The witches are coming, but not for your life. We’re coming for your legacy. The cost of being Harvey Weinstein is not getting to be Harvey Weinstein anymore. We don’t have the justice system on our side; we don’t have institutional power; we don’t have millions of dollars or the presidency; but we have our stories, and we’re going to keep telling them. — Lindy West, “Yes, This is a Witch Hunt. I’m a Witch and I’m Hunting You.” New York Times, October 18, 2017.
Rachel Hope Cleves: Growing up in New York City in the 1980s, I experienced frequent street harassment including obscene remarks, frottage, and flashing, from my early teens onwards. That harassment continued at my first low-wage jobs in the early 1990s, when I experienced repeated unwanted sexual advances from both employers and customers. I experienced all these forms of harassment as mundane and par for the course, which makes me utterly unsurprised to read similar accounts today from so many women posting to the #MeToo hashtag. As a historian, I wonder how changing technologies like social media and online dating, as well as changing social mores around gender and sexuality, have shifted our expectations of what’s normal and acceptable. Will sexual harassment be a less ubiquitous experience for girls and young women coming of age today? I hope the #MeToo movement contributes to making sexual harassment and assault a less mundane matter to future generations.
Alexie Glover: I was recently confronted by a problem that archivists and historians encounter in their work: how to preserve pornographic material that may be harmful and perpetuate sexual violence. In particular, I was asked to sort trans pornography into two categories for library cataloguing, material that was relatively ‘vanilla’, and material that fetishized trans bodies and was not intended for a trans audience. Furthermore, some of this material included individuals who may have been minors at the time of production—adding a whole new layer of complexity to an already challenging task. As someone interested in researching trans identity and sexuality, I found myself asking “how might this material be harmful to the community?” and “how might this material be useful to researchers?” How can historians of gender, sex, and the body mitigate sexual violence to already fetishized and minoritized communities? Should we opt not to study sources that might reproduce harm in these communities, or is that a further disservice? These are questions that I’m still reflecting upon, especially following the #MeToo resurgence. As scholars, activists, and community members we need to ensure that we are always asking questions about the potential our work holds for harm, whether it be sexual or otherwise.
Amanda Littauer: In my scholarship and teaching, I work hard to dislodge expectations about the relationships between bodies, identities, desires, pleasures, acts, and meanings, so this feels hard to say. Although I had healthy and respectful sexual and romantic relationships with boys and young men in my youth, I also experienced the typical ubiquitous sexual harassment and coercion—pinching, teasing, grabbing, cat-calling, pushing, demanding, taking. But that harassment ended as soon as I came out over twenty years ago. For me (and I know, I promise I know, not for everyone), queer/lesbian culture and family life has been a place of agency and subjecthood. I wouldn’t give it up for the world.
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela: It’s bittersweet when something you wrote about sexual assault stays relevant. As #metoo reminds us of the prevalence of sexual assault today, I share the words I wrote for Notches about waking up with a stranger in my bed my freshman year … and how I realized that experience was/is a twisted rite of passage for many women and girls.
Jim Downs: As for #MeToo, I have never hit the sad emoji more in one day. There is so much I want to say but I want to allow women to occupy this space. I’m thinking particularly about my mother, grandmothers, and my other great-grands who were constantly sexually harassed and assaulted, who fled, who stayed, who fought back, who cried alone, who kept silent, who didn’t have the language to respond, who thought it was normal, who are the reason why I am here today. I’m thinking about how many times I have been sexually harassed and assaulted by those in power, by men and even by women. When I was a graduate student I hosted a major conference on the history of activism and a senior woman scholar kissed me on the lips and pushed her tongue into my mouth and I couldn’t fight her off because I was in shock and didn’t want to push her across the room. I was sexually harassed on many job interviews and was still told to take the job. And, if I had a dime for every time, at the hotel bar at a conference, a straight, often married woman would tell me, if I were straight, she would take me up to her bedroom or she would be all over me or she would put her hand on my thigh or pretend to nod off on my chest. Or the time another senior woman told a table of queer scholars that I was into a particular sexual act, which I am still embarrassed to even name. While it was obviously not true, it still haunts me. Oh, and that was at the AHA when I was on the job market. #Metoo
Sarah E. Watkins: In my own research on royal marriages and intimate relationships in monarchical contexts, I spend a lot of time thinking about how consent is historically constructed and what meaning it can have in a context in which power is so firmly planted in the hands of men. I remember attending a workshop in 2010 where I was struck by the violence inherent in the idea of women as part of the “spoils of war,” and how common that characterization is. This idea seems ubiquitous in so much of the historical literature about war and conquest, across the globe, and how we teach about war, particularly when we teach broad-based, intro-level courses. Because the scope of the subject of war is so vast, individuals get lost–thus “women” become this objective category, lumped in with “cattle” or “riches.” Symbols of conquest, symbols of status, rewards and prizes for kings and warriors, the often-default subjects of historical inquiry. When I think about my own experiences with sexual assault and harassment—so many that they blur together into a running theme rather than discrete incidents—the common thread is this notion that I, as a (young) (fat) (American) woman exist as public property, to be consumed, used, and exchanged as a token of status.
Desiree Abu-Odeh: It’s beyond cliché to note that history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. That said, this particular rhyme — the act of sharing experiences of sexual violence — moves me and drives my interest in studying histories of sexual violence. This act has incredible power, producing understandings of shared experience, bringing people together, and serving as scaffolding upon which anti-violence organizing is and has historically been built. From years and years of Black women sharing and recording experiences of sexual violence at the hands of white men, to the consciousness raising of women’s liberation feminists, to Take Back the Night, and now #metoo, the rhyme of sharing and shared experiences of sexual violence has a consistent and significant place in history. I believe it is our hope that with our stories, we will both heal and disrupt this rhyme scheme, combating and uprooting violence in a way that ensures no new stories are made. And it is my hope that with histories of sexual violence, we can take lessons from and build solidarity and even broader coalitions with anti-violence organizers of the past.
