The #MeToo movement backlash has arrived. Rush-to-judgment detractors say it vilifies males, threatens men’s jobs and limits sexual freedom. Should we return to silent acceptance and occasional hush-money lawsuits? Is it too much noise? Has it gone too far?
I know the answer: Actually, it is not enough.
“Tell everyone, LOUDLY!” I instructed my daughters. “Make the creep the one embarrassed.” Bad behavior is enabled by secrecy. It doesn’t matter what that behavior is—it needs fresh air, not a cover. Besides, it might take a village to get help. The kind of clamor the #MeToo movement and others like it initiate is needed to get a society to sort out its values. How can we decide what those values are—and fight for the ones we believe in—without the scope of the conversation?
When I was about 7 years old, an old man came behind me and stuck his fingers between my pant legs as I was peering over a table of goods at the store. It startled me, so I ran to tell my mother. “I can’t do anything unless I catch him myself,” she told me, “but if it happens again, kick him as hard as you can!” She wasn’t surprised by what happened, but she felt limited in how she could respond. Moments later, I was again grabbed despite my vigilance—and met with a slow, hard wink. I ran to my mother and clung to her, terrified, until we left, and long after whenever we went shopping. Nothing more was said or done about it. This was typical of the time—it was accepted that victims would be wary, and most accusers would be discounted.
The subject of sexual harassment and molestation has been shrouded in silence for too long, with those in the know reticent to speak up. But silence is a facade of normalcy that allows misconduct to fester like bacteria in darkness. If it makes sense for kids to yell, “he’s hitting me!” for immediate relief, why do we have such a problem with shouting about harassment and abuse? Our culture has implicitly made us overly polite—forcing us to side-step the “drama” of accusations, and the doubt and humiliation they bring. The fear of that sort of backlash sends traumatized would-be or were-once whistle-blowers back into the shadows.
If #MeToo seems to stigmatize men, remember there are male victims too—such as Terry Crews and Kevin Spacey’s accusers. I know of workplaces that feature frat-boy teasing, graphic jokes and flashed porn images that make men uncomfortable, but they play along for the paycheck. Let’s separate the bad behavior out from norms and stereotyping. If men now fear retribution at work, remember that the same kind of threat is what has kept women silent—for the sake of maintaining their own livelihoods and creative pursuits. How can we uphold perpetrator’s power-wielding careers when victims gave in to coercion and silence to preserve theirs? And if sexual harassment limits sexual freedom, well, any freedom must be limited when it clashes with another’s. Women would love to lose the anxiety over being on guard or ambushed—wouldn’t it be nicer for everyone to function free from the same?
Sexual harassment has costs. According to a piece in Entrepreneur, “often people who engage in sexually predatory behavior also faked expense reports, plagiarized writing or stole credit for other people’s work… All of these behaviors are the actions of someone who feels entitled to other people’s property—regardless of whether it’s someone else’s ideas, work, money, or body.”
Sexual harassment has been on HR policy books for some time, yet it hasn’t managed to secure us enough. The widespread release of secrets is a needed catharsis to begin a scale of mediated fixes. But just like in a mediation, open talk must precede solutions. We can’t have change without the freedom to declare where it’s needed first.
I can’t help but wonder the difference—what if I had screamed as a child in that store? Harmful actions should speak louder than protesting words. Now I have changed the protocol of my youth—if boundaries are crossed, my voice will also cross into a justified public wail. I preach this to my daughters. I hope more of us are preaching it now.