I write that hashtag with very mixed feelings. Because I know acquaintances, friends, and family members who have been sexually assaulted, and I'm wary of diminishing their pain by lumping their trauma together with the far lesser one of being verbally harassed that I've experienced. And because, perhaps because I've worked most of my adult life in female-dominated professions (publishing; teaching; romance writing), I've not experienced the micro and macro aggressions of daily sexual harassment that many of the people using the #MeToo hashtag write about. I want to support other women in speaking out about their experiences with rape culture, but I don't want to co-opt their struggles or their pain, or claim that I've been its victim except on a small scale.
Yet, I do have memories of being sexually harassed. The one that resonates the most for me is from my early teen years, when I went over to the house of my friend and neighbor on Christmas to check out his holiday haul. Ralph was part of a large Italian family, and many of his relatives had gathered at his family's house for their traditional holiday dinner. As he and I headed upstairs, away from the holiday hubbub, I heard one of his older uncles call out, "Hey, way to go, Ralphie!" The implication being that Ralph was taking me upstairs to make out, or score with me sexually, reducing me to an object of his nephew's desire. This memory stands out for me because it was the first time that I was aware that what I was experiencing was the result of sexism, rather than some out of the blue aggression, someone talking about me as a sexual object, right in front of my face. The incident was upsetting and demeaning, but I felt like I gained some control over it by being able to name it, to label it, to understand that it was not (or not just) about me in particular, but about this larger malignant belief in our culture, this belief that male experiences were of more value than female ones.
So, I'm wondering—when do you first remember not just being the victim of sexual harassment or abuse, but when you were able to understand that you were on the receiving end of a specifically sexist act?
I've also been thinking about being sexually harassed indirectly, through the pages of romance novels. Twentieth-century romance novels have a long history of romanticizing rape, holding up as heroes men who commit violent acts, and women who equate so-called alpha male behavior with caring. Men who beat up the purely evil villains who rape their beloved heroines are the ones that really get on my nerves here; I'm sure you have your own pet peeves. Many proponents of the romance genre argue that it is inherently feminist, because it is a genre for women, by women, and about women, a genre that centers female experiences and concerns. But it is also a genre that has many, many examples, not only in the Old Skool past but also in the present, of idealizing behaviors for which many using the #MeToo hashtag are taking others to task.
In her piece on the #MeToo movement in The Guardian earlier today, Jessica Valenti argues that it's time for women to start making and sharing lists of the perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault, rather than speaking out yet again about their experiences of being on the receiving end of such harassment and assault.
I've always tried to emphasize the positive on this blog, but perhaps it's time to start making a list of romance novels that do the same.
What books would you put on such a list?