It is more than a year now since Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s New York Times investigation into the sexual assault and harassment charges against Harvey Weinstein stirred the #MeToo movement into its current manifestation. Soon after experiencing our Facebook accounts flooded with #MeToo stories, many of us learned that the term and the hashtag were originally coined by Tarana Burke in 2006 as part of a campaign to promote “empowerment through empathy” among women of color survivors of sexual abuse. Since then, many of us educators, clergy and activists have written articles and delivered sermons on the subject, as well as facilitated workshops and taught classes, trained our staff and passed new policies, uncovered memories and spoken aloud stories we had chosen to keep silent. Some victims of abuse have found new strength in community, some perpetrators of abuse have lost their jobs, some people have engaged in teshuvah (healing) processes with one another, some have found what feels like justice and/or healing. Some have not found justice or healing. Some have chosen to keep their stories private. Some have become less afraid and others more so.
But in all of this change, there are not enough spaces available for us as a community of seekers and learners to really grapple together with the underlying issues of the #MeToo movement. This essay attempts to create additional space to look together at our assumptions about #MeToo and broaden them. It is co-written by a rabbi and a social worker who met through Moving Traditions’ work in the Jewish teen space around issues of gender and sexuality. Our aim here is to inspire more inclusive discussion of sexual violence, healing and justice, so that we can move our communities towards a more liberated future in which the souls and bodies of each of us will experience respect and dignity throughout our lives. More specifically, we argue that the #MeToo movement will only be successful if we: 1) focus on the deeper structural issues of entitlement that boys/men are socialized to have; 2) widen the focus on all those who experience violence, particularly transgender/non-binary people, people of color and men and boys; and 3) address the problems of sexism and sexual violence systemically and comprehensively.
In order to enter this conversation, we begin by sharing a little bit about ourselves and how we come to this work. Tamara, a graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and a former director of LGBT affairs at the University of Florida, directs Moving Traditions’ sexuality education for Jewish teens and facilitates training for adult group leaders of Moving Traditions’ teen groups (Rosh Hodesh, Shevet and Tzelem) on gender and sexuality. She spearheaded the founding of Tzelem, Moving Traditions’ national online group for transgender and non-binary teens. Tamara has been a rape crisis peer counselor and a trainer on LGBTQ issues.
Essie works in Chicago for the national Jewish LGBTQ inclusion organization Keshet. They hold an MSW and a certificate in Jewish communal leadership from the University of Michigan and work with mainstream Jewish organizations to become more LGBTQ-inclusive. In addition to working for Jewish institutional change, their work has focused on youth empowerment for girls and trans/non-binary young people. Tamara and Essie met when Moving Traditions was seeking a curriculum writer for its trans/non-binary group called Tzelem. Essie worked as the curriculum writer and now facilitates monthly Tzelem meetings.
‘Gender’ and ‘Sex’
Now that you know a little about us, we need to be sure that we have some shared vocabulary. When we use the term “gender,” we are doing so in opposition to the term “sex,” or better yet, the phrase “sex assigned at birth.” Sex assigned at birth—the preferred term by many LGBTQ trainers—is a powerful one because it immediately draws attention to how our sex is determined not just by what genitals we have, but by the outward assessment of those genitals on a very small newborn infant by a doctor or a midwife or a nurse. Those who deliver babies themselves have a certain orientation towards the issues at hand. Most likely, they have been trained to continue to think that what parents want and need is to know with certainly the sex of their child because it matters right away. We are not saying that sex assigned at birth doesn’t matter. We are saying that one doesn’t know in what way sex assigned at birth matters without learning that from the individual themselves (once they can talk and many times after that, too).
So what is gender? Gender is the amalgam of social, cultural and personal ideas of what it means and feels like to be a man or a woman, or a boy or a girl, or non-binary or any combination or permutation of these and related identities. Gender identity is a person’s own internal sense of being a man, woman, transgender, non-binary or any other gender.
Two more words that we will be using are cisgender and transgender. Transgender is an umbrella term referring to people whose gender identity differs from the one they were assigned at birth. Cisgender refers to people whose gender identity matches the one assigned at birth.
