#MeToo Shows Sexual Harassment And Abuse Is A Feature, Not A Bug

The Facebook status is simple:

Me too. If all the people who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. Please copy/paste, if you’re comfortable doing so.

And effective: it has produced a deluge of “Me too” statuses. The vast majority are produced by women–with varying levels of detail–though some men have also spoken up about their experiences of sexual harassment or assault (mostly by other men.) The ubiquity of this status is appalling and shocking and revealing. And the news isn’t good. As long as we have a society founded on patriarchy and sexism and a constructed masculinity where one gender (or sex) is set up as the ideal, the other is well, othered, where the superior gender is granted seemingly indiscriminate power while the inferior one is rendered comparatively powerless, where social arrangements and understandings turn sex into an ideological instrument for bodily and social control, which treats one gender’s sexuality as a sacrament and another’s as a sin, sexual assault and harassment will remain societal features not bugs. The current state of affairs–a population made up of those who have experienced sexual assault and harassment–is an eventuality foretold.

A masculinity grounded in violence and sexual superiority–in prowess, capacity, ability, virtue–is an integral part of such a system. Men must acquire masculinity or show that they already possess it by acts of violence or sexuality; it is no surprise that male icons and role models–historic and present–embody some form of violent domination or an exaggerated sexuality. (The current president of the United States rose to power on the basis of campaign that featured extensive bragging about how violent he could be if the opportunity arose, the length of his penis, and the unbridled assault he was fond of launching on unsuspecting women.) Notches on a belt can indicate both kills and sexual conquests. Male sexual virtue is matter of performance and power; female sexual virtue is grounded in reticence and inaccessibility, in zealously protecting ‘the goods.’ Assertions of will to exert sexual control now appear virtuous within this schema: the male must, if ‘necessary’, override the assertion of will by the ‘inferior gender’ and assert his sexuality, the dominant and superior one, at its expense. If violence be a tool in this ‘conquest,’ then so be it. (Of course, as many women have pointed out, sexual assault and harassment is not about sex, it is about power and domination, of the forceful imposition of a will over someone whose desires and rights are not worthy of consideration in the calculus of masculinity.)

Men do not seem to realize that patriarchy does not work for them either; the notions of masculinity it imposes on them cripples their relationships, drives them into dead-ends of despair at their failures to conform, and of course, to commit acts of violence against each other. ‘Pussies’ and ‘faggots’ and ‘wimps who can’t get laid’ know this only too well. One way in which they can redeem themselves is to turn their inward directed self-disgust elsewhere. Perhaps at children, at women, at other men.

‘The Hunt’: A Life All Too Easily Ruined

It might seem an odd thing to say about a movie that generates, very quickly, an atmosphere of claustrophobic tragedy, that it could have been darker, but I think that assessment is apt for Thomas Vinterberg‘s The Hunt (2012). This frightening tale of an otherwise sympathetic man whose life is almost destroyed by an untruthful accusation made by a deeply confused child takes us to the edge of the abyss. We stare into it; we retreat to safer ground. But as the movie draws to a close, it is not quite clear we are safe yet. We cannot yet breathe easy.

Pedophilia and the sexual abuse of children is serious business. Accusations of pedophilia have to be taken seriously; too many lives have been ruined by a failure to notice unspeakable abuse committed against the innocent by those considered deserving and worthy of trust. But there is a right way and wrong way to go about doing so. The Hunt could serve as a manual for how to get it catastrophically wrong. You do not feed children answers; you do not interrogate them without their parents present; you do not escalate matters without good reason; and so on. Lucas (played by Mads Mikkelsen in a stellar performance brimming with quiet pain), a kindergarten teacher who is lonely in his personal life, but warm and friendly to his wards at school, is devastated by this malignant incompetence. The little girl Klara–her imagination inflamed by pornographic images glimpsed in passing, and possessed by pique at having her childish quasi-romantic advances rebuffed by Lucas–who fingers him to the school authorities, is indeed abused, but not by Lucas. She is abused by the way her tale is handled and ‘processed.’ Once her fatal words have passed her lips, she too becomes a pawn, buffeted by forces beyond her control.

The central tragedies of The Hunt are that Lucas’ life, which is about to find a new, hopeful, and redemptive trajectory is knocked off-course; that Klara lashes out because she is a child perhaps lacking in adequate attention and care at home; and that an accusation like the one she makes, in this world, can never be fully retracted (as the ending of the movie makes painfully clear). Communities built on trust are underwritten by a fragility whose presence is only noted when these human groupings are torn asunder by seemingly minor irruptions of fear, suspicion, and paranoia.

The anguish of the falsely accused is among the most painful human experiences to witness. As Klara’s accusation acquires a life of its own, Lucas loses his life-long friends; he is ostracized by his community; his son is devastated. We might consider these justifiable penalties for the guilty; they are devastatingly inappropriate for the innocent. There is genuine horror here; for what we witness is not an assault by the lurking forces of a malignant supernatural but instead by goodness gone bad. We witness yet again, how easily one may be transformed into another. That might be The Hunt‘s most frightening lesson.