Revelations of sexual abuse by famous men, such as movie producer Harvey Weinstein and comedian Louis CK, have sparked debate about gender and sexism. That’s great—let’s smash the patriarchy.
The downside of the current discussion, however, is that it’s standard fare. We perpetuate the status quo by focusing on the culture’s favorite cliches—men are powerful and women are sex objects (this time with celebrities!). And while #MeToo helps to the extent that it shines a light on abuse of power, which is the oldest story in the book and not so surprising, talk of celebrity sex is merely a titillating distraction from equally pressing, connected problems that need immediate resolving, like intellectual and economic sexism.
Disappointingly, our debate also reveals the prevalence of feminist counter-revolutionaries: women who say they’re feminists, but unconsciously undermine the cause of equality, like by claiming it’s time to “shift a significant part of our focus to boys” (again?! already?!) Frenemies are everywhere.
If you doubt, consider the example of Girls creator Lena Dunham, alleged voice of a generation’s women, who stood up for her writer-producer Murray Miller after he was accused of rape by actress Aurora Perrineau. In the past, Dunham has complained that the male gaze doesn’t fall on androgynously styled women—duh, we don’t live for it—which is also not feminist (though blowback on that incident was mostly related to Dunham’s unconscious racism, not her male-colonized mind).
Then there are the women of Saturday Night Live, comedians with “sincere appreciation” for entertainer-turned-senator Al Franken’s respect and appropriateness. Though respect and appropriateness should be nothing to write home about, they felt compelled to defend Franken after photos surfaced showing his unwanted groping of radio host Leeann Tweeden.
These examples reveal the confusion of #MeToo. The movement emphasizes vulnerability and sexual objectification, but it offers little actual protection. And it’s not safe out there.
Admittedly, my take may be tainted by time spent defending rapists as a public defender in Palm Beach county, Florida. My expectations for the cultural conversation are higher than they were for criminals, and I’m perhaps more disconcerted than most by any national lust for stories of sexual violence. To me, it seems focusing on perverts and predators lowers the bar, as if the major concern of working women is the emergence of a stray penis, rather than respect and opportunity.
You might argue that the #MeToo movement shows women aren’t physically and psychologically safe, so demands like equal pay and intellectual respect are secondary concerns; first, we must nix sexual abuse and harassment. But abuse, money, power, and respect are all connected. Work will only be safe for women when intellectual and economic sexism are eradicated, along with their associated social and financial disadvantages. Then maybe I’ll get paid 20% more and second-guessed who knows how much less—that would be serious empowerment. Alas, we’re so interested in misogynists that we spill all the proverbial ink on their creepy kinks, then follow up by reassuring other dudes they’re good.
Because in the #MeToo rush, we also congratulated the good guys. Considering that men everywhere are already overconfident, disproportionately rewarded, promoted more often, and paid more money, we might have considered not thanking them, as a social experiment. It would have been valuable to flip the script and not validate the poor dears for a change.
Personally, I said nothing, though the shallow virtue-signaling irked me, because yet another opinion seemed excessive in the din. Plus I worry about sounding like a jerk, because women aren’t heard quite like men: In a Stanford University study of performance reviews, our communication skills were deemed “too aggressive” 20% more often (paywall). While it’s increasingly acceptable, even encouraged, to admit being a sexual victim, I still don’t get the feeling that it’s safe for all women to say what they think about workplace sexism.
The problem with not talking, however, is that I’m bothered by the gaps in the conversation, and the fact that we’re not yet questioning cultural conditioning. I’ve remained silent despite my excitement that we could really smash the patriarchy if we weren’t culturally fascinated by men and sex.
To be truly safe and make boundaries profoundly clear, women need power, which comes from intellectual and economic strength. We need leadership positions, opportunities in all fields, recognition and elimination of unconscious biases, to kill our inner counter-revolutionaries, to speak and be heard on all topics, and to not always be quite so supportive of men. These aren’t secondary concerns but first steps in ensuring cultural norms are dictated by and serve women in a brave new world for us by us. This is the prime directive.