Gender Is Many Things
When thinking about gender, it may be useful to go back to the classic rabbinic framework of eilu v’eilu—both these and these are words of the living God. This formulation didn’t mean everything that we need it to mean today when it was first uttered by a Divine voice, or when it was first coined as an expression by a human who understood that complexity must to be understood as carrying a Divine quality of truth. One of the things that we need eilu v’eilu to mean these days is this: Gender is many things. It is beautifully complex, and different people experience it very differently, AND gender norms and gender hegemony can be incredibly harmful, even fatal, AND gender pride is incredibly important for many humans, AND gender is malleable and fluid, AND gender is a deep internal knowing, AND we learn gender from a very young age in many powerful ways AND more.
#MeToo Movement Focuses on Cisgender Women
In the spirit of eilu v’eilu, we ask you to consider your underlying assumptions about the #MeToo movement and sexual violence. When you do, you will, at some point, likely come to the realization that the #MeToo movement has been largely centered around cisgender women. In the public sphere in this past year, many of these women have also been white and economically privileged. This is perhaps unsurprising considering the discourse around sexual assault, and considering general media and societal bias. Most discussions of #MeToo involve a woman survivor or victim and a man perpetrator or abuser. Indeed, we know that a third of women experience sexual assault and 90 percent of those assaults are perpetrated by men.
What you may not know, however, is that HALF of all trans people have experienced sexual violence. That includes trans women, trans men, nonbinary people, gender non-conforming people and people across the [non-cis]gender spectrum. Yet the dominant discourse on assault focuses on women survivors or victims. (Take, for example, the well-intentioned slogan “believe women,” which could so easily be transformed into “believe survivors.”)
Don’t Be Complicit in Trans Erasure
Why does the #MeToo movement focus on women, rather than all people of marginalized identity when one in two trans people experience sexual assault? Part of it may be the barriers a trans person encounters to accessing survivor resources. We also think that a large part of it is the factor of not being believed. The fact that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a white, educated, cisgender woman was not taken seriously as a survivor sends a strong message that the chances of someone without such privileges to be taken seriously (race, class, ability, education, etc.) are close to zero. (Indeed, how could a trans survivor be taken seriously when there are efforts to erase that person’s gender altogether?) Furthermore, trans people are already dehumanized—their bodies objectified, fetishized and sexualized. When society views someone’s body as an object, rather than belonging to an autonomous and valuable human being, it’s just a matter of time until that body will be violated, abused and silenced by people with more power in that society.
Even well-meaning cisgender feminists who exclude trans people in teaching or talking about #MeToo are committing an act of prejudice that contributes to trans erasure and further violence. Cisgender activists must encourage one another to recognize this and hold one another accountable for our own power and privilege, so that we avoid being complicit in the silencing of trans victims of sexual assault and harassment, and so that we don’t ourselves perpetuate further violence.
Men as Victims, Too
So, we have expanded our understanding of who experiences sexual violence from women to women and people of marginalized gender identities. We have to expand it further to include men and boys. According to national statistics, one of every six men have been victims or survivors of sexual violence.
The societal lack of focus on male victims of sexual abuse stems from different factors than those that erase and marginalize violence against transgender and non-binary people. Homophobia is so pervasive that many men are afraid to share experiences of sexual abuse by men because somehow it could implicate them in same-sex activity. Also, sexism makes it almost impossible for a man to admit being a victim because in our society, victimization is equated with femininity and womanhood. Men are socialized to be more comfortable seeing themselves as perpetrators of abuse than as victims of it.
Let’s think about those who experience sexual violence. National statistics tell us that the population of Americans who experience sexual violence is made up of one of every three women, one of every six men and half of all transgender people. That’s a lot more women than men, but it’s a lot of men, too, and while the total numbers of trans and non-binary people are smaller than the numbers of cisgender men and women, the percentage of those who have been abused is staggeringly high. So when we talk about male perpetrators and women victims, clearly we are erasing and denying the reality of many other victims. By reframing this conversation to talk about gender socialization, we make more space for all survivors to feel seen, heard and believed.
Broadening our scope can also help those who have been victimized by women perpetrators gain respect and access to services. And it can allow us to see the complexity of power and gender socialization, and the way that intergenerational trauma can put anyone of any gender at risk of perpetuating violence if they don’t get the support they need.
Roots of Gendered Violence
Digging into the roots of gendered violence reveals why all genders must be included in the discussion. #MeToo is not simply about men abusing power and hurting women. It is about the fact that too many people who are socialized as boys are taught—explicitly or implicitly—that they can take whatever they want without asking, and that they are entitled to that right. Even when boys (like those in Moving Traditions’ Shevet groups and many likely in your life) are being explicitly taught about consent and respect, they are still getting social and societal support and status (from friends, media, games, sacred texts) when they behave in accordance with the idea that they are entitled to take whatever they want. This ideology is clearly connected to the ideology of white supremacy and capitalism. So white boys are getting this message around at least two of their core identities.
Meanwhile, people who are not socialized as boys are taught—implicitly or explicitly—that our bodies are not fully our own. We are socialized to accept the idea that our bodies exist, at least in part if not completely, for the pleasure of and consumption by others.
(Please take a breath. If you are angry or hurt or scared or feeling attacked, we ask you to close your eyes and take a few breaths here. If you are white and male and cisgender reading this and feeling attacked, we don’t want to lose you. We need you. We need you as colleagues, teachers and allies. We are not saying you are bad. We are saying that you are in a position, given the facts of your birth and upbringing, to do harm. Only you know how much harm you have done and what teshuvah you have or have yet to do for that harm. That comes later. Right now, all we ask is that you stay with us in this. And just to level things a little, we, too, are also in the position to do harm, even with the different facts of our birth. So we understand that this is hard. We get it as white able-bodied people walking through the world, capable of doing more harm than we want to or are likely fully aware of. Don’t worry, we hold ourselves accountable for power as well. So if you can, dear reader—no matter your particular identity—please hold yourself lovingly accountable and continue with us.)
Awareness, Advocacy and Education
So where does this leave us? Where does it leave us as a society and as people who are interested in and committed to the simple idea that all human beings deserve to live without being threatened by violence and the misuse of power?
It leads us to believe strongly in awareness, advocacy and education around these issues from a young age and into older age. More specifically, it leads us to be strong proponents for values-based comprehensive sexuality education as an integral part of lifelong learning. Comprehensive sexuality education is a lot more than teaching about reproduction and a lot more than teaching about how to seek or grant consent. It is about teaching young people in age-appropriate ways—from preschoolers to college students—how to value, respect and understand their own bodies and the bodies of others; how to decode media and social-media messages; how to approach intimacy; and how to form meaningful, equitable and ethical relationships, communities and families.
Since many of the readers of Evolve are lay leaders, educators and rabbis in synagogues and other Jewish institutions, let us be clearer. We don’t believe we can rely only on schools to do this work. We need to be brave enough do it by supporting parents to do it, by speaking on the bimah about it, by doing it in summer camps, youth groups and everywhere we have influence.
What do we need to do? We need to teach about gender norms, about the social construction of gender. We need to teach about power and accountability, about consent, about boundaries and respecting the sacredness of someone else’s body autonomy and one’s own. We need to make visible the gender and racial and institutional structures that give some people power over other people. We need to talk about how we talk about bodies—our own and those of other people—in ways that convey the values of our communities. And when we realize that the values conveyed by the language we are using in our communities or families is a betrayal of our values, we need to hold ourselves accountable and do deeper culture change work.
When Moving Traditions, with the support of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, asked hundreds of counselors to share what language they hear and use at camp, we heard a very disturbing and some might say totally expected list of sexist, homophobic and racist slurs. This is the language of the civilization we inhabit, and it shows up even in places filled with and run by good well-intentioned people. Its ubiquity reflects back to us that our work is far from over.
Power, and lack thereof, is inherent in the Western construction of gender. It is granted to boys and men who were assigned male at birth to wield over others—not just women, but all people who are not cis men. Despite its shortcomings, the #MeToo movement has been incredibly powerful. And it could become even more powerful when we use it to it draw attention to the widespread misuses of power in our society and the interconnections between the ubiquity of sexism, homophobia, racism and transphobia. Onwards, kadimah! We end with a drash on the teaching of Rabbi Tarfon (Pirkei Avot 2:15): The day is short, the task is great, let us be the workers who are inspired. Let us feel the knocking on our societal house by all its inhabitants as a wake-up call, and let us remember that the reward of stepping deeper into this work carries great promise.