequalities, but bemoaning them is not enough. A truly inclusive feminism needs to insist on the vast gaps between different women’s political agency, and work to reduce these gaps at least as insistently as it works to reduce inequalities between genders.

 (8) Can we actually get rid of the harassers? The many calls to punish, penalize and publicly shame sexual harassers are necessary and perform a kind of social cleansing. But such a cleansing is almost impossible to execute effectively or fairly, or according to clear legal standards, as numerous cases have shown. Major media figures have lost jobs only to find others, while many others continue, apparently unscathed. The consternation around Al Franken’s resignation from the Senate suggests the limits of populist prosecution without due process or equal application across the board. Sexual harassment–even more so than assault or rape–is notoriously difficult to adjudicate or even sometimes to recognize. A key element in combating it and guarding against abuse must be the establishment of clear norms, guidelines and processes by which all parties are heard, protected and respected. For this, we must move beyond the court of social media, and perhaps also cast a closer and more critical look at our actual courts.

 (9) Can we change this climate? It’s clear that sexual harassment is not a problem limited to a few “bad apples” as has long been claimed. It is, instead, a symptom of a broader climate in which discrimination and exploitation have been normalized. Change will not come through the strategic, if satisfying, falls of a few powerful figures–it will only come from genuine, transformative “climate change” which must be a grassroots effort undertaken by men and women together.Several strategies have been proven effective in various studies: bystander intervention to prevent and stop situations of harassment or misconduct; strategies to combat unconscious bias; a robust system for reporting and due process in managing complaints; and finally, a relentless push towards openness and transparency. This is climate change we want to see.

 

Marta Figlerowicz and Ayesha Ramachandran are assistant professors of Comparative Literature at Yale and Public Voices Fellows with the Op-Ed Project.

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