Opinion | To empower all survivors, #MeToo must be more intersectional

Opinion by Ananya Karthik
Sept. 18, 2022, 8:48 p.m.

This June, a New York Times investigation found that NFL quarterback Deshaun Watson booked massage appointments with at least 66 different masseuses between fall 2019 and spring 2021. Over the past year, more than 20 women have accused Watson of sexual misconduct and coercive behavior during these appointments. The descriptions of his actions are extremely disturbing. But something else in the investigation also caught my eye: Watson had tried to portray himself as a trusted ally to multiple Black female massage therapists, claiming that he was trying to “support Black businesses.” Targeting his messaging based on the interplay of gender, race, and class, Watson took advantage of two things that our society and our laws, unfortunately, have yet to fully understand: 1) Sexual assault is a function of power asymmetries, and 2) Power asymmetries are fundamentally intersectional. 

The #MeToo movement helped survivors across the world speak their truth, but some survivors consistently were – and continue to be – left out. The Washington Post’s global opinions editor, Karen Attiah, argued in 2017 that the #MeToo movement has been confined to white-collar professional jobs and that we need to shed light on abuses in service industries like restaurants and domestic help, where women of color already face harder barriers. Attorney and activist Saru Jayaraman writes that the restaurant industry has the highest rates of sexual harassment of any comparable industry in America. The restaurant workforce is 70% women, disproportionately women of color, who are often paid $2.13 an hour (the minimum federal cash wage for tipped employees) and have to rely on tips for the rest of their wages, creating a system where they are essentially forced to tolerate sexual advances from customers in order to make a living wage.

Power dynamics are evident in the Deshaun Watson case. As New York Times reporter Jenny Vrentas reflected, many of the survivors “are relatively anonymous massage therapists who didn’t get the same kind of credibility that well-known actresses did when they came forward against Harvey Weinstein.” “On the one hand, you have a powerful, rich athlete backed by a powerful, rich sports league,” Vrentas stated. “And on the other hand, you have people who are often the least listened to in our society, women, many of them women of color, working in massage therapy just trying to make a living.”

On the repercussions of speaking out, and the paradoxes of sexuality

In 1991, Anita Hill accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Thomas, denying the allegations, infamously accused the white male Senate Judiciary Committee of complicity in a “high-tech lynching for uppity Blacks.” This statement set the script for the hearings, with race as the focus–but only Thomas’s race. Luke C. Harris, Associate Professor of American Politics and Constitutional Law at Vassar College, asks a key question that was largely left out of the conversation: When, in the history of American society, has a Black woman ever participated in the lynching of a Black man? After Thomas used the lynching metaphor, his approval ratings in the Black community increased from 52% to over 80%, and Anita Hill was often seen as a “race traitor” demonstrating “betrayal and disregard of Black men everywhere.”

In 2018, when the Women of Color branch of the Time’s Up movement pledged their support for the #MuteRKelly campaign, boycotting the singer due to several well-documented allegations of sexual misconduct, R. Kelly’s management replied: “Since America was born, black men and women have been lynched for having sex or for being accused of it. We will vigorously resist this attempted public lynching of a black man who has made extraordinary contributions to our culture.” Almost all of Kelly’s accusers were Black. Again – when, in the history of American society, has a Black woman ever participated in the lynching of a Black man? 

We can’t pick and choose which axes we focus on, with race alone on one side and gender alone on the other. Without investigating the intersection, we can’t fully grasp, in feminist philosopher Amia Srinivasan’s words, the “disturbing genius at work in the white mythology about Black sexuality.” In her bestseller “The Right to Sex, Srinivasan writes: “By portraying black men as rapists and black women as unrapeable – two sides, as Angela Davis says, of the coin of black hypersexuality – the white mythos produces a tension between black men’s quest to exonerate themselves and black women’s need to speak out against sexual violence, including the violence perpetrated against them by black men. The result is the doubled sexual subordination of black women.” In both the Clarence Thomas and R. Kelly cases, we see that the false stereotype that historically “made the lynching of black men possible – the logic of black hypersexuality – is repurposed, at the level of metaphor, to falsely indict black women as the true oppressors.”

What are the repercussions of speaking out for Black women in such situations, when they’re often criticized for treasonously bringing down those from their community who “made it,” and when they’re blamed for relying on a racist criminal justice system for protection (Srinivasan)? What does speaking out look like for LGBTQ+ people, when making public allegations about sexual harassment conflicts with protecting themselves from an oppressive state or from a homophobic home environment? What does speaking out look like for people with disabilities, when they often face harassment in heavily institutionalized environments with in-built power dynamics, and when they fear that speaking out about abuse in intimate relationships will result in the loss of their care system? All of these burdens, of course, only add to the countless repercussions that survivors of all backgrounds face for speaking out, such as retaliation from perpetrators and victim-blaming.

