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Elizabeth Untama / Gavel Media

Harvard Experts Explore the Truths and Consequences of #MeToo

On Monday evening, the Knafel Center of Harvard University was brimming with a fully engaged and enthusiastic crowd. In light of the 75th Anniversary of the The Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, the Radcliffe Institute organized the night’s event, titled #MeToo: Truths and Consequences. The Schlesinger Library documents the lives of women of the past and present for use by future generations and furthers the Radcliffe Institute's commitment to women, gender, and society. In the gathering of a distinguished panel and an equally reputable audience, Monday’s discussion sought to do the same.

It is widely recognized that existing society is at a pivotal moment. The Me Too Movement has given long-silenced survivors of sexual assault a platform to share their stories and to shed light on the prevalence of such misconduct in communities, workplaces, and universities. The movement has challenged many to reevaluate the ways in which sexual misconduct is addressed and tolerated. Congress, the media, and other civic realms have proven that American culture and its institutions normalize, sanction, and even encourage sexual violence. Much of the dialogue has been focused on highly visible individuals and divisions of culture that are manifested in the public eye. However, the speakers at this Harvard event looked to broaden the conversation by considering the unique vulnerabilities of members from diverse social classes, races, age groups, and sexual and gender identities.

Reflecting on #MeToo from prominent historical perspectives, African American studies, economics, and law, the speakers brought decades of study and research to an active and ever-changing issue. With a variety of backgrounds, the panelists spoke to difficult interdisciplinary and intergenerational topics. Library Faculty Director Jane Kamensky introduced the panel by speaking to their individual accomplishments, as well as the overall goal of their discussion. “They offer us two important models,” she explains, “First, of careful intellectual engagement with topics of present urgency. And second, of civil disagreement around highly charged issues.”

David Laibson, Robert I. Goldman Professor of Economics and chairman of the Department of Economics, began the night’s dialogue by presenting the results of his 2015 Harvard Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct. The survey had asked student respondents a range of questions on sexual misconduct and affirmative consent, and Laibson touched on some of the more prevalent findings in his presentation.  He broke down the University by the 12 degree-granting schools, largely focusing on Harvard College. Of the 7,000 undergraduate students, Laibson found a three percentage point rate of penetrative rape in an eight month period, about 200 students. Broadening the definition to nonconsensual sexual touching or sexual assault, the prevalence rate rose to eight percent, about 500 students in total. His research also showed significantly higher percentages for members of the LGBAQN community.  

“I believe, in higher education, we face some challenges that don’t exist in many other environments,” Laibson says, “The existence of disproportionately male elites, tenured professors, and star athletes. A perception is held that many of these elites are above the law, or at least above the rules of the university.” He pointed to how the growing societal awareness that known perpetrators often face few consequences has fueled the sudden momentum of the Me Too Movement.

However, he discourages seeking justice via social media. “I do not advocate trial by tweet, I do support Me Too.” Laibson advertised several channels of action to be taken on Harvard’s campus, one being access to the University’s Title IX page.

Evelyn Hammonds, Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz Professor of the History of Science and professor of African and African American studies, continued the conversation by further considering the deep institutional structures that support a culture where sexual misconduct is normalized. She explained how frameworks of power within American society seek to separate sexual harassment from sex discrimination, when they are, in fact, one in the same.

Most of Hammonds’ discussion focused on the experience of Anita Hill, and the subsequent cultural shifts that followed. Hill became a national figure in 1991 when she accused U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, her boss at the United States Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, of sexual harassment. Thomas was nonetheless confirmed as a Supreme Court justice, but Hill’s testimony made a lasting impact on the intersectionality of sexual assault. Her hearing galvanized over 1600 black women across the country to print a full-page statement in The New York Times, titled “African American Women in Defense of Ourselves.” Hammond highlighted the following portion of the statement, noting that she has had it framed and hung in every house she’s lived since its initial publication:

The common assumption in legal proceedings as well as in the larger society has been that black women cannot be raped or otherwise sexually abused. As Anita Hill’s experience demonstrates, Black women who speak of these matters are not likely to be believed. In 1991, we cannot tolerate this type of dismissal of any one Black woman’s experience or this attack upon our collective character without protest, outrage, and resistance. We pledge ourselves to continue to speak out in defense of one another, in defense of the African American community and against those who are hostile to social justice, no matter what color they are. No one will speak for us but ourselves.

Black women’s intersectional experiences of racism and sexism have been a central, but often forgotten dynamic in the development of feminists and anti-racist agendas. Hammonds encourages women to tell their stories and hold their perpetrators accountable, but asked the audience to acknowledge the strenuous pathways some women must go through to be able to speak out. “What does holding a perpetrator accountable look like for black female students on a campus where they are a highly visible, yet invisible minority?”

In continuation of noting past missteps, panelist Jill Lepore, David Woods Kemper Professor of American History and staff writer for The New Yorker, provided the audience with cautionary tales of how movements like this have gone historically wrong. Lepore began by drawing attention to the generational divide among women over #MeToo. It is a manifestation of a much broader historical division with regard to the long struggle for women’s rights. For the past century, there has been two strategies: the protectionist method and the equalist approach. Protectionist groups attempted to argue for special protection of women, in order to drive a wedge into a system that rejected ethical government regulation at large. In the 1920s, protectionist laws furthered labor rights for many, but discredited any effort towards equal rights among men and women. Equalists see #MeToo as a protectionist movement that greatly hinders the feminist cause in a similar sense.

In addition, Lepore discussed how the projection of the Me Too Movement alarmingly mirrors the rise and fall of twentieth century sexual psychopath laws put in place by J. Edgar Hoover, former Director of the FBI. The laws aimed at confining sex offenders to insane asylums on lifetime sentences, often on the basis of suspicion without trial. The implementation of such legislation essentially gave law enforcement a license to round up men suspected of homosexuality, as the language of perversion was typically directed towards this group at the time. “At Hoover’s urging, the press reported extensively on an epidemic of sex crime that did not exist,” Lepore explained, “It blurred the line between any kind of sexual misbehavior and murderous intent.”

What Hoover initiated as a war on crime very quickly became politics by other means. Joseph McCarthy’s famous speech claiming the communist infestation in the State Department was deemed credible in light of the Department’s recent expulsion of 91 accused sex perverts. “It became a way of bypassing electoral politics to achieve political ends by demolishing people by the act of scandalizing their private affairs,” Lepore continued, “the way in which attacks on fellow citizens as sexual monsters can very quickly be mobilized by political parties for partisan ends is a very well documented piece of the American experience.” The Me Too Movement could lead to lasting change and justice, but history suggests there is possibility of a glaring downfall.

The final panelist, Jeannie Suk Gersen, focused her commentary on the way in which activism and policy reform surrounding campus sexual assault and Title IX legislation has primed the nation’s outlook on #MeToo. As a John H. Watson Jr. Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, Gersen concentrated her thoughts closely around due process, referencing an article in The Atlantic that had included Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s thoughts on the legality of the movement:

The person who is accused has a right to defend herself or himself, and we certainly should not lose sight of that. Recognizing that these are complaints that should be heard. There’s been criticism of some college codes of conduct for not giving the accused person a fair opportunity to be heard, and that’s one of the basic tenets of our system, as you know, everyone deserves a fair hearing.

Gersen called to question how universities should balance the values of due process against the need for increased gender equality. She came to the conclusion that it is not one or the other, but both simultaneously. She relented, “One of the salient, and in my mind very unfortunate, aspects of the current moment is how a commitment to due process or fairness has become associated with one side, with men’s rights, with Betsy Devos’ decision to rescind the Obama administration policies on Title IX.”

Many universities are motivated to favor the accusing female over the accused male in order to shield themselves from criticism for inadequately protecting women from sexual assault, an act that could be evidence of unlawful sex discrimination against males. Schools now have a dual complication under Title IX that pertains to a liability on both sides. “The Me Too Movement has been rapid in recognizing this phenomenon,” Gersen continued, “There has been debate already on how broadly or how narrowly we should construe the definition of sexual assault or harassment, from Harvey Weinstein on one end to Aziz Ansari on the other. And there has been a robust debate on procedural fairness at the same time.”

Like the panelists that spoke before her, Gersen was hopeful for the future of the Me Too Movement and and the victims behind the hashtag that resist sexual assault. The four critically acclaimed speakers held an intersectional, interdisciplinary, and highly intellectual conversation, giving the audience the knowledge needed to take further steps in a productive direction. Though confident in the implications of #MeToo, these Harvard experts stressed the importance of recognizing the movement’s truths and its consequences.

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