Ashley Judd sees a role for forgiving men in #MeToo

Ashley Judd is looking for her male counterpart in #MeToo.
Ashley Judd is looking for her male counterpart in #MeToo.
Image: Reuters/Carlo Allegri
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At an intimate gathering of Harvard professors and students, Ashley Judd gripped a crystal award with both hands. “This is better than holding an Oscar,” she said. 

Judd, an actor and social-justice activist, earned a mid-career master’s degree in public administration in 2010 from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Today, she’s a global ambassador for the United Nations Population Fund and for Population Services International. She returned to the Kennedy School on May 30 to be honored as a Gender Equity Changemaker for her leadership in the #MeToo movement.

“When folks ask what it was like to be at Harvard, I say it was very nurturing,” she said. “People don’t always associate that word with Harvard, but what was emphasized here was empathy and self-care, and these are the elements that help the alchemy of academic pursuit become social change on the ground level.”

Judd spoke with similar lyricism for the next hour, explaining her passion for social justice, which developed (thanks to an Amnesty International shoutout in the liner notes to U2’s Joshua Tree album) long before she became one of the first women to publicly accuse Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, then sue him for harming her career.

She also unpacked the role of forgiveness in #MeToo, described what she’s looking for in male feminist leaders, and offered advice on how to be an ally in the movement without becoming self-serving.

No progress without forgiveness

Whenever Judd discusses sexual harassment, she says she’s joined by a special guest—her seven-year-old self.

“I really got started with this work when I was molested for the first time that I remember,” she said. “I was seven when it happened, and part of what’s so powerful about the MeToo movement, the Time’s Up organization, and all of the public discourse we’re having today, is that folks now know what to do, and where to go when someone comes to them and says I’ve had this incident of abuse and assault.”

Such was not the case when Judd, as a child, told adults in her family about the man who assaulted her. They wrote him off as a “nice