Feature: #MeToo, Mental health, Revenge Porn, and the Nineteenth Century

by Katherine Anne Gilbert

In the wake of Tarana Burke’s #MeToo, movement, studies showing the connection between sexual harassment, assault and psychological suffering have received increasing attention. The collective weight carried by women who experience these violations is heavy. As women continue to come forward and share their narratives via journalism and social media, mental health scholars and practitioners have established the deep toll placed on women by continued sexual violence and harassment. The psychological effects may manifest as anxiety, depression, and “data suggests that anywhere from 30 to 80 percent of sexual assault survivors develop PTSD.” Through what is called “somatizing,” the trauma can manifest in physical symptoms: “muscle aches, headaches . . . chronic physical health problems such as high blood pressure” and even “heart issues.” Considering recent data collections, including one that found 81% of women have experienced sexual harassment, we can say with confidence that a large number of women are forced to manage the mental and physical health effects created by a society that perpetuates gender inequality.

What might contemporary conversations about #metoo have to do with my own area of study, Victorian literature? Recently, some Victorianists have argued that in many ways we are still Victorians; by this they mean that many of the issues we are grappling with right now have points of germination in the nineteenth century: climate change begins with industrialization and the rise of capitalism; residual effects of British colonialism and empire reach like tentacles across time; debates about liberalism and conservatism find their roots in polemics as far back as those by Edmund Burke, Mary Wollstonecraft, and mid-nineteenth century writings by J.S. Mill; and in the U.S., our grappling with racism and policing is contextualized by our inability to come to terms with the legacy of slavery.

Undoubtedly, contemporary sexual harassment and assault are about the exercise of power over others, but part and parcel of that dynamic are attention to the arrangement of bodies in space, and claims about whose bodies are allowed to exist in what spaces at what times. Here too, a turn to the nineteenth century helps us to see how current sexual violence and harassment can be more completely understood through the enshrinement of the public/private divide during industrialization in the nineteenth century. While men and women were associated with different spaces before then, the rise in industrialization, cities, and commutes to and from work ushered in a new spatial organization of bodies in the Victorian period. Previously, the predominance of agricultural work meant that families frequently labored in one space; while different members of a family might have a variety of roles in a rural economy, the family, as a whole, lived and worked in one location.

During the rise in industrialization and capitalism, men left homes in the morning and returned at night after having executed their professional duties in urban spaces. Women, then, became cast as idealized “angels” at home who set and maintained morality in a system largely used to raise children but also conceptualized women as needing to be shielded from the more brutal, fast-paced economic forces of the city. Middle-class white women in particular were cast as fonts of purity that created moral sanctuaries to which men, after a long day at work, could return home for moral repair. Coventry Patmore famously enshrined a married woman’s role as “The Angel in the House” in an 1854 narrative poem of the same name and John Ruskin wrote of a woman’s domain as a sort of domestic royalty in his popular 1865 Sesame and Lilies.

One can draw a line between such texts and recent discussions of how women should be viewed in the political world and in the office: In 2008, then-senator Hilary Clinton struggled to be heard during a 2008 speech due to the presence of a male attendee who held a sign that said “Iron my shirt,” as he shouted the same, repeatedly, over her attempts to articulate policy ideas to her audience. The “Pence rule,” or the idea that a married man cannot have a dinner with a woman other than his wife, even to discuss business, as well as John Kelly’s statement that when he was growing up, “women were sacred,” (or, Patmore-eque “Angels”) operate along similar lines. Pence and Kelly’s ideas about morality insist on supposed protections for women that in fact disempower women, box them in, shut them out, and shut them down.

Many of the reforms that were passed in the nineteenth century focused on married women. This is undoubtedly due to the especially dangerous effects of the law of coverture, which subsumed the legal identity of women under that of her husband. When women married, they and their husband became one, and that “one” was the husband. As a “femme covert” a married woman could not control her own earnings or enter into contracts, for example. She was not an independent legal person, but in many ways, a legal child.

The public/private divide continues to operate in the lives of women from a range of racial and national backgrounds. Women’s bodies, as do all bodies, take up space; legal and social control of women entails forms of control of those bodies. We might think of school dress codes that insist girls’ bodies are distractions that hinder boys’ learning in public schools. Notably, today, those who continue to behave as if women’s bodies do not belong in public spaces, through, for example, street harassment, also are part of a larger ideology that insists that women’s bodies be asserted into public spaces, against their will, with techniques such as revenge porn and online body shaming through trolling.

One recent and most dystopic example of this is the proposal that women’s bodies be part of a forced “redistribution” of sex to keep “incels” (involuntarily celibate men) from exploding into murderous rages. In this schema, women’s bodies become property of the state and of lonely men whose sadness must be repaired through rape of women. What might more often be considered private and intimate acts become robotic distributions of female bodies through public and state power.

Revenge porn is an especially disturbing, though conceptually useful way of thinking about the tenacity of the public/private organizing principle as it threads its way from the Victorian period to 2018. One recent study on the mental health effects of revenge porn found that “women are much more likely to be pressured to send nude photographs, and they are also much more likely to be victims of revenge pornography. According to the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, as many as 90 percent of victims are women.” Women victims whose photographs have been uploaded to revenge porn websites are then often stalked and harassed by viewers, as their contact information is sometimes included by the perpetrators. Recent studies show that, like women who experience harassment and assault, women who are victims of revenge porn also suffer long-term mental health effects: “The humiliation, powerlessness, and permanence . . . leave victims engaged in a lifelong battle to preserve their integrity. Consequently, victims of revenge pornography suffer from similar enduring mental health effects as described by victims of child pornography, such as depression, withdrawal, low self-esteem, and feelings of worthlessness.” Another study noted the frequency of PTSD in victims of revenge porn, too.

The tenacity of the public/private divide now means that women’s bodies are either restricted from access to the public sphere, when women insist on such access through their own will, but then also forced into the public sphere, when they lack control over whether or not their images, and discussion of their bodies, should appear there. The insistence that women belong in the private sphere is one side of the same coin that forces them into the public sphere without their consent.

In each case, women are reminded that they still do not have the right to exist in public spaces free from harassment and terror. Women’s attempts to cross over into the public sphere, in politics, business, Hollywood, and more, are met with the suggestion that they lack morality, and as such, their bodies must be exposed as immoral corpora. While online versions of such tactics are new due to the emergence of new technologies, the underlying principle reveals that we continue to have much in common with Victorian understandings of whose bodies are allowed to exist in public spaces and what possible punishments lie in wait for women who dare to make their own choices about where, why, and how their bodies will exist in space.

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