(This piece was originally published Jan 13, 2018 on my wordpress blog)
The week the #metoo story became a cultural tsunami my husband posted a photo of us kissing, sweetly, and with passionate love. This image was the single most potent message he could have delivered.
In my life I have been harassed, abused, raped at gunpoint, ripped off and underestimated. I have also been loved.
There are too many landmines in this subject for me to ever address them all, but I would like to contribute a few ideas to the ongoing conversation.
Colonial Ghosts: We live in a world that celebrates “takers.” We call it ambition, leadership, victory. The gentle and the careful get trampled, while the aggressive rise to the top. Takers take. Now, exploitation in all its forms is on trial. The entire ecology, including all but a few wealthy humans, is disenfranchised. Our bodies have been taken without our permission. I would argue that the survival of our species and 1000’s of others is hinged to a violence that stems from the same blind spot as rape and abuse.
Getting out of this destructive pattern is not about untangling the mess we are in, it is about arching above it. I am not sure we can undo it, or solve it, or fix it. We don’t have time. Rapid transformation is at hand.
The cells in my body that know the pain of abuse reach back to my mother, her mother, her mother before her, and countless generations. I have waited at least a thousand years for this moment to come. I don’t want to see it get lost in a polarized display of us v. them.
To all those who have found the sensitivity to see each other and love each other beyond the limits of stereotypes, I say, “thank you.” Show us the way.
#Metoo is complex. On behalf of all the generations that came before and those yet to arrive, I would like to give this moment its due complexity. The lens through which we view this opportunity requires a zoom-in-zoom-out toggle between concentrating on individuals’ behavior and societal, cultural, systemic patterns that we are all trapped in. If the discussion gets lost in the crimes of individuals we will lose the opportunity to address the systemic changes needed. But, if we get lost in the systemic we will lose the vital sense of personal responsibility that is also needed. Both are imperative.
Let me state at the outset of this message that the opposite of complexity is not simplicity, it is reductionism.
As an aside, I want to say that short circuiting complexity is never a good idea. It makes life complicated. Complicated and complex are not the same thing. Complex looks like an ocean; whole and alive with a vitality that is generated through interrelational, interdependent processes. Complicated is what happens when you break those relationships into parts and try to control them, like: pesticides on our food and the medical and ecological consequences of consequences that pesticides have created.
It takes complexity to meet complexity. If we go looking for quick-fix answers and binary memes, we will find them, and they will not suffice to build new ways of life upon. But, if we can begin to recognize the complexity in our own identities we may be able to recognize that of others, and thereby humbly enter another level of mutual respect.
As an illustration, consider the complexity of systemic abuse in society in its similarity to the ecological characteristics of an ocean or forest. Ask: “Where is the forest?” Is it in the soil, insects, plants, animals, bacteria, or creeks? The forest exists in the relationships between all of these living things. Likewise, the patterns of abuse in our society are vitalized by a combination of interwoven aspects of culture that hold it in place– and hold us in its grasp.
In order to deal with the mess that has become our gender battleground, an understanding of its complexity is needed. It is not possible to extract these patterns of behavior from the mixed brew of history, of culture, of media, economics, politics or even medicine and psychology. These institutional contexts ferment and fuse into what we call society. As individuals we have learned to make sense of our world within the limits they define. Now, it is difficult to know where our understanding of our own identities begin and how they are informed by our societal contexts.
#Metoo has the potential to bring a formative shift in the conditions of life for us all, and to open the possibility for learning to respect ourselves and others with a wider, deeper comprehension. To begin this is to recognize how important identity is to this moment. And, that identity forms through multiple contexts including language, education, finance, culture, politics, religion, law, race, generation, gender…
Consequently, neither gender nor consent are binary. Both of these are factors in the #metoo discussion. In order to bring another arc of discussion to this important opening in the world today, this complexity needs to be considered.
Gender: First of all, gender is complex. To reduce gender to a simple male/female binary is nonsense. I am being redundant because I cannot say that often or loud enough. Each of the 7 billion human beings on this orb have different ratios of chromosomes. Each of us experiences different aspects of ourselves when we are in interaction with different people. This is obvious. We all know that with some people we may feel more confident, or beautiful, or feminine, or curious… and with others we are shy, or intelligent, or … When someone asks, “Who are you?” — The answer really should be based upon who you are with, where you are, at what point in your life, in what context. For me, gender too depends on a mysterious combination of visible and invisible contextual processes. I can be assertive, and vulnerable. Sometimes I am a perfect flower in the strong arms of my beloved, other times he is small vessel on the waves of my ocean. In my experience, nothing about this business of gender is static or predictable.
Let it be thus. Let us be complex in our gender. Let us find our way into each interaction of our day and learn to be more attuned to the shifting forms of our own landscapes. The sensitivity we explore will serve us toward a better perception of those around us. To learn even a little more about how to read our own changing selves is an asset to apply to our understanding of the world.
I do not want to be relegated to anyone’s binary. And, even if I am defined by that binary, I cannot stay in it. The context of the relationship matters more than the label. I do not want to hear about how “males are” or how “females are”, there is no such thing. Gender is what happens between people in each interaction and encounter.
