Of course it happened to me too. More than once. In an assortment of ways, in various situations. A little over a year ago; in 2013; as a teenager; as a child.
White Americans tend to start from an ahistoric assumption that safety is the default. We live in a collective bubble defended by relatively unassailable boundaries, formidable military might, and national neighbors who more or less want to leave the 800 pound gorilla alone because they are safer nestled up next to it than at odds with it. Inside our daily lives, broadly speaking, we expect to be safe. When we interact with the police over speeding tickets or improper use of our turn signals, we don’t expect to be shaken down for a bribe, or a favor. We don’t expect to reach for our wallet and get shot as a result.
But safety is not the default for the vast majority of the world. Really, only white folk in Western nations have successfully created a bubble that more or less covers us and definitely doesn’t cover anyone else. Everywhere else, no one is safe from drones and carpet bombs and chemical attack and corruption and, of course, sexual violence in the form of harassment and rape.
None of which is mentioned to diminish the individual trauma. Just to point out that we need to think a little deeper about all of this and start asking some questions. What does it mean to feel safe? What are our rights? As an American, I believe that I have the right to bodily autonomy: control over where I go, what I do, who I do it with, and what happens after the fact. I have the right not to be willfully, physically damaged by another person; and also the right to expect that others will conduct themselves in such a way as to ensure that the things under their control conspire to do no harm to my physical body. I have an unpredictable, anxious dog. I am responsible for ensuring that unpredictable, anxious dog is not in a position to inflict pain or damage on another with his teeth. That is my obligation, others have the right to expect me to conduct my affairs in such a way as to not endanger anyone.
Does everyone have the same right to safety, or bodily autonomy? If a worker exchanging her time and effort for money in the workplace as a secretary has the right to say no when her boss wants to stick his tongue down her throat, does a prostitute who is exchanging her time and effort for cash have the right to define what effort she is willing to engage in? It seems to me that the two situations are fundamentally the same.
If a white woman has the right to insist that her breasts not be touched by a coworker, does a black woman have the right to expect that her co-workers won’t touch her hair? Is one’s head any less included in bodily autonomy than one’s breasts?
We should be careful with our outrage, lest we find ourselves with the same fundamental flaw that runs through every accused perpetrator of infractions both egregious and irresponsible: the inability or unwillingness to recognize the discrete, complete, equally valid experience embodied in every other human we come across. The wanting impulse that can only see the want in you, and not the want in the other.
This is why men feel different about women after they have a daughter. Why things make sense to them after fathering a girl that didn’t make sense to them before: a daughter is the first female they have ever met from whom they want nothing. She’s the first female in their life where there is nothing that she can do for them, and everything that they can do for her. A mother is there for warmth and comfort and sustenance, and that is the extent of it. She might as well be a microwave fronted by a teddy bear. A girlfriend is pleasure and support and someone who agrees that they are the most important person in the room. A wife is pleasure on demand and clean shirts and the mechanism which allows them to focus on what pleases them while ignoring the mundane, like keeping the house clean. A secretary is a coffee dispenser with a nice ass. But a daughter? A daughter is hopes and dreams unrelated to him, but that he has cause to absorb as his own. He looks out for her, has hopes for her, because she is not a bundle of things that can be done for him, she is a bundle of things she wants all by herself.
And suddenly, the notion that a man somewhere might treat his daughter in the same way he has treated all the other women in his life starts to mean something. A fourteen year old in a short skirt isn’t a temptation he’s going to have to wait four years to oogle, she’s his girl in a few years. She’s a kid who plays with lipstick and then goes home to watch Frozen for the millionth time, because she’s a kid.
So yes, #metoo. But you know what else is also #metoo? Looking at someone and ruthlessly preserving my obliviousness to the fact that they are a whole and complete person with a perspective, and reasons, and a history, and a story, and wants that are completely foreign to me yet still as valid and reasonable as my own.
What allows Al Franken to forcibly kiss someone, or to pose for a photo with a sleeping woman’s breasts in his hands, or to put his hand on a stranger’s bottom, is that he isn’t coming to the exchange with the understanding that her desires are equal to his, that she as as much right to control what happens in her mouth as he does, that she is whole and complete and he has no right to inflict consequences on her without her participation or consent. She is the punchline, the object, the manifestation of his desire to be approved, or to feel strong, or whatever. She isn’t as human as he is, at least at that moment his mind. He is the good guy, the hero of the story. She is a prop.
Is the flaw as deep with Franken as with someone like Roy Moore, or Brock Turner, or Bill Clinton, or Donald Trump? Probably not. But it is a flaw we all possess, this working assumption that our experience is the only one that matters. It is the belief behind every backstabber, every bully, every liar, every con job, every corporate raider, every bank executive behind a massive foreclosure operation, every abuser, every racist… the list is endless.
I’ve heard it said that compassion begins when we start to recognize that everyone we meet is attempting to move towards comfort and away from pain. There is something equally fundamental in Don Miguel Ruiz’s agreement to take nothing personally. Restated, it isn’t about you. Nothing is about you. The world and the people in it are not there to serve your desires.
No one has a greater right to safety than another, not by race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, belief system, education, ability, creed, or experience. Without exception, everyone should be able to walk through the world in complete control over what happens to and with their bodies. We can talk about toxic masculinity, sure. But let’s also talk about toxic self-absorption, and the conviction that everyone else’s role in the world is to serve your immediate desire. Let’s talk about the fatal conviction that, no matter the room you stand in, you are the most important person in that room. Strip every individual in a society of the conviction that nothing matters quite so much as what they desire in any given moment, and the world would change in an instant. And for the better.