To this end, NOTCHES is currently seeking short submissions (800-1000 words) exploring any aspect of histories of sexual violence. Proposals and queries are most welcome.
Aiko Takeuchi-Demirci: During the years I commuted to school, from middle-school to college, by train in Tokyo, sexual harassment was a daily concern. Chikan is the Japanese word specifically referring to people who inappropriately touch, grope, use hidden camera, or even perform sexual acts on women, or in some cases men, in public spaces, typically in trains, subways, and buses. Every now and then, I—a petite girl in school uniform—fell victim to chikans; he could be an apparently mentally-disturbed man, a neatly-dressed business man, or a boy in school uniform younger than me. I never accused the men, cried for help, or made a scene; I just tried to change my position or move away if I could. In most instances, I simply felt powerless, but also sorry for these pathetic people. Almost all of my female friends at school seemed to have been harassed by chikans, so I assumed this was an annoying but unavoidable part of living and commuting in the metropolitan area.
These days, I often hear news of women calling out and capturing chikans on the spot, who would then get arrested and tried. Although women in Japan have been harassed by chikans since the early twentieth century, according to a cultural study on chikan, only since the late-1990s did the metropolitan police start to treat chikan as a serious, punishable crime in response to the launch of the United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004). As a result, the police and railroad companies started numerous campaigns aiming to prevent the act of chikan, such as offering women-only cars on trains or placing anti-chikan flyers in train cars and stations. It seems to me, however, that public attention has focused more on men who were falsely accused of the act of chikan, even becoming a subject of an award-winning film. Public campaigns tend to focus on teaching women to avoid chikans or even advising women to dress modestly, rather than educating people about the seriousness of the crime and to respect each other’s bodies. I rarely hear the actual voices of women who were victimized, or women-led campaigns to stand up against the crime. I wish to see more of women’s collective power and solidarity—as we see now in the #MeToo movement—against sexual assault and harassment committed by chikans.
Elise Chenier: I didn’t come to the history of sexuality because of my queerness. I came because it provided an opportunity to heal deep wounds I incurred as a young girl. When I was 12 years old a boy forced me to give him a hand job. Only recently have I begun to understand—and respect—how traumatizing that was, how it set me on a path pockmarked by the cruel ways white settler culture constructs and punishes female sexuality. Unlike the Catholic Church I was raised in, which regarded all sex as sinful and immoral, feminism taught me how to understand such experiences as the result of structural oppression and injustice. History helped me see how it got to be that way, and how it could change. Research and teaching the history of sexuality has been my way to speak back to power, to claim my body and my soul, and to build new structures of meaning that would not be so easily penetrated by others. Also, I bought a leather jacket. That helped a lot, too.
Alva Traebert: The theme of sexual violence has been a thread running through my work as a gender historian, a feminist sociologist and a queer activist for years. Interviews depend heavily on the spontaneous connection between interviewer and interviewee, and some of the material I have collected exists only because interviewees connected with me as a woman first and a researcher second. Without being prompted in any way, women, trans and non-binary people have spoken about everything from intimate partner violence to gender-based abuse at the hands of police officers, across borders and decades. I have been very moved by their trust and generosity in sharing these stories with me, and try hard to give them the platform and context they deserve. These are also the encounters I struggle to emotionally leave behind at the office when I go home, not because they are shocking, but because they are not. #MeToo is a reminder that women, trans and non-binary people share a collective, communal knowledge of the endemic nature of sexual and gender-based violence. The emotional and educational work necessary to effect wide-reaching change is a burden that cannot and should not be placed on survivors. Researchers can certainly play a part in contextualising the enormity of the issue, but many researchers amplifying marginalised voices have been on the receiving end of systemic gender-based violence themselves. The problem is definitely systemic, not just interpersonal, and academia itself is in no way exempt from it. What is all but missing from research and has only just tentatively started coming out of #MeToo is perpetrators reflecting on situations in which they know they violated someone’s boundaries and actively participating in the dialogue around how we can effect social change. I, for one, would welcome conducting that kind of interview for a change.
Anonymous: I don’t research the history of sexual violence. I don’t read about it. I don’t write about it. I can’t. I also try not to read too much, too deeply, about it in the media. I turn off a Sunday night crime drama when yet another rape storyline announces itself. These are strategies I have learned in the last few years to keep at bay the huge swell of grief, of sadness, of white-hot anger, and of blinding rage that have often engulfed me. But this is not about me. Of course #MeToo, because what woman hasn’t experienced sexual harassment? But the all-consuming feelings of fury, despair and utter impotence that have overtaken me so many times are fuelled by the things that have happened to those closest to me: partners, family, friends. And this is why I have chosen to write this anonymously. Their stories are not mine to share.
I am a feminist. In my heart, in my blood. And so I cannot simply ignore violence against women. But I am stuck in a constant battle between needing to stay informed and to work for change, and needing to stay sane, to stay safe. And so I do not research the history of sexual violence. I am so glad there are those strong enough to do so. I am with them in solidarity, and in awe of their resilience. The resilience it takes to be confronted with our long, long history of violences perpetrated against women, in order to prop up this fragile, fragile thing called masculinity.
Rachel Hope Cleves is a Professor of History at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. She specializes in early American history and has written about the history of same-sex marriage and about American reactions to the French Revolution. Her most recent book is Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (Oxford University Press, 2014). She is presently at work on a book project titled “The World’s Best Bad Man: The Life of Norman Douglas.” You can follow her on twitter @RachelCleves.
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