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#MeToo, round two Social scientists dissect Russia’s latest wave of activism against sexual violence

Source: Meduza
Sergey Fadeichev / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

On July 12, a hairdresser named Violeta Sharipkulova wrote on Twitter about her experience in an abusive relationship. The tweet touched off a firestorm of revelations on social media that has continued for three days now. Internet users responded to Sharipkulova’s account with their own stories about sexual, physical, and psychological abuse, most often naming current and former journalists in Moscow (for more details, click here). For a scholarly perspective on this new wave of #MeToo activism, Meduza asked three social scientists about what sets the latest movement apart.

Anna Temkina, Professor of Sociology of Public Health and Gender, Co-coordinator, Gender Studies Program, European University at St. Petersburg

Anna Temkina’s personal archive

The recent events on social media demonstrate that concepts like “violence,” “harassment,” and “solicitation” are expanding and acquiring new meanings. The “rules of interpersonal gender interactions” are gradually changing. 

In the post-Soviet era, masculinity and femininity were caught in a “sexualized game” wherein “real men” were expected to compliment and pursue women aggressively and “real women” were meant to be in demand and receive such attention. “It’s a dangerous game and there might be unwanted consequences, but you’ve got to play,” Anna Temkina explained. And this “game” creates a dangerous double standard when it comes to gender, leaving women “structurally vulnerable,” since they are rarely the ones with power on their side. 

On top of that, Temkina pointed to a broader “culture of violence” in Russian society, and while this can affect anyone, it has particular repercussions when it comes to gender. “Violence is a normal, legitimate, and approved means of resolving problems. And when this kind of ‘culture of violence’ exists in society as a whole, it easily takes different forces and spreads to other areas (domestic violence, for example, or between partners),” Temkina said. “If the authorities act through violence, but don’t suppress interpersonal violence under the law, it means that others can act in the same way.” 

That said, many people in Russia are no longer satisfied with this reality. Conversations about personal boundaries, bodily autonomy, and empathy are becoming increasingly common, but “this is a long and painful process.” Young people are especially interested in examining gender norms and their wide-ranging influence on society. But the older generations aren’t involved in these discussions about gender inequality and feminism.

Political insecurity is also an important issue to consider. “Yesterday we were discussing how journalists became the objects of a political attack, and then journalists became the object of another discourse — one opposing harassment [...] and this kind of situation creates political vulnerability,” Temkina said. However, journalists are in a unique position, since unlike other professional communities — where sexual harassment is also an issue — they already have a platform for speaking out. “Journalists aren’t prepared to be silent about political or personal assaults on freedom and dignity anymore,” Temkina said.

Oksana Moroz, Associate Professor at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, author of the ‘Evil Culturalist Blog’

Oksana Moroz also feels that the Russian public sphere’s concept of violence is changing and expanding. At the same time, social networks have emerged as a space for “talking about things we didn’t want to talk about before.” Breaking down taboos makes for a wider discussion, but there are still plenty of disagreements.

“There’s a clashing of different norms, not only moral and ethical ones, but also norms about [what’s of] a public nature. Many think that it’s important to call a spade a spade, but there are also people who consider this airing dirty laundry,” Moroz said. She also warned that difficult discussions run the risk of giving way to mutual aggression, which isn’t productive for anyone involved. 

Moroz also pointed out that in the Russian speakers often rely on English terms to discuss issues related to violence, which can cause miscommunications. “In the Russian language and the Russian sphere there isn’t a large number of people who have a deep understanding of what [constitutes] ‘abuse’ and ‘harassment,’ who don’t just use these words as labels but understand what they mean,” Moroz explained. “Harassment, for example, isn’t just acts of a sexual nature, but rather [includes] different types of offensive actions.”

In this context, victims who do speak out are likely to face backlash. “People who start to talk about this understand that they will be the first ones getting blamed. They don’t get anything out of revealing the mechanisms of harassment in their relationships,” Moroz said. At the same time, another group of people will jump to defend the accused, especially if they’re someone with a lot of social capital. People begin to take sides and end up facing off, rather than engaging in dialogue.

“The main thing is for people to speak up [about] what things they don’t like, until this happens, there will be friction,” Moroz said. “We are moving towards a diversity of identities and the only way to live is to learn to understand each other, to learn to talk about ourselves and learn to accept others through conversation.”

Grigory Yudin, philosopher, Professor at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences

Evgeny Razumy / Vedomosti / PhotoXPress

“First and foremost, we need to understand that we are not at the center, but in the second [wave] of a global trend of discussing violence and inequality: Russia is increasingly integrating into global cultural ife, and all of these conflicts inevitably reach us faster and faster,” said Grigory Yudin. 

In his opinion, identity politics, “built mainly upon upholding the rights of certain groups, forms of social life, and protecting them from external influences,” has become the dominating force in modern political life. Since identity politics is based on the concept of “negative liberty” (understood as the freedom from external coercion), it’s effective up until a certain point. But it also leaves room for interpretation, meaning any obstacle can be seen as a restriction on freedom or a source of violence.

According to Yudin, this leads us to the general crisis of identity politics. No one is truly alone in the world, and therefore conflicts are inevitable; interpersonal interactions can be painful, leaving some people feeling guilty and others demanding apologies. 

“When someone apologizes, he inevitably does this partly because he fears external sanctions, and partly because, as sociologists say, he’s ‘internalizing’ the norm,” Yudin explained. “The problem is that the protection of identity doesn’t say anything about what to do after the apology. There’s no ready-made scenario for how to behave.” 

“Next you need to find a channel, a bridge, on the basis of which you can build new relationships between these people,” Yudin continued. “Otherwise it will be more of the same: we look for reason to get offended again, and then [someone] apologizes.”

Instead, violence should be treated as an issue in the context of a relationship, rather than a particular individual’s problem. This is often interpreted as “both sides are responsible,” but assigning blame isn’t optimal. “It’s important to understand why people reproduce relationships that hurt them everyday (very often these relationships are traumatizing for all parties involved),” Yudin said. 

Yudin argues that there’s symbolic value in censuring those who commit abuse and harassment, but punishment alone doesn’t allow individuals to change their behavior. “There’s a big difference between guilt and accountability,” Yudin underscored. Accountability helps guilty parties understand how they can change their situation; guilt “simply paralyzes” and drives people to pass the feeling to someone else, “creating new victims.”

Interviews by Alexandra Sivtsova

Summary by Eilish Hart

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