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Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash

Behind the Hashtags: Is Sexual Violence Really That Widespread?

Want to summon a volatile combination of desperate agreement and scandalized defensiveness with only one social post? You need only add the hashtag #MeToo #TimesUp or #YesAllWomen to it.

The ridiculousness of hashtags (formerly known as the pound sign or number symbol) and the zeitgeist-whipping power of social media don’t detract from the ugly truth behind the hashtags. People, especially women, are angry, disgusted, and fed up. Whether or not they identify as feminist, they get newly fired up with each breaking story about yet another Hollywood or Capitol Hill groper, rape trial ending in laughable sentencing, mass murderer blaming women for his problems, or crazy train of messages from a guy rejected on social media.

And yet, although the frequency of both these stories and the outrage in response should indicate that we have some very deep-running problems with sexism and sexual violence in our society — and the very fact that #MeToo was used 4.7 million times with one day of going viral on October 15, 2017, and #YesAllWomen 1.2 million times within four days of its launch in May 2014, highly suggests that many, many, many women and, in fact, many men, have been subjected to sexual harassment, battery, or assault — the inevitable comments on the post appear:

I don’t think it’s that common.

Those are just bad guys who do that. We’re not all bad.

It’s not a big deal.

Women do bad things too.

Yes. Duh.

#YesAllWomen does not mean #NoToAllMen just because it is a counter-hashtag to #NotAllMen. The very fact that someone felt the need to alert us that Not All Men are Elliot Rodger is very telling.

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Here’s the thing: when talking about structural violence, the first step is to identify groups of people who are susceptible to that violence. In the United States, sexual power and its associated entitlement is broadly perceived to be held by men. Men can of course be subjected to violence and discrimination, based on sexual orientation, race, age, and more. In fact, Brendan Fraser and Terry Crews were celebrity male faces of the #MeToo movement.

What’s more helpful than attributing aggressor or victim roles to either gender is to look at some prevailing ideas about sex. We speak of having sex as giving yourself to another. You retain your identity and agency, supposedly…but both men and women use the term “give yourself” to refer to sex. That’s the idea that’s problematic, especially in conjunction with that attitude of entitlement.

What, then, happens when someone feels they’re owed sex?

Elliot Rodger was a self-described “incel,” or “involuntary celibate.” Much has been written about this movement, which could be considered the opposing force to the #MeToo movement, albeit with more focused — some would say extremist — views on the topic.

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The incel movement in a nutshell.

Not all incels will commit mass murder, but far many more will engage in sexual harassment, battery, or assault to obtain what’s “theirs.” And the problem is not limited to incels. An alarming number of college men admit they would force a woman into sexual contact if there were no consequences — but distanced themselves from the word “rape.” Research has shown that people tend to attribute less blame to victims of rape in situations of “stranger rape” as opposed to “acquaintance rape.” When the victim knew her attacker in some way, people were more likely to come up with reasons why, and often concluded that she caused it in some way. Why does the simple state of knowing one’s attacker entail responsibility on the part of the victim? Because women are assumed to be by default receptive to the activities of men, and any behavior on the spectrum of sexual violence perpetrated by men against women therefore must be in response to a woman’s rejection or “leading on.”

I once had a coworker who kept inappropriately touching me. I told him very clearly to stop, pulled away, alerted management to no avail, and eventually ending up flinging him off, after which he went around telling our other coworkers I was “crazy.”

I shared the story online and a male commenter said, “But why did you let him touch you?”

I said, “I’m sorry, my force field wasn’t working that day.”

Researchers also have shown that aggressive and violent behaviors are partly caused by deficiencies in the processing of social information — what a glance means, what others’ intentions are. Sexism, racism, and other -isms can play into it, but much aggression is derived from anger at not understanding or not being able to control a situation. That’s what feminists mean when they say rape is about power, not sex. Truthfully, it’s about both. The feeling that the date someone had in mind must be completed, consent be damned, is the pinnacle of entitlement.

Much of the counter-argument about #YesAllWomen and #MeToo seems to be centered on concerns that any unwanted behavior will be perceived as harassment or abuse. The persistent myth of the feminist who screams “rape!” when a man holds a door for her continues to make the rounds.

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Of course they made the bars pink…

#YesAllWomen and #MeToo may have been used in some tweets that were self-absorbed, very small-picture, or sexist, but overall, they brought discussion of abuse and discrimination into a larger light.

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The #YesAllWomen hashtag was widely used to address structural violence and unspoken assumptions about gender dynamics in society.

When social media exploded with stories, confessions, complaints, and questions related to the hashtags, the movements were cathartic for many victims of abuse, harassment, and discrimination; annoying for many who had not had these experiences; and insulting for those who felt targeted by the tweets. Some immediately expressed sympathy for the victims with a subtle dollop of “This is why you respect yourselves, ladies!” Others got very defensive and not-all-mened and some-womened their way through the dialogue. Others decided to vehemently express doubt that the stories were even true.

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The moment when you think you’ve discredited a movement by exhibiting some of the very behavior that inspired the movement.

Although the craze has died down somewhat, the need for such sharing — perhaps under less intense circumstances — is demonstrated by every bit of news and research that shows the suppression of abuse victims. Instead of sidestepping these issues with complaints about “victimhood” or “privilege,” the time has come for those who study these issues to generate thoughtful dialogue. Victims of abuse, including myself, have often limited their sharing to “innocuous” or “anecdotal” stories, because the social penalties for “oversharing” were worse than the pain of keeping it in. The explosion of activity upon the hashtags’ launch suggests that abuse has been a suppressed crime, from which people were anxious to finally have a voice.

While solutions are challenging, the first step towards them is to open the dialogue about abuse. #YesAllWomen was inspired by a misogynistic act of violence by Elliot Rodger and #MeToo was inspired by rampant complicity in and protection of powerful men — then renewed by yet another attack from the incel movement. If some of what we can spare from the wreckage is an opportunity to talk about abuse and gender issues, we’d be foolish not to pursue it.

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Writer by day, circus artist by night. I write about art, media, culture, health, science, and where they all meet. Join my list: http://eepurl.com/gD53QP

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