Black, indigenous, queer and disabled people, among others, have long suffered the paradox of invisibility and hypervisibility: invisible in places of power, yet hypervisible in public discourse on criminality and abnormality. In an essay on the exclusion of LGBTQ+ voices in #MeToo, Peter Dunne, Senior Lecturer at the University of Bristol Law School, describes the imposition of medical treatments as a pre-condition for legal gender recognition in several countries; he argues that by legitimizing transgender bodies as a space of public discourse, interrogation, and judgment, these laws normalize disrespect for transgender dignity and physical integrity in private spaces as well. Dunne also describes how stereotypes that women cannot be perpetrators, that men should be able to effectively defend themselves, and that gay men are hypersexual influence the extent to which queer survivors are believed. Lucy-Ann Buckley, Senior Lecturer in Law at National University of Ireland, Galway, discusses “disability myths” that women with disabilities are asexual or hypersexual, or that girls with intellectual disabilities do not need sex education because they can’t make their own decisions about sexual activity. 

A 2021 Associated Press article reflecting on the R. Kelly case explains how the obstacles hindering Black women and girls from speaking out “are raised even higher by a society that hypersexualizes them from a young age, stereotyping them as promiscuous and judging their physiques, and in a country with a history of racism and sexism that has long denied their autonomy over their own bodies.” The article also cites a 2017 study from the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality demonstrating that Black girls at all ages, when compared to white girls, are perceived as more adult, in need of less protection, and more knowledgeable about sex. “For years, girls suffering at R. Kelly’s hands were treated as more of a punchline than a travesty,” Associated Press writes

Intersecting axes of oppression consign certain people to paradox: invisible and hypervisible, unrapeable and therefore all the more rapeable (Srinivasan). When they speak out, will they be heard? And will they even get to speak out?

On intersectionality and perpetrators

Before concluding, I’ll briefly discuss intersectionality in the context of perpetrators. Understanding the intersectionality of perpetrators is essential, first, to understand the intersectionality of survivors, and second, to work towards ending sexual violence, rather than just punishing offenders. 

In “The Right to Sex,” Amia Srinivasan argues that the #MeToo movement does not demonstrate any widespread conspiracy against men, but there has always been a conspiracy against certain men. Any student of race relations in America is familiar with how the false accusation of rape of a white woman by a Black man was used time and time again to imprison and execute innocent Black men as pawns in power plays. Srinivasan writes that stereotypes of Black women as chronically promiscuous that persist today are inextricably linked to the myth of Black men as rapists. Black and Dalit women are made more vulnerable to sexual violence when we reinforce the sexual stigmatization of Black and Dalit men, she states: “[t]heir ability to speak out against the violence they face from men of their race or caste is stifled, and their status as counterpart to the oversexed black or Dalit male is entrenched.”

Intersectionality complicates the “Believe women” ethos central to #MeToo. The “zero-sum logic – she’s telling the truth, he’s lying – presumes that nothing but sex difference is at work in the assessment of rape allegations,” Srinivasan writes. “Whom are we to believe,” she asks, “the white woman who says she was raped, or the black or brown woman who insists that her son is being set up? Carolyn Bryant or Mamie Till?” Intersectionality also complicates questions of punishment and accountability. Will relying on an oppressive criminal justice system that targets minorities really help us achieve sexual justice? These are difficult questions that many groups, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the prison abolition community, are working on.

It’s messy, and this op-ed only begins to scratch the surface of scholarship on intersectionality in sexual violence. For example, due to limited space, this essay does not address #MeToo around the globe, but understanding the global implications of this movement is key to a thorough assessment of intersectionality in sexual violence. Numerous axes, from religion and immigrant status to military occupation and vulnerability to climate change disasters, shape power dynamics as well but have not been discussed in this article.

I don’t promise to have answers, or to have asked all the right questions. But what I want to say is that while #MeToo changed the world, we still have so much work to do. That adopting a one-size-fits-all vision of the #MeToo movement risks silencing the same people who have always been silenced, dehumanizing the same people that have always been dehumanized. That rather than circumstantially choosing which aspects of individual identity we choose to elevate without any acknowledgment of context, as in the rhetoric pushed by Clarence Thomas and R. Kelly, we need to understand how the multiple intersecting identities of perpetrators and survivors shape the power dynamics involved, and confront head-on the tough questions posed by intersectionality. 

Feminist legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon calls sexual assault a crime of inequality, and I think it’s time our society and laws understood that inequality is necessarily intersectional.

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