It began with the great feminist legal philosopher, Alyssa Milano, former child actress on “Who’s The Boss?” Following disclosures of the repulsive Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault, even rapes, by a few brave women, and subsequent confirmation by an array of female actresses who had been silent for years, even decades, while enjoying the benefits of stardom, it morphed by Chaos Theory into some version of all men are Harveys.
Heeding a call from actress Alyssa Milano, people have been tweeting ‘#MeToo’ in order to raise awareness about how many women have allegedly experienced sexual harassment. ‘It’s not just one monster’, Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore wrote. ‘“Me too” reveals the ubiquity of sexual assault.’
As with all social-media trends, it’s hard to know what is true and what is exaggeration. #MeToo is particularly tricky to judge. Some have tweeted about actual experiences, ranging from being whistled at to being sexually assaulted. Others have simply said ‘me too’, leaving the rest to the imagination. Some have argued that they don’t need to say what happened to them, and insist that asking women to prove they were harassed is a kind of victim-blaming. One journalist tweeted: ‘Reminder that if a woman didn’t post #MeToo, it doesn’t mean she wasn’t sexually assaulted or harassed. Survivors don’t owe you their story.’
Did it serve to shame men? Did it serve to inform men how pervasive sexual harassment was in society? Did it prove that all men were Harveys, or at least, all women were victims?
There’s been an outpouring of #MeToo statuses on social media. Thousands of women are posting detailed testimonies of times when they were sexually harassed and assaulted.
As several women friends have noted, this outpouring has been met with a deafening silence by men.
How could this be? The “testimony” by the male ally Guardian writer, Tom Pessah, is instructive. In his shame, he gave up his story of the most horrific sexual assault he committed.
Once, when I was about 18, I had a good friend whom I was attracted to. One day she came round and was tired so she went to sleep on a mattress, and asked me to wake her up after half an hour. So I did. She slept on her back.
I could have touched her gently on her left-hand shoulder (closer to me) but I deliberately bent over and touched her on her right hand shoulder so that my elbow touched her chest. Of course this could have just been an “accident”, but it wasn’t. When she woke up she gave me a very strange look but didn’t say anything and I didn’t either, and we never talked about it. We stayed in contact for a few more years.
Granted, he’s a pig, but that’s it? Even Chuck Todd on Meet the Press got into the act. He asked all 21 female Senators to give “testimony” of their experience with sexual harassment. Four agreed: Elizabeth Warren, Claire McCaskill, Heidi Heitkamp and Mazie Hirono.
Taking for granted the truthfulness of their claims, despite nagging questions about Liz Warren (remember, this was a male academic, not a normal guy), it evokes questions rather than shame. Why didn’t Warren, who would be tough enough to be president, do nothing about it? Her career came first? So she made a choice that this attempted sexual assault was less important than her career. This smacks of a Weinstein moment, though not a brave one.
As to the other female senators, including the 17 who chose not to play #MeToo, their stories weren’t, how can this be said so as not to invoke shrieking, overwhelming. Everyone experiences possible unpleasantness in their lives. As that goes, this failed to make the cut of horrifying experiences. It was, well, quite trivial to anyone not otherwise inclined to feminist fantasy.
It’s time we clarified what sexual harassment really means. It’s not just the occasional offhand comment or unpleasant exchange. By labelling everything from shouts on the street to glances at the bar as sexual harassment, we denigrate the term. The panic about harassment and women’s safety is spinning out of control. Listening to some feminists, you’d be forgiven for thinking women are in danger every time they step into the street. And that we need more regulation and more law to protect women and control men. Cat-calling is now a hate crime in Nottinghamshire. Calling on the state to protect women from men smacks of a Victorian, patronising illiberalism.
It’s not particularly meaningful for someone to use the hashtag and demand that it be accepted as some amorphous horror because women don’t owe us their stories. No, they don’t, but then, they don’t get to demand men cry or self-flagellate over their unspoken horrors. Pessah described it as “detailed testimonies,” suggesting that use of every character Twitter allows constitutes “detailed” for the true believer. For the others, just believe the victim, even if you have no clue what the victim has to say, not to mention its veracity.
It’s time for some uncomfortable truths about the harassment panic. Feminists who peddle the idea that women are wallflowers – always at risk, requiring protection, and too damaged to talk seriously about the reality of our experience and therefore we need a caring Twitter leg-up – are doing a gross disservice to women.
Rape and sexual assault are crimes. Serious crimes. But that refers to actual rape and actual sexual assault, meaning conduct that violates law and not merely some vague post-hoc feeling or the dual-drunk dilemma that, only in the minds of the unduly woke, now constitutes some faux wrong. These words have meaning in law, and no meaning on social media. Using them contributes nothing to your argument, as we’re inundated with claims that fail miserably to bear out.
So did #MeToo do the trick? It got a response, but not the one that Alyssa Milano anticipated as she led the wave of social media slacktivism. The silence was deafening, but it did not mean what good ally Pessah felt it did. It meant that for all the gushing of emotion, there was no substance behind it. Silence is the sound of a shrug.
But feeding a moral panic that encourages women to feel more vulnerable, and which demonises men, is just destructive and wrong.
More to the point, if its purpose was to make men aware of the sexual suffering endured by women, it failed. If anything, it reinforced the belief that women are fragile, emotional and helpless. On the bright side, #NotAllWomen. Some prefer equality to fragility. #MeToo.