Consent is also complex. What makes us want each other? Is it chemistry? Is it cultural? Is it economic? Is it political? Is it… natural? What does natural mean?
Consent has been sold as a simple distinction between “yes” and “no.” This is a mistake. Any “yes” has context. Any “no” has context. The context matters.
By saying that consent is complex I am in no way implying that it is unnecessary. Nor am I implicating victims as culpable. Not at all. I am saying that consent is more than “yes” and “no,” and that without some deeper understanding of the contexts of consent justifications will be made that hurt everyone. Additionally reducing consent to a binary leaves a vast horizon of loopholes that can and have been used against each other. The rigidity of the consent binary forces the vastness of our interactions into narrowed stories and statistics that cannot hold the water of larger truth.
How many women have had sex with their husbands when they did not really want to (and vice versa) because they felt that they needed to keep him satisfied in order to keep the family together? Is that consent? Well, legally yes. But, in the reality of that bedroom, no. The question of consent seeps into economic survival which is a murky brew of culture and history lingering in explicit and non-verbal, non-conscious ways. I am not sure how to know when yes is yes, and no is no. Without consideration of context the differences between mutual desire and transaction are blurred.
How many people have been seduced by the sparkling hormones of a student or employee whose rise in the system was contingent upon this affection? Was that seduction consensual?
The pulls of cultural and economic context are many, and they are messy. Finding a clear definition or rule book for consent is not something that can be standardized. Rather, consent is something that needs to be determined carefully, between potential partners who are aware of the multitudes of influences that contribute to the situation.
How to know when consent is there? What are the guidelines for respectful interaction between people?
In this moment, when our hearts are broken by the endless stories of sexual abuse we have witnessed with #metoo, it is imperative that we admit that we do not have a clear rule book. There is no standard. Some people cannot be told “no” strongly enough, and others seem to be at ease reading the signals of mutual desire, or the lack thereof. For all the invasions to my privacy I have experienced, there have also been people who honored the communication, verbal and non-verbal.
The history we all carry is contaminated with old poisonous habits. Our appetites are unintelligent. We are in free-fall across a canyon of unwritten scripts.
Sensitivity: Sensitivity to the complexity of one another is respect. Recognition that we are all in this together, that the old lines are bogus, and the new ones are still almost invisible is what is needed. We simply do not know how to know. But we do know that the abuse is intolerable.
Our future generations do not need to carry any more trauma than we are already saddling them with. The “taking” must stop. The disrespect must end. Consent is more than yes and no. It takes communication, and sincerity toward mutually learning to express respect in new ways.
There will be no formula.
No guidelines will suffice.
Each person is called now to pay attention to each relationship and interaction.
Create new language.
Satiating ravenous sexual pleasure is wonderful… but in this moment the ‘right’ to do so carries the transformative moment of a new era of sexuality. The ground is shifting, hopefully toward a better world in which sexuality will bring more joy and less damage.
The responsibility to change our systemic cultural pathology around sexual abuse resides in each of us, in every moment of every day. We are all carrying the scars of our mothers and fathers. Likewise we are all contributing to the conditions in which the next generation will make sense of these things. We are damaged. Somehow through our damage and our blind spots we have to find new ways to respect each other, to enjoy each other, to find and to give sweetness, love, and passion to one another.
To deny the socio-cultural and economic contexts in which there is need for this mutual learning and discovery is dangerous. To defy these contextual traps is (r)evolution.
**Addendum to my own healing.
(This is a post from my facebook page: Systers Thinking)
What is sexy? “I am thinking of a photo shoot I did 21 years ago while I was 8 months pregnant, and the photographer I was working with was playing with notions of sexuality… He asked me to make a sexy pose, big belly, over-stretched lingerie and all. Without noticing, I brought the existing images of “sexy women” in our culture into my pose. He asked, “Is that sexy for you? Or is that what you think people want you to think of as sexy?” I love him for that question. Is it possible for me to know what is sexy for me, uninfluenced by my culture? The eye of the world is on women today. And what does that mean? Having women on panels, boards, and equal representation is nowhere close to what I hope for my daughter. I think there is a long way to go before the tokenism is eclipsed. I think it has to be a larger paradigm shift that includes reaching for authority in another way. I am tired of celebrating the women and other disenfranchised groups who have mastered the game set within the patterns of white male colonialism. Yes it takes strength to succeed, but… What does it mean to be “equal” when the measuring stick is the reach of the oppression? The experience of perceiving and describing complexity requires a congruent complexity of voices and transcontextual inquiry. It takes the richness of ways of knowing that do not shy from rigor, but do not apply to the limits of authorized knowledge. The expression of sexy juiciness of pregnancy, my own pregnancy, was an exploration of my own complexity, in my body, in motherhood, in my culture, in my own language. To find that juiciness is to abandon the reductionism of anybody else’s idea of my woman-ness, of sexy, of motherhood… and to play with the blurry intermixed expression of being my own syster. With love, Nora.”