Sun | Nov 19, 2017

Annie Paul | The 'MeToo' phenomenon

Published:Wednesday | October 18, 2017 | 12:00 AM

"If all the women 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," read the Facebook update. So said, so done. Within a couple of days, the #MeToo hashtag gathered so much momentum that women who didn't post #MeToo as their status update on Facebook were in the minority.

It was the logical outcome of a wave of outings of famous men who have systematically assaulted women, using their power to extricate sexual services from their victims either without consent or by manufacturing it. Whether it was the alleged drugging of victims by Bill Cosby or demands for sexual favours in return for Hollywood stardom by Harvey Weinstein, the public outcry has made it clear that such blatant abuse of power has to stop. If not, the perpetrators will be named and shamed in no uncertain terms.

Interestingly, there were many who rushed to Cosby's defence, insinuating that he was the victim of a plot against black people, and that the increasing number of women accusing him of sexual abuse were lying. In the Harvey Weinstein case, one has yet to hear of sinister plots against Jewish Hollywood producers, but no doubt, it's a matter of time. In the meantime, he is being pilloried in no uncertain terms, losing contracts, respect and prestigious positions left, right and centre.

Note, too, that all of this is without benefit of police charges, trials in court and conviction by jury as was demanded by the Jamaican public when a small group of women here insisted that it was time to expose sexual predators by naming and shaming them. In the Weinstein case, it was The New York Times that broke the story, after in-depth investigation and interviewing of some victims.

The outing of Weinstein is not only loosening the tongues of his victims, it is pushing other women around the world to talk out about the routine sexual harassment they face, particularly in show business.

A former member of popular American band, the Pussycat Dolls, has claimed in a series of tweets that the girl group operated as a 'prostitution ring', with the members forced into sex with entertainment executives. "'To be a part of the team, you must be a team player. Meaning sleep with whoever they say. If you don't, they have nothing on you to leverage," tweeted Kaya Jones, who spent two years as a band member.

It's bad enough to be sexually exploited, but far worse to face denial and vilification when you try to report or talk about the offence committed. Instead of receiving help and sympathy, the victim is often hounded and disparaged, as Kaya Jones found out.

In India, Sheena Dabholkar, a Pune-based writer and blogger, started a thread on Twitter highlighting the harassment she experienced at popular bar and hangout spot High Spirits, as well as the response she got for calling it out.

Sheena's tweets elicited social media testimony from many other women who had experienced the same disgusting behaviour from the bar's owner, Khodu Irani, who has been accused of groping, sending lewd messages, fat-shaming and harassing multiple patrons/employees of his cafÈ.

Sexual exploitation is not just an occupational hazard of show business and entertainment, however. It abounds at universities, too. John Rapley, who worked at University of the West Indies for many years, wrote an interesting blogpost titled 'The Weinstein Syndrome'. Said Rapley:

"I once worked in an environment where this sort of thing was rife - a university, where most of the students were women and most of the teachers, men. The students were in the full flower of youth and the teachers, well, were not. But they had something more potent. The authority and aura that go with scholarship sometimes suffice to bring young students tumbling into a lecturer's lap; but for those who lack charisma or charm, there is plain power. They determined grades, they assigned scholarships, they controlled promotions. And enough of them were ready to use that power to impose themselves on reluctant young women that it became what Weinstein called 'the culture'."

There is no institution that is immune from the abuse of power. Earlier this year, the founders of the Tambourine Army and others found themselves the subject of hostile media attention after outing members of the Moravian Church for preying on underage girls. It is astonishing that outrage is reserved for those who find the courage to name and shame rather than the perverts who commit the crime of sexual exploitation.

"'Humankind cannot bear very much reality,' declared T. S. Eliot. But bear it we must, and stand alongside those for whom reality is too often a punch in the gut. I looked at my many sisters and friends declaring "me too" on their Facebook walls (knowing that for every "me too" said aloud, there are thousands upon thousands whispered or left unsaid) and I am floored. It shouldn't be a surprise - and in many ways it isn't - but to see the avalanche of evidence rushing down ... . Reality does feel like too much."

If only more people thought like Garnette Cadogan, quoted above, one of the few men to respond compassionately to the #MeToo confessions. There is simply no excuse for demanding that women (or men) remain silent in the face of systematic sexual depredation.

 - Annie Paul is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies and author of the blog, Active Voice (anniepaul.net). Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.comor tweet @anniepaul.