There’s a problem at the heart of #MeToo — here’s how to solve it

A protester sits on the lap of “Lady Justice” on the steps of the US Supreme Court.
A protester sits on the lap of “Lady Justice” on the steps of the US Supreme Court.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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One year ago, people got woke—or so the story goes. After the New York Times and the New Yorker revealed a slew of sexual assault and sexual misconduct allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, countless women were moved to share their personal experiences of harassment and abuse on social media under the hashtag #MeToo. A movement was born.

#MeToo made me nervous. While it’s imperative to eradicate abuse, it seemed to me then that women were falling into a dangerous trap, sharing tales of our subjugation and humiliation for the titillation of a culture ultimately indifferent to women’s dignity or safety.

I refused to say #MeToo, not because I’ve never dealt with abuses of power, but because I have and wouldn’t voluntarily grant anyone the opportunity to contemplate my humiliation or dismiss me as a mere victim. And I worried that as #MeToo unfolded, it was playing into an ancient narrative written by men, for men. In this story, if women are to be heard at all, it’s only when we talk about men and sex.

If the hashtag had been less polite—a rebel yell like #FuckYou—I might have found it more inspiring. Still, after a while, I got used to the idea that sharing our horror stories might somehow lead to recognition of our inherent equality. Women seemed galvanized and unified by the hashtag activism. I wondered if I’d been impatient, wanting to skip steps and get to the part where we’re all humans instead of acknowledging the need for course correction.

Maybe, I thought, #MeToo was provoking change after all. Not only had mighty men fallen from lofty positions when their wrongs were exposed, but the idea that power abuses are a common problem seemed ensconced in the cultural conversation.

Now, in the wake of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the US Supreme Court and other recent events, once again, I’m not so sure. It seems that the story of #MeToo has turned into yet another opportunity for men to talk about themselves—how they’ve suffered as a result of accusations, or redeemed themselves and deserve our attention again, or how the world’s gone mad and lost its standards, or how they are allies and not bad guys. Whatever the response, men retain cultural dominance, so much so that a man like Kavanaugh, accused of attempted rape, can trigger fears that boys won’t get to be boys anymore if women keep telling their stories.

Change we can believe in?

Change happens—unevenly. In 1991, Clarence Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court despite testimony from lawyer Anita Hill, who accused Thomas of sexual harassment before an an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee. The next year, in 1992, more women ran for political office and were elected to the Senate than ever before. It was dubbed The Year of the Woman.

Now history seems to be repeating itself. This year, Kavanaugh was confirmed to the high court despite testimony from Christine Blasey Ford, who alleged that Kavanaugh had tried to rape her in high school. Kavanaugh appeared both outraged and entitled in his own Senate testimony—an emotional response that perfectly encapsulated the backlash to #MeToo. Indeed, Jia Tolentino at The New Yorker argues that Kavanaugh was confirmed because of #MeToo: “Men are borrowing the rhetoric of the structurally oppressed,” she writes, “and delivering it with a rage that is denied to all but the most powerful.”

In other words, powerful men are coopting the unassailable position of victim and advancing it with the brutality of oppressors. When women accuse men of sexual misconduct, the accused and their allies rewrite the narrative. They create a scenario in which they have been wronged by a hysterical culture, and in which their accusers are either malicious or hopelessly befuddled. (Kavanaugh supporters, including the judge himself, were typically reluctant to say that Ford was lying about being assaulted, preferring instead to suggest that she had somehow confused her assailant with someone else.)

Kavanaugh was the perfect avatar for all the privileged men who are sick and tired of #MeToo. For a whole year, they’ve been told to tread with caution and wrestle with self-doubt. They’re not going to take it anymore, and they’re telling us a different story.

Woe is men

Another aggrieved man is the writer Stephen Elliot, whose name appeared on last year’s Shitty Media Men List—a spreadsheet meant to warn women in the industry away from men accused of sexual harassment, abuse, and other forms of boundary-crossing. On Oct. 10, Elliot filed a defamation lawsuit, claiming that Moira Donegan and other anonymous women had knowingly destroyed his reputation with anonymous false rape accusations. Elliot’s defense, presented in the legal filing and in an essay in Quillete describing his experiences since the list was made public, is that he couldn’t possibly rape or harass women because he doesn’t even like sex.

