There were nine comedians at my house this weekend, which sounds like a punchline to a joke. Two women and seven men, including my son, came to stay at our house while participating in a comedy festival at Penn State. While they did get paid for this gig (a very important thing to note) it wasn’t enough to cover more than their travel expenses, so they camped at our house. It was a loud, entertaining, witty and enlightening weekend. Loud and witty because, well, they are comedians always competing for air time. It was enlightening, though, for a very different reason.
On Sunday morning as they were breakfasting and packing up, I happened to overhear a very interesting conversation between the two young women comedians and a couple of the young men, one of whom was my son. It was one of those conversations where I learn more from being quiet and unobtrusive than by participating (sometimes the trick to good parenting is blending into the background). They were discussing the #MeToo social media surge and the different responses the young women had received when they wrote or talked about it in certain circles.
For those who don’t follow social media, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment and assault scandal — and sadly several others like it — women and men have been posting #MeToo to Facebook and Twitter. Sometimes #MeToo is accompanied by stories of the individual’s experience of sexual harassment or assault. For others, the #MeToo is a tentative first step in talking about an experience that impacted their lives in a horrific way.
All those who have posted #MeToo are people of courage, reaching out to those of their friends and followers to gain critical emotional support or in an effort to let other victims know they are not alone. One of the most powerful responses to the social media phenomenon was initiated by an Australian journalist, Benjamin Law, who began tweeting #HowIWillChange with concrete steps men could take to interrupt violence against women.
While many women who tweeted and shared #MeToo were met with support and encouragement, the two young women comedians at my home had very different experiences. Male comedians had trolled their social media feeds telling them to shut up, minimizing their experiences or worse. While that did not surprise either the young women or me, what was surprising and encouraging was the positive response they got from my son and a couple of his friends. The young men immediately identified the negative responses as problematic, but went further, identifying that trolling behavior as rooted in a sense of entitlement and jealousy among those male comedians that women had dared to name the sexism at work in their field.
The young men in my house understood that sexual harassment and assault are fundamentally about putting women in their “place” — a place outside looking in, away from the seats of power. Sexual harassment and assault are about seeing and treating women — and often less powerful men — as objects, objects who have no worth apart from their utilitarian value to the person doing the harassing, objects who can be used at the whim of the one assaulting them.
Men must be involved in the work of ending sexual violence. They must understand the roots of sexual violence and its impact. I was glad that the young men staying at my home, my son’s colleagues and friends, seemed to get it. As funny as they all are, it is knowing that these young men understand and will interrupt sexual violence that leaves a smile on my face.
Anne K. Ard is the executive director of the Centre County Women’s Resource Center, 140 W. Nittany Ave., State College. Contact her at 238-7066 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. The CCWRC is a Centre County United Way Partner Agency.