Our engagement with #MeToo must address the structural conditions in which sexual violence thrives.
Although Tarana Burke, an African American woman, is credited with starting #MeToo in 2006, it has drawn criticism as a movement of primarily white, middle class women (e.g., Ohlheiser 2017, White 2017). To me, these voices have also been relatively young, individually focused, and presentist in orientation, invoking today’s standards of consent and in addressing solutions to sexual assault. As both student and professor of anthropology and gender studies for nearly a half century, I add a “longitudinally informed” voice to the mix as I tentatively suggest ways we might historicize and deepen our understandings of #MeToo.
To begin, we may gain inspiration by engaging in symbolic interaction with Ruth Benedict, Ella Cara Deloria, Zora Neale Hurston, Ruth Landes, Margaret Mead, Elsie Clews Parsons, Sarah Winnemucca, and other women who wrote about violence and exclusion in ways that influenced the florescence of explicitly feminist anthropological courses and texts in the 1970s and 80s. These were the decades when I experienced the highly sexualized world of college and then graduate school education, and when my friends and I invoked “me too” as private confession, not public hashtag. One “significant question” (Male and Female) Mead might ask today is how we feel about public sites like Twitter or Facebook enjoining us to out ourselves to strangers in ways that might serve to reduce complex sociocultural experience and personal history to a problematic status of victim.
We may also need an updated volume on “sex, identity, and erotic subjectivity” that builds on the masterfully edited 1995 work by Kulick and Willson (Taboo). This new volume should go beyond ethnographic fieldwork into intimate relationships and misconduct in all arenas of anthropological engagement. Despite the fact that research and workplace practices are more carefully scrutinized by Institutional Review Boards, Title IX offices, and Human Resource policies, some administrators and tenured professors remain untouchable as they continue to commit acts of bullying and other kinds of abuse with impunity. In times of Safe Zone, Code Red, Common Ground, and other projects of inclusion and civility, why does the college campus feel less safe than ever?
To begin to answer this question, we need to apply anthropological research methods and ethics to an analysis of the following trends: (1) an increase in inappropriate and vicious online student evaluations directed at primarily female instructors, (2) a rise in student poverty and anxiety, (3) the reluctance of many professors to raise student political consciousness and risk of being placed on “watch lists” that threaten their careers, and (4) the continued underreporting of male violence. Our projects should also target unexamined contradictions within today’s neoliberal college campus that work to undermine progressive change. These range from the anti-intellectual tendencies of “hands-on” rhetoric to the appropriation of potentially transformative student work on campus and in the community.
To elaborate, my admiration for the activist work of today’s students increases apace, particularly their focus on the cessation of incivility and violence. Nonetheless, impressive public engagement events and acts such as Take Back the Night, Indigenous feminist workshops, and rape crisis volunteer work run the risk of being transformed from independent activities to institutionally appropriated opportunities to add activity badges to co-curricular transcripts aimed at success in the job market and successful recruitment of a new freshman class.
If conducting such inquiry on these trends and the overall context is too risky to undertake at a small institution like mine, are there ways we might join together via the AAA to conduct work at clusters of colleges to look for common sources of abuse and silencing? Perhaps those of us who achieve emeritus status might take the lead on such work, as we become untouchable in new and subversive ways. Regardless of whether #MeToo fits any classic definition of social movement, anthropologists should look both at the conditions that produce gendered assaults and responses such as #MeToo, and also listen carefully to the diverse and often silenced voices that bear witness to the long engagements women have had with intimate and institutional exclusion and violence.
Kathleen S. Fine-Dare is professor of anthropology and coordinates the gender and women’s studies program at Fort Lewis College. Her publications focus on gender analysis; NAGPRA and repatriation; and Indigenous identity and performance in Quito, Ecuador. Her most recent edited work (with L. J. Seligmann) is The Andean World (in press).
Cite as: Fine-Dare, Kathy. 2018. “The Long View on #MeToo.” Anthropology News website, May 10, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.863