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Me Too Comebacks Are Hard to Accept, but They Won’t Deter Us from Asking the Right Questions

What would we do with sexual predators, abusers, and harassers if we had a choice? Answers are hard to find when quick fixes aren't available, but we can certainly ask more questions.

Four years after he was called out publicly for his predatory behaviour, Sajid Khan is back in the public arena. His comeback on the show "Bigg Boss" is triggering for many—the nine women who have spoken out against him and undoubtedly many more who haven't. Numerous other survivors who could never name perpetrators who harmed them are likely also repulsed or even triggered.

As anti-carceral feminists opposed to state methods of punishment, how do we respond to and treat perpetrators of sexual violence? The impulse to villainise and banish is strong, and answers hard to find, but we can certainly ask questions.

Clearly, redemption is far more accessible for sexual predators than justice or reparations are for survivors.  A public platform to evoke sympathy and create fandom whilst getting paid is a fine gift. The show is a shrine to abusers. The laughter it generates will sting those who were harmed. Viewers rewarding the creators with popularity become complicit in a culture that props up misogyny.

We are being forced to acknowledge Sajid's humanity with much flourish when there's a large number of women he harmed who have received no apology or reparations. Has he faced up to the accusations made? What effort has he made towards transformation? Does he understand that his behaviour has caused harm? Talking about having faced a terrible low is not an apology. How do we know that this is not just regret at not being able to act with impunity? At any rate, none of this counts as reparation or as a guarantee there will be no future harm. We are tired of predators being pushed on us everywhere and, sometimes, keeping them out of sight is a relief.

However, moving away from retributive justice is essential. Most survivors of sexual violence who have tried to seek justice through the criminal justice system, no matter where in the world we might have been, know well it doesn't serve us well. Shifting away from this system to create new frameworks and strategies requires us to raise some fundamental questions. Whether survivors should remain silent should never be a question, though. There's something I wrote earlier in May about those who claim #MeToo* is a movement that perpetuates harm. I am sharing extracts here:

#MeToo Isn't Simply 'Cancel Culture'
After the initial groundswell, supporting #MeToo started getting trickier. More and more women, including very vocal feminists, started withdrawing, especially when they saw men around them being named. They got cold feet. After all, the only available solution is taking perpetrators to the criminal justice system that has nothing but cruel punishment in store. Can we blame people if they don’t want to see their loved ones being incarcerated or hanged?

But now, a dangerous new trend is emerging where not only is #MeToo being projected as a “failure”, but it’s also being equated to a vicious kind of “cancel culture” that solely aims at ostracising men. This is a demeaningly reductive view of the #MeToo movement and disrespectful of survivors' trauma. It assigns guilt to the act of breaking the silence and asking for justice. The lack of a solution or societal response to the endemic problem of [cishet] male violence is not the fault of the victims or of the #MeToo movement.

Even if we assume that a great number of perpetrators being named were “cancelled” (the truth is that hoards of abusers faced absolutely no consequence), that is still not the victims’ fault. Besides, what makes the vengeful justice of the criminal justice system any better or more humane than cancellations? Both offer poor solutions. It’s just that the criminal justice system is “safer” in practice for men because it rarely believes women.

This anti-#MeToo moral panic does nothing but strengthen the conservative critique of the pushback against a devastatingly pervasive kind of violence. Click-baity headlines, such as the recent one from the New York Times announcing, rather prematurely, “the end of me too”, are not helpful.

#MeToo was cataclysmic and its tremors were cathartic for many survivors (including some who couldn’t speak). The shift it created has meaning. Not all survivors had the privilege to speak out. Others even paid a price once the hashtags died out. Trans, disabled, and marginalised people are still struggling for space within this discourse.

But despite its many shortcomings, the success of #MeToo lies in the way it exposed the enormity of a problem. It never came with the promise of a solution, it was only pointing to the problem. To start a moral panic against the movement and demand that it provides easy solutions is expecting too much from it. It’s making survivors pay the price all over again.

Too many survivors lose too many years of their lives to trauma. They have the right to live full lives but the only lives the moral panickers are worried about are of men who are identified as perpetrators. When a survivor breaks the silence, it’s a cry for justice. To say that their sole aim is to cancel your beloved men is misogyny. To stay fixated only on possible lies is to not give truth a chance.

While restorative justice may be the only real solution, we are still a long way from mechanisms that can start delivering that kind of justice. Why must survivors remain silent until then? It’s the creators of this anti-#MeToo moral panic who need to retreat into silence and learn more about survivor trauma – very specifically the kind that is induced by having to silently suffer sexual harassment or intimate partner violence.

Source: My article in the Quint: 2022 Has Been a Great Year for Misogyny

Sajid Khan remains an exception because he was, at least, called out as a predator. Too many predatory men are never called out or stopped from causing harm. Survivors everywhere continue to pay a heavy price. And yet we must keep evolving.

It's been five years since the #MeToo hashtag went viral, and, as survivors, many of us have been asking a fresh set of challenging questions:

  • What exactly would we want to do with perpetrators in an ideal world situation?
  • As anti-carceral, anti-violence, anti-capital punishment feminists, what kind of justice are we aiming for?
  • What should we do with our impulse to villainise and banish?
  • Fantasising about a perpetrator's suffering is completely justified, but can we accept that it is also possible to separate that from what we want to see enacted as justice?
  • What will we achieve by asking perpetrators to be sent to jail or fired from their jobs? These are state-like acts of punishment and incarceration; there is violence in erasure and ostracisation.
  • Perpetrators in professions that give them high visibility are able to exercise  influence. Should they be obliged to change the nature of their work?
  • What will bring us true reparation as survivors?
  • Is it possible to reconcile our rage against impunity with working towards transformative justice?
  • How do we engage more with conversations taking place around restorative justice so that we don't mirror the criminal justice system in our demands for justice?
  • How can we centre survivors from marginalised groups in our feminist praxis?
  • Survivors who exposed their identities to name their perpetrators when the hashtag went viral, where are they now? How are they faring?

This is by no means an exhaustive list of questions. People have already been working on restorative and transformative justice and have much more to say. We just need to be more curious about what they are trying to achieve.

*Me Too was a movement started by Tarana Burke in 2006 for young Black girl survivors. The hashtag that went viral on social media was started later by Hollywood actor Alyssa Milano in Oct, 2017