#MeToo exploded into public consciousness with Harvey Weinstein’s fall from grace last October. Male interviewers were stunned that almost every woman added their own #MeToo incident. Many men were disbelieving. Women were shocked to discover we had so much in common that we had kept to ourselves: our shameful secrets became powerful overnight. Predictably there has been a backlash and a dragging of feet.
As I uploaded my review copy of the #MeToo poetry anthology the sleaze of the President’s Club’s men only “charity” event was exposed by undercover reporters from the Financial Times. A couple of days later Larry Nassar was sentenced for his sexual abuse of more than 160 women and girls under his care.
#MeToo has kicked-up to another level politically.
The foundations of #MeToo were laid long before hashtags were an internet thing by activist Tarana Burke supporting abused women of colour in downtown Brooklyn. Then, in October 2017, actor Alyssa Milano tweeted the phrase to show solidarity with women abused by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein as that scandal unfolded. Within days millions of women had responded relating incidents from the usual #EveryDaySexism of catcalls, followings and ‘Give us a smile, luv,’ to gaslighting, coercion and, yes, brutal rape and other forms of misogynistic power-driven violence.
Very few women are lucky enough not to have something in their past even if it might be something that can become an amusing anecdote (my husband’s tiny grandmother once saw off a twenty stone flasher by laughing at him and my granny proudly recalled shoving a handful of sheep droppings into the face of one amorous swain who tried to take advantage of her on Wearyall Hill in 1918).
There are a few women (and a lot more men) who say abuse is rare, that the low end “inappropriate behaviour” is misunderstanding; that snowflakes need to toughen up. But the thing is, it’s not rare behaviour, as #MeToo has shown; and the lack of respect of perpetrator for victim runs from pinched bottom to forced coitus. And it’s not all men, no, not by any means, but how do we know which are safe and which are wolves? Many of us have somehow found our way to gentle, kind, honest men who respect us and whom we can respect in turn. The serious abusers are almost always opportunistic serial offenders, as any study of sexual predation shows. They get off on what they can get away with. It’s not so much about sex but about power.
So far, so not a book review but I needed to get that off my mind and I should add the disclaimer that I could have considered writing poems about many aggravating, embarrassing or unnerving episodes (that groper in a packed carnival crowd; the pissed medical student who bit my buttock, drawing blood even through trousers, and ran away, laughing) but the only poem already written was Ode To My Rapist and the title makes the actual poem rather redundant. #MeToo.
The #MeToo poetry anthology is a snapshot of historic attitudes challenged here and now. Many poems draw on childhood and teen memories as well as highlighting workplace and general abuse. It’s not necessarily just one incident that upsets but the sheer weight of apparently minor incident after incident and always being vigilant for the next incident (because it might be serious) that gets to us, as Jo Brand wearily enlightened male panellists on Have I Got News For You.
There are men who already got it before #MeToo broke (all of those kind, generous men mentioned earlier who do not measure their worth or strength by abusing others in their care); there are those who are assimilating the facts (“But they must have known what kind of event it was,” a chap plainted on Facebook yesterday regarding the President’s Club; my friends explained that, no, how could they? and then elucidated the art of victim-blaming, an understanding that seems to have escaped Germaine Greer recently.) Mark Steel is brilliant on the President’s Club evening: “What do women expect? Men can’t help it. So often you sit down for dinner and out comes the penis onto the table without you even seeing it. They’re attracted by roast potatoes.”
There’s precious little comedy in #MeToo. If you’re looking for a light read for the darkest days of winter this is not the anthology for you. If you’re looking for positive masculine role models this is not the anthology for you. The poems come from all angles and backgrounds (as do abusers) but they are stark reminders of damage and hurt, mental and physical. The final section offers poems of hope, which are very welcome by then. If you are looking for honed catharsis this is the book to buy. All profits will be donated to Women’s Aid UK.
#MeToo opens with a poem by Wendy Pratt, Reeds:
…A disused quarry the pits
…Men fish here.
Men and monsters. The #MeToo anthology is a horrific litany of lecherous and violent men and boys (and a girl) – often older, knowing how to coerce, knowing their power – looming through the poems that follow. The youngest victims are innocent, naïve in their betrayed trust and near-miss escapes while the older women abused are as wide a mixture as humanity. They keep secrets. They blame themselves, as in Helen Mort’s poem My Fault, where the fault becomes a physical manifestation of the narrator’s experience:
…smile of a moon
above the house they’d say I shouldn’t
have been in, rim of the glass I shouldn’t
have touched. It turns into a zip, slit
Some victims are frozen (it happens: I can vouch for that – another reason for self-blame, of course); others put up a fight. Vasiliki Albedo’s narrator (Tumescence Inflammatoria) poisons or contemplates poisoning her attacker with aconite flower pollen “a pistil’s flick from his tea.” In Now, When I Think About Women Emily Sernaker’s narrator moves to New York as
a girl my age went for a run.
People said it was her fault…
…before she died she bit her attacker
so hard her teeth cracked.
Only one narrator takes on the voice of an abuser in Jaqueline Saphra’s disturbing To Hear a Mermaid Sing:
Tailless, tongueless, witless slut of the waves.
…She was salt and sand.
Fed her vodka. Dunked her in the sea.
The focus of the anthology is, axiomatically, narrow but Saphra’s gender switch leavens the mixture. Later in the book Saphra questions Jacob Epstein’s sculpture, Adam (Spunk):
Would you, with longing, spread your legs for this,
bear more like him? It seems so far to fall.
Must this man be the father of us all?
We’re Stuck with these monsters who have taken pleasure damaging us for their satisfaction, as Judi Sutherland’s poem pictures her narator cringing at male banter:
So, this joke’s an opportunist in a lift
… I’m pressed against
these sliding doors that closed and will not open.
There are uplifting lines. There is hope. The anthology is testament to this. In What You Do When Your Child Is Born Of Rape Louisa Campbell ends “You find a hundred ways to teach her not to take what isn’t hers.”
In This Poem is for You Roz Goddard imagines “women gathering me in boat arms…until I was strong.” The final poem by Pippa Little, Spartica, avows we are no longer alone in our shame: “we stand together…each voice stronger”.
Our sisters, our daughters and our granddaughters-to-be will now know that this is how it has been – how it was – and things change. Abusers’ sons and descendants will not have women’s complicity in secrecy. Change is happening but it will take continued vigilance and determination. As Rachael Clyne’s You Will Never Be Anyone Else says,
It’s that simple,
I didn’t say easy.
#MeToo, ed. Deborah Alma, Fair Acre Press will be published on March 8 (International Women’s Day)