Post #MeToo, women have started leading the conversation on sexual assault. How do we reconcile this without having to shoulder all the emotional labour?
Women are sharing their stories at an unprecedented level. Since the first allegations against Harvey Weinstein were published by the New York Times, thousands of women have disclosed stories ranging from harassment to rape and everything in between.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to describe this as a paradigm shift. Of course, it is still a struggle for women to be believed when they disclose – according to Rape Crisis, only 15% of those experiencing sexual violence choose to report it to the police; only 5.7% of reported rape cases end in a conviction for the perpetrator. These figures are shocking – and don’t even touch on the huge social stigma that victims of assault often face.
So for many of us, being involved in a movement that wholeheartedly believes us has been unusual and empowering. But one question hasn’t yet been answered – what happens next?
Many of us are already familiar with the idea of emotional labour. Originally used to describe work that involved the management of feelings, the phrase has taken on a new life over the last few years, often cited by feminists as another site of unequal dynamics. At work, emotional labour might look like a forced smile; in a relationship it might manifest as constantly managing all of your partner’s feelings and expectations, taking charge of all domestic tasks or being the first port of call in any family dispute.
This work often falls on us because we’re assumed to be naturally good at it, as Jess Zimmerman put it in her piece on the concept for The Toast:
“We are told frequently that women are more intuitive, more empathetic, more innately willing and able to offer succour and advice. How convenient that this cultural construct gives men an excuse to be emotionally lazy. How convenient that it casts feelings-based work as ‘an internal need, an aspiration, supposedly coming from the depths of our female character.’”
“Housework is not [considered to be] work. Sex work is not work. Emotional work is not work. Why? Because they don’t take effort? No, because women are supposed to provide them uncompensated, out of the goodness of our hearts.”
Not ‘one of them’
And since #MeToo took off, I’ve noticed a new iteration of emotional labour in my own life: male friends and ex-partners contacting me for reassurance or forgiveness, and in some cases just to offload their feelings of discomfort or regret over ways they’ve behaved in the past.
At first, it seemed like a good thing: I was pleased that so many men in my life seemed keen to reflect on their own behaviour. But as I acted as stand-in therapist for the umpteenth ex-boyfriend, I realised that the emotional burden of male behaviour was once again falling on a woman: me.
This isn’t an isolated incident. “One friend chose to detail every ‘awkward’ interaction he’d had with a woman, asking me to decipher whether he was ‘problematic’ or not,” Sarah, 28, said. “I’d told him I found the whole movement extremely overwhelming and he just said that he had too, and that he wanted to check he wasn’t ‘one of them’.”
“Not once did he consider the toll it was taking to listen to the stories he had.”
Jasmine, 25, had a similar experience:
“I had several men asking me whether I thought they were creeps in the aftermath of #MeToo. While I was negotiating my own trauma – it was the first time I’d admitted out loud that I had been raped – I found myself having to comfort men about their actions that could have affected several women and haunted them in the way that I am still haunted now.”
“Men turn to women for endless validation. Although more men do need to speak about their emotions, the weight of their processing is carried by women, and in a time like this when they are dealing with their own issues, it’s simply insensitive. It becomes exhausting and frustrating, especially when you feel like you cannot turn these men away because it makes you the bad guy.”
Men wanting to change their behaviour is obviously a good thing: even reflecting on it is a good start. But many of the men who contacted me after the first trickle of #MeToo posts have, in the months since, continued to behave in the same old disrespectful way to women: for many of them, nothing has changed except their levels of discomfort.
It’s vital that women lead this conversation – and it’s vital that our time and energy is respected, too. Listening to constant stories of assault can be triggering and exhausting – being able to focus on looking after ourselves, not on reassuring worried men, is paramount. Establishing boundaries – explicitly telling someone you’re not willing to talk to them about it, and explaining the reasons why – can help, but it’s not always easy to do.
The fact we’re having more conversations about consent is great – but we need to start thinking about the way emotional boundary-pushing can impact us too. So if you’re a man and you really want to make a difference, there’s one simple thing you can do – be quiet and listen.