Elliot points to his own nonfiction writing about being a submissive in erotic practices known as Bondage Dominance Sadism Masochism (BDSM). He writes in Quillette:

My entire sexuality is wrapped up in BDSM. Cross-dressing, bondage, masochism. I’m always the bottom. I’ve been in long romantic relationships with women without ever seeing them naked. Almost every time I’ve had intercourse during the past 10 years, it has been in the context of dominance/submission, often without my consent, and usually while I’m tied up or in a straitjacket and hood.

In his essay, he attempts to transform himself from alleged predator to unwary prey, targeted by vicious women who “weaponized” their baseless hate. He accuses the women behind the Media List of intellectual dishonesty as he disingenuously conflates the involuntary non-consensual sex alleged against him—the crime of rape noted on the spreadsheet—with his own voluntary erotic activities, which, frankly, in no way reassures me Elliot’s not a creep. The “non-consensual sex” Elliot has in the context of BDSM is actually consensual, as he’s apparently agreed to be tied up and placed in a straitjacket or hood as he submits to domination. That’s hardly the same thing as sex without consent. His use of the term, his mere mention of this to elicit some kind of image of himself as a victim, is ridiculous.

Elliot’s essay is focused on his suffering. He applies legal concepts, like the notion of being innocent until proven guilty, to discuss his loss of cultural status, calling the scenario created by the list “Kafkaesque.” Proof of this is that his latest book wasn’t widely reviewed. His writing was rejected by major publications. He took drugs, became depressed, spent his savings, lost allies, was forced to reconsider his purpose, to move from expensive LA to affordable Louisiana, to return to writing for its own sake rather than for glory and lucre.

It’s true that the list was problematic because, while it was created as a secret document, it quickly became public. Donnegan, its creator, herself admitted that it took on a life of its own which she never intended.

What Elliot fails to realize, however, is that he was never entitled to publication, book reviews, success, wealth, or friendship—either before or after the list. He was briefly blessed and then quickly dismissed. It’s not nice for him, but it’s hardly a shocking or unique experience, nor is it a sign of a society gone terribly awry.

Welcome to the world

Elliot’s shock at the experience of falling out of cultural favor is just a sign of the privilege he’s enjoyed until now. For the many intelligent and talented women whose dreams of greatness and recognition have been hampered by an accident of birth, working in a world unwilling to fully recognize their potential—not to mention unfairness, doubt, rejection, double standards, lower pay, and insufficient respect—is just the way things go.

Elliot’s lawsuit may not succeed. But the timing of his filing, on the heels of Kavanaugh’s confirmation, is one more sign of how the tides have turned against #MeToo. As senator Lindsey Graham said in defense of the patriarchy after Kavanaugh’s testimony earlier in the month, “I’m a single white male from South Carolina, and I’m told that I should just shut up, but I will not shut up.”

Year of the man

Evidence of this refusal to shut up abounds. As if on cue, just ahead of the one-year mark of the #MeToo movement, a slew of accused men reentered the cultural conversation. Louis CK, who admitted to masturbating in front of women comics, began making impromptu appearances at the Comedy Cellar. Aziz Ansari, accused more of being a creep than a criminal, popped up again with a comedy routine that decries the excesses of wokeness. Jian Ghomeshi, a Canadian radio personality accused of multiple abuses, wrote a self-pitying essay for the New York Review of Books, defended by then-editor Ian Buruma, who felt the time had come to test the boundaries of #MeToo. Disgraced radio host John Hockenberry also wrote an essay in Harper’s mourning the end of romance and calling himself an “exile.” The list goes on.

While there’s still a lot of rhetoric about supporting women being bandied about, there’s an equal and opposite reaction to #MeToo happening now. The culture may believe that women like Ford can be victims, but people still feel deeply for men in power. And men still dominate industries, institutions, and cultural production, which means the most they’re willing to offer women is lip service. As Lindsay Zoladz writes in The Ringer, discussing male artists’ recent penchant for making “oddly soulless” songs in tribute to strong women, “In so many aspects of our culture, 2018 has been the year of women’s rage. On the radio and on the charts, though, 2018 has been the year of the benevolent-yet-patronizing women’s empowerment anthem, as imagined by men.”

The powerful do not cede space willingly, and certainly not to victims. And so, although I hope that 2019 will be the Year of the Woman, I fear that it will be, like every year preceding it and many that will follow, just another Year of the Man.

A culture reluctant to be disrupted will only transform when women say #MeToo not about abuse but our right to rule, and say #FuckYou to anyone who refuses us opportunities. We have to work our way into the powerful positions where the dominant narrative is written, and create a new kind of script.