For over 11 years, after decades of organizing and activism work, Tarana Burke had been building up the #MeToo movement to help women who, like herself, had been sexually abused or harassed by men in their lives. The movement took off in 2017 in the immediate afterward of the dozens of allegations against former media mogul Harvey Weinstein, who had been able to abuse women for decades because of the position of power he was in — and had, until that point, faced no retribution for his actions and was even enabled to do so. Suddenly, in a spontaneous outpouring, millions of women began to speak about their own experiences with rape culture and assault, leading to a watershed moment in the culture where many people were, perhaps for the first time, forced to reckon with how pervasive sexual assault and abuse is in our culture.
The explosion of the movement has helped Burke keep shifting dialogue, conversation, and action in the right direction to help women’s empowerment and the empowerment of all people who might experience abuse in their lifetimes. After all, as Burke reminds me of in our interview, #MeToo is not a women’s movement. One in six boys will be sexually abused in their lifetime. And men who haven’t been abused have women in their life that may become their entry point into caring, more broadly, about changing the patriarchal culture. But where do those men start?
Burke has many answers, and now, a platform: Act Too is the first-of-its-kind platform where anyone can log on, ask questions that they might be scared to ask their loved ones or co-workers and get involved in shifting the culture. It’s a shame-free way for those who might not have been engaged in an organizing movement to learn more about it, or take action. Here, we talk to Burke about men, their role in #MeToo, and what it takes to be ‘woke.’
At Fatherly, we often think about feminism and the #MeToo movement, and how it can help men. How it can relate to the shape of their lives. So I was wondering if you had any thoughts about how men and fathers, in particular, should think about #MeToo movement, in relation to themselves?
This is always an interesting question. Part of it is a failing on our part, and part of it is because of the way the mainstream casts the idea of sexual violence. But the #MeToo movement is not a woman’s movement. It is about women, and it’s led by women, and the leadership is women, and we’re all feminists. But this is not a woman’s movement. It’s a survivor’s movement.
What do you mean by that?
Men’s role in the #MeToo movement is as survivors. Men deal with sexual violence. One in six boys will experience sexual violence in their lifetime. This a huge number of people who don’t identify as women who experience sexual violence.
I always want to respond to these questions by doubling down on the idea that they should think about this the way they think about gun violence, the way they think about climate change, and the way they think about racial injustice. It’s a social justice issue that literally affects everybody. And even if it doesn’t affect them personally, if it affects a woman in your life, it’s still a social justice issue.
I used to have a real chip on my shoulder about men who would say to me, “Oh, I’m so glad that you’re doing this work, because I have a daughter,” or, “I’m so excited that you’re doing this because I have sisters.” I would get annoyed because you should care about this work in general, because we’re all human beings. And that is true. But what’s also true is that’s in every issue, right? That exists in every issue that we’re passionate about — there is some personal thread that connects us to that issue, right? I have always cared about the rights of the LGBTQ community. But when my daughter came out as queer, and gender non-conforming, my interest in the humanity of LGBTQ community became deeper. I became more invested and more interested and more concerned.
So it definitely made me feel empathetic towards men whose entry point into this issue is through a loved one, through a wife or daughter, or sister, or whatever. If that is their entry point, if that’s the place that draws them to want to be connected to this movement, I think that’s fantastic. They should certainly not just lean into being a father, brother, uncle, or, husband.
So what can “good men” do?
What I hear from a lot of men is: “I’m a good guy, I’d never do any of this #MeToo stuff, right. And I just want to say that I support you.” And I say, “that’s great. When was the last time you laughed at a rape joke? When was the last time that one of your boys talked too crudely about trying to sack a woman? Or said something about a woman walking by, or harassed them, whistled at them, and you didn’t do anything intervene? To respond? How long have you been a bystander to rape culture?”
Men have been cast as the devil, as the evil, that exists and if we could just take this evil out, then we’d be okay. And that’s not true. Because patriarchy is not just perpetrated by men. Rape culture is not just upheld by men, and men’s behavior. I want men to be accountable. I want them to be transparent, and honest, about the ways that they contribute to rape culture, right? And I also want them to have safe spaces to ask dumb questions. You cannot both say that the patriarchy is everywhere, and that men are raised to be toxically masculine, and that they’re socialized that way, and then say, why aren’t you different? So there has to be a space for them.
Are you intentionally thinking about the ways that you might have contributed to rape culture and the ways that you do it every day?
What do you say about people who might say that helping men figure out the ways that they contribute to the patriarchy is not really our job, as women?
I get it, it’s not our job to do this labor. But that’s why I always say to the men who come to me and want a cookie for this or that, I say, “Great. If you are woke, I need you to go wake up ten fellows.” I need men to take on the job of personally educating other men, and listening to the people with the right messages.
I also think that women need men that they trust in their lives. I have a circle of male friends who are amazing. I trust them. And when they ask me dumb questions, I trust that they just don’t know, right? When they ask me questions that kind of make me uncomfortable, and I think, “Why don’t you know?” I have to remember that we are surrounded by patriarchy, and that toxic masculinity is a son of a bitch. And so for men that I trust, and who I love, and who I know want to be better, I can do that labor, right? I can make space for them. And we have to have more safe spaces for men to say, the thing that might just irritate the matriarchy. But we have to have those [spaces,] or else we won’t have any kind of change.
So what does it look like, for men to commit to the #MeToo movement?
One of the things that was really beautiful is that I’ve heard men give this testimony over and over that, you know, “I talked to my sister, I talked to my girl, I talked to my coworker, and I could not believe how many people had experienced this, I could not believe how many women in my life had been through this.” And of course this happens. But I just need men to be intentional. Like, not just saying [that you’re a great person] because you’ve never smacked a woman on her ass, or put a roofie in her drink, right? That you get a gold star for that. Are you intentionally thinking about the ways that you might have contributed to rape culture and the ways that you do it every day?
That’s really what this platform is about that we have, right? Part of what this platform is about is that those of us who are in movement spaces, I think, take for granted how much we know, and how connected we are, and how committed we are personally. But just because you’ve made those personal choices, doesn’t mean other people have.
So yeah, tell me about the new app platform.
The platform we’ve created has basically made activism more accessible. So now the man who’s embarrassed to go talk to his friend, or his co-worker, or his sister, can go onto this platform, put in a few filters, and get a list that says read this, listen to this, learn about this, sign up for that. It makes the work of shifting culture much more accessible, it brings it right to you — directly to your personal space. I think the app will help people feel more comfortable being active.
So it basically creates a safe space for people who maybe haven’t gotten super involved in #MeToo to learn a lot more, without, I don’t want to say, putting themselves out there, but —
You don’t have to join a rally. You don’t have to volunteer for 20 hours a week. But I do want you to learn about this. At the end of the day, that’s not everybody’s role, right? But we’re talking about an issue that has existed since Biblical times. There’s no way that we think three years is going to undo what sexual violence has done to society, right?
So in order for us to shift in the other direction, there’s going to have to be people who march, people who protest, people who volunteer. But more than that, there’s going to have to be people who learn and read and understand. There will have to be people who are going to be — when you sit on a jury about a rape trial or trial about sexual assault — I need you to have at least some sense of some tangible information that you read about rape culture, about why survivors don’t come forward about it. Understand that’s a part of this work.
What was one thing that the #MeToo movement has accomplished over the last three years that you didn’t necessarily expect?
I, quite frankly, didn’t expect for us to have an international, sustained dialogue. An international sustained dialogue for three years about sexual violence was totally not something that was ever possible [to me] before the hashtag went viral. I didn’t expect people to put their bodies on the line, and take to the streets, for things like keeping Kavanaugh off the Supreme Court. I didn’t expect so many corporations, and brands, to really be invested in looking at their policies and practices. So there’s been there been tons of things that happen in the last three years that have been like, Wow. This is some significant progress.
And this tool — this is not like something I dreamed up for the last 20 years. But it is something that I got really clear about very quickly, when #MeT00 went viral, that I realized was necessary. I talked to so many people who are just like, “I think this movement is great. But I just don’t know what to do. Should I write a check? What should I do?” And I thought, okay, we’ll figure that out.