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Dear men, #MeToo isn’t trying to silence you. It’s trying to empower you

male cheerleaders
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
A world in which sexual abuse and workplace harassment are not tolerated is a better world for men and women both.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The #MeToo backlash is upon us. There’s already been a contingent of men and women worrying about “witch hunts” and overcorrections. Now, in the wake of a controversial article accusing Hollywood star Aziz Ansari of sexual misconduct, the idea that the movement has gone too far is gaining momentum. “Apparently there is a whole country full of young women who don’t know how to call a cab, and who have spent a lot of time picking out pretty outfits for dates they hoped would be nights to remember. They’re angry and temporarily powerful,” Caitlin Flanagan writes in an article for the Atlantic, dismissing the allegations against Ansari.

This kind of worldview assumes that men and women are locked in a Battle of the Sexes. If women are suddenly empowered, men suffer.

But the truth is that the interests of men and women are aligned. While women are disproportionately singled out for sexual violence and harassment, #MeToo has shown that men can be victims too, and that disproportions of power can lead to harassment of men as well as women. The evidence of #MeToo doesn’t show that women need to triumph over men. Rather, it shows that a world in which sexual abuse and workplace harassment are not tolerated, and in which a respectful approach to consensual, mutually pleasurable sex is the norm, is a better world for men and women both.

Male victims are often let out of #MeToo conversations, in part this is because there are fewer of them. But male victims are also erased because men are not supposed to be victims. Instead, men are supposed to be strong and powerful—which means identifying with sexual aggressors or, more positively, identifying as defenders of women.

This is why politicians who condemn sexual violence often preface their denunciations by identifying themselves as “a father of daughters.” Men are supposed to imagine themselves racing to the defense of the women in their care. They’re not supposed to identify directly with the victim, because that would make them look weak. A male politician getting up in the public sphere and referencing his own experience of workplace harassment, or his own sexual abuse, is almost unthinkable.

And yet men account for between 5% and 38% of victims of sexual violence—the exact numbers vary so widely because men are often unwilling to report sexual assaults. Despite that reluctance, many male victims have come forward in the last few months during #MeToo. Fifteen men accused Kevin Spacey of sexual harassment, including actor Anthony Rapp, who says Spacey made sexual advances to him when he was 14. Terry Crews, an ex-football player, and nobody’s image of a typical victim, says a Hollywood agent groped him in 2016. Former Star Trek actor George Takei was accused of sexually assaulting a male model in 1981.

The people who accused Spacey and Takei weren’t “out to get” men. They were men themselves. Moreover, these examples also show that #MeToo, contrary to some claims, does not cast women as perpetual victims in need of protection. On the contrary, #MeToo made space for men to come forward, demonstrating that men are not always in positions of power, and that it is not always women who are abused.

Just as men can be the victims of sexual harassment, they can also agree to unwanted sex. The #MeToo movement has highlighted the need for people to respect sexual boundaries, and obtain clear consent from partners. The stereotypical scenario here is that of a man pressuring a woman for sex. But research by Jessie Ford, a sociology PhD student at New York Univeristy, suggests that men, too, can be pushed into sex they don’t want, or that they regret.

A few of the men Ford interviewed said that they had sex that they did not want when they were drunk. Most, however, said that they felt that they had to accept sex if a woman offered, because otherwise they would be perceived as emasculated or homosexual. “There is this social pressure that men like sex a lot and women can choose yes or no. So I guess it makes you unmanly if you don’t want to have sex,” one of Ford’s interviewees explained.

The idea that women are reluctant to have sex and need to be pushed excuses male harassers, who see any sign of resistance as a barrier to be overcome. But these gendered stereotypes also hurt men, who feel that they always have to say “yes” to sex, even when they don’t want to. By emphasizing consent and puncturing gender stereotypes, MeToo has the potential to help everyone, of every gender, have better sexual choices, and better sex.

MeToo can also help everyone have better, safer workplaces. People who engage in workplace sexual harassment are often willing to violate other boundaries as well. For instance, people with a history of sexual harassment are also more likely to falsify expense reports and to take credit for other people’s work.

Harvey Weinstein’s horrific history of sexual abuse was part of a larger environment of bullying and mental cruelty that affected everyone at his company, Miramax. The Guardian interviewed Jesse Berdinka, a former US marine, who developed a drinking problem from the extreme stress of working with Weinstein. Workers said the environment at Miramax was like a “cult”; one said that Weinstein threw a picture frame at her during an argument.

Weinstein singled women out for sexual abuse, but he abused everyone. In forcing Weinstein out of his job, MeToo protected both women and men from a toxic workplace environment. And ideally, an increased willingness to hold powerful men (and not just men) accountable will make it easier for people to come forward about other kinds of workplace conduct as well as about sexual harassment.

“One-way conversations go down about as well with most men as they do with most women, and #MeToo isn’t going to succeed in the long run if the underlying message is #STFU,” Bret Stephens declared at the New York Times. The assumption there is that #MeToo is about women winning the Battle of the Sexes, and forcing men to cower in the corner in silence.

But empowering people to speak out against injustices is only a threat to men if you believe that men are never victims of injustice; that they never experience sexual violence, or workplace violence, or unwanted sexual pressure. As a movement, #MeToo isn’t silencing men. It’s showing that when women speak, men are empowered too.

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