How to use #MeToo to begin healing process

I came to young womanhood at the time of Second Wave Feminism. My aunt and her partner wrote two ground-breaking books on sexist language – the Handbook for Nonsexist Language is still in use. Those were heady times of consciousness raising, speak-out rage and feminists tearing into the male-dominated world.

The women’s movement brought forward important writers like Gloria Steinem, Susan Brownmiller with Against Our Will, Kate Millet, Sexual Politics. Women’s pent-up frustration led to militancy but accomplished important work: Title IX, the EEOC and Roe v. Wade among many. But patriarchy was still deeply entrenched in our culture, and soon pushback was underway.

Then another issue arose: child sexual abuse. More women were working and needed to put their children in day care, and that created vulnerability and unease if not guilt. In the 1980s, allegations of sexual abuse of children in day care centers erupted across the country. Parents’ panic developed into hysteria and finally into full blown witch hunts in which children were interrogated by police and psychologists, often repeatedly and with escalating intensity and even trickery. It reminded me of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Many, probably innocent, people’s lives were ruined.

I’m not suggesting that child abuse isn’t a very serious matter. Nor am I suggesting that the allegations of sexual “misconduct” that are now exploding across the nation aren’t equally serious. I’m proud of the women who have risked their jobs and braved publicity to come forward and tell their stories. They and many more (think of the Catholic church pedophile priest scandals that may even still be going on) have been profoundly hurt and deserve our help in healing.

But how can we heal? Recently, Judith Levine wrote a piece in the Boston Review titled “Will Feminism’s Past Mistakes Haunt #MeToo?” She talks about the way in which laudable concern for victims’ rights began to erode defendants’ rights, culminating in the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, what critics call the “carceral” feminist movement. The laws designed to protect women and children have become draconian measures lacking flexibility and subtlety. Take Owen Labrie (not a model young man) who was forced to register as a sex offender at the age of 20 because he made a date (that turned very sour) via email. What good does that do the girl or society? Levine describes the condition of those on the registry as “(facing) hatred, rejection, depression, penury, homelessness and hopelessness. It is to expect discovery and fear violence against yourself or your family.” Imprisonment for sexual assault over even misconduct leads to the same pariah state.

Forcing even the nastiest predators – and we’re seeing examples of many – to face penalties that reduce them to these conditions is not a way to respond, however hurtful they have been. As Levine says, we need a way that holds perpetrators accountable and does not disempower victims. That way, she suggests, is through restorative justice. Restorative justice is sometimes mandated by the courts and sometimes initiated by the community. Rather than being punitive, it allows the victim, the community and the offender to come together in a restorative conference or “circle” where the victim can confront the offender, and the offender has the opportunity in a non-defensive setting to hear and understand the effect of his actions.

Healing circles have been used by the Ojibwa of the Hollow Water First Nation of Manitoba, Canada, for a long time. For the Ojibwa, sexual assault is a loss of cultural tradition and spiritual balance. Vengeance and punishment merely perpetuate this imbalance in the victim, the abuser and the community.

This makes sense. What is the response of a perpetrator of sexual misconduct but anger – or denial, which is a form of defiant anger – especially if it involves punitive measures? Sadly for our culture, we have no norm of spiritual balance to refer to. Our culture is based on male dominance and all it entails. But just consider what we might expect from forcing an abuser to resign, to face an ethics investigation or a possible prison sentence? Would it not result in anger and deeper entrenchment in the abusive mentality?

The Ojibwa asked the Crown – the Canadian federal judges and prosecutors – to step back and allow them to handle abuse in their own cultural setting. They maintained that prison afforded no healing for abusers, and so the problem would persist, but community sentencing would allow the abuser to be reintegrated into the community in a healthy way. The Crown agreed, and many fewer people were sent to jail where their behavior was more likely to be hardened than healed. The incidence of abuse decreased.

Our situation is different. Our culture is built on patriarchy, a very different spiritual balance. Our job is much harder, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t change. Supposing we created a safe place for victims and their abusers to meet on equal footing to honestly exchange their feelings. Could the abusers recognize their misuse of power? Could victims and potential victims cast off their fear? Could we use #MeToo as a way for people who have experienced abuse to move beyond accusation to use their experiences to help their abusers release their hurtful behaviors? Could we even hope to ease the grip of patriarchy through mutual respect and understanding?

Katharine Gregg is a poet, essayist and former educator. She lives in Mason. She can be contact at kggregg@myfairpoint.net.