My initial reaction to the #MeToo movement, the social media continuation of the sexual misconduct backlash that toppled prominent men like Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein, was surprise. I wasn’t shocked to learn that sexual harassment and assault are so widespread — this has been my daily reality for as long as I can remember — I just didn’t realize that anyone besides the victimized actually cared. Very little in my observations of our culture, our criminal justice system, or the industries where abuse so often flourishes led me to believe that was true.
Watching the accusations and (sometimes half-hearted) apologies roll out across social media felt like watching a bizarre but welcome alternate universe unfold. One where men’s actions finally had long-overdue consequences, and where women (and some men) were finally told that their experiences mattered, that they could be believed, that their bodies were no longer sexual resources to be raided by anyone entitled enough to make the attempt.
My second reaction was “This can’t last.” If history has taught us anything, it is that powerful people never give away their power without a fight. “It’s only a matter of time before the backlash hits,” I texted one friend. The way the #MeToo movement has emboldened everyone from celebrities to average folks to speak up about abuse seemed too good to be true at times. How long could it continue before the immune system of our culture identified it as a serious threat, and decided to attack?
The answer, it seems, is “about three months.” If nothing else, the pushback has been illuminating about the fears and prejudices against women that still simmer just below our society’s surface — and are reflected in the opinions and behavior of men and women alike.
Some of the angriest responses have been reserved for victims whose experiences have been dismissed as insufficiently abusive, or primarily their own fault. Over the weekend, a woman accused comedian Aziz Ansari of sexual coercion. The simplest version of her story is this: she indicated in various ways that she did not want to engage in various sexual acts with him. Nevertheless, he persisted. The Atlantic subsequently published an op-ed best described as a 1,500-word feat of victim-blaming, one that characterized women in the #MeToo movement as “angry, temporarily powerful — and very, very dangerous.” It further compared the Ansari accusations to “humiliation” and “revenge porn,” and suggested that the woman had simply not asserted her resistance strongly enough — in spite of the verbal and non-verbal forms of non-consent she describes in her account.
It shouldn’t seem surprising that this article was written by a woman. A wide array of second-wave feminists have come out against what they view as the excesses of the #MeToo movement. They boldly declare that women have gone too far, exaggerating the harm they experienced from men who ignored their boundaries in pursuit of personal pleasure. They suggest that women simply need to be more resilient. A coterie of French women, including Catherine Deneuve, signed an open letter declaring that #MeToo was a serious threat to “sexual freedom.” At The New York Times, Daphne Merkin clutched her pearls about “the victimology paradigm” of young women who she thinks perceive themselves “as frail as Victorian housewives.”
Even feminist icon and The Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood leapt into the fray, defensively asking if she is a “bad feminist” for comparing the #MeToo movement to the Salem witch trials, or to Joseph Stalin’s purges, which killed millions. In this framing, the women finally raising their voices about non-consensual encounters with powerful men — and the women who signal-boost them — are so many Madame Defarges, complacently knitting by their internet guillotines, while men are executed in the court of public opinion.
Their pushback says a lot not only about the dominant and dangerous perceptions around sexual consent, but the self-image of the women yelling “too far.” They feel they are strong, while the young women of today are too careless with their accusations, too fragile, too whiny. The real danger, the backlashers suggest, is not the men who care little to nothing about consent, but the “privileged” women inexplicably eager to ruin men over their sexual “regrets.”
Andrew Sullivan added his voice as well in a New York Magazine piece that disparaged the “ambiguous and trivial cases” of “mild handsiness” he believes have condemned men to “social ostracism and career destruction.” Within a few weeks, he says, “the righteous exposure of hideous abuse of power had morphed into a more generalized revolution against the patriarchy.” This, at least, is a cogent analysis of the #MeToo movement, because a full-on revolution that insists on the bodily autonomy of women — in both horrifying cases of assault and in far less dramatic instances of coercion — is exactly what we need.
The bizarre call for curtailing #MeToo in the name of sexual freedom highlights the form of “freedom” that so often takes precedence: the liberty for everyone to do as they please. The problem is, that freedom instantly transforms into abuse, unless it’s constrained by the right to be equally free from having other people’s impulses and desires forced on you. Ensuring that “freedom to” does not override “freedom from” requires a serious re-examination of the myths that have often surrounded rape and sexual harassment. Can we really believe a woman was violated unless she fought, unless she screamed, unless there was violence? There are many reasons why a woman might not fight back against the sexual advances of a more powerful man, from the possible social or professional consequences to a very real fear of violence. This does not make us “children”; it makes us human.
The call to “consider both sides” in situations that are fundamentally unequal is tempting and insidious, particularly for the media. Journalists in particular are trained to be “fair,” even when granting equal time and attention to both sides results in spectacular inequity. This impulse has given us GamerGate, climate change deniers writing at The New York Times, and wildly distorted perceptions of what it means for women to be “well-represented.” These appeals to moderation do little but place a midpoint on a spectrum predicated on injustice, and insist that too much correction of a traditionally unbalanced status quo is simply going too far. It is a call to shore up the threatened institutions of power, to return to a world where men’s experiences and fears take precedence.
But that can only come at the expense of the most vulnerable. (Women of color and queer people face the most abuse.) Rape itself was once carefully gated as a term only meant to describe the most horrific and violent attacks by strangers. That definition conveniently omitted assaults committed by those closest to the victims — raping your spouse, for example, was once deemed legal in some states, as was assaulting someone while they were unconscious. This dangerously narrow classification created an environment where the most common sexual assaults could flourish with ease, without even the opprobrium of language to describe its damage. Even rape committed against someone who was known to the attacker required an entirely new word to make it unacceptable: date rape.
It is not difficult to understand why the #MeToo movement has left many men (and some women) indignant over the newer, more expansive definitions of sexual abuse, and afraid their past or present behaviors might be newly reclassified as harassment and assault. Some have reached out to people in their past via preemptive and occasionally self-serving missives, hoping to assess or apologize for the potential damage of their actions.
Many more would rather not do this sort of moral inventory at all. Instead, they’d prefer to leave their earlier sins in the dustbin of unexamined history. This impulse has something in common with the current anti-#MeToo backlash, and it’s both simple and disappointing. It prioritizes the reputations, power, and safety of men over women, whose reputations, power and safety have been ripped from them with horrifying regularity.
And part of that prioritization has been worrying more about the disproportionately rare incidences of false accusation than about actual rapes. It has been shocking to see how many men, including “progressive men,” have responded to #MeToo with some variation on “but what if women are lying or exaggerating?” There is a reasonable discussion to be had about what consequences are appropriate to various offenses on the spectrum of harassment and assault, but backlash that paints women as hysterical exaggerators or self-serving zealots has no place in that conversation.
It is certainly true that there are degrees of severity in sexual abuse cases. A violent assault is not the same as a boss who persistently tries to coerce sex from an employee. And neither are the equivalent of someone pushing for sex from someone who is visibly resistant or unenthusiastic. But they all exist along the same spectrum of entitlement and disregard, and they all deserve full-throated condemnation. The debate can and should continue about what the consequences should be in various cases, and whether personal or professional rehabilitation is possible. But each one represents a line crossed, a line that needs to be held, rather than hand-waved away as prudishness, oversensitivity, or witch-hunt hysteria.
If the environment created by #MeToo is less than ideal in its standards of proof, that is a direct product of a deeply broken justice system where only an estimated seven out of a thousand rapes will result in a felony conviction. There’s a reason why cases of rape and harassment have increasingly been tried in the court of public opinion: it is the only court where most victims have a chance in hell of experiencing anything close to justice. Where, now, is the outcry from so many of those who would silence the “excesses” of #MeToo to give us a better legal option, and a better chance at justice in the courts?
I once asked my mother, part of the feminist movement of the ‘60s, what she saw as the biggest difference between her movement and mine. She thought it over and said, “You want more.” She was right; women of my generation do want more. We should. For women of her generation, that generation of Atwood and Deneuve, perhaps the best they could realistically hope for was to achieve 25 percent of the personhood granted to men. I aim more optimistically at around 50 to 75 percent. When the next generation comes, and asks for it all — even at the expense of the unearned privileges men are afforded, to our bodies and to everything else, especially at that expense — I hope I will not feel as frightened by their boldness, their strength, their insistence on their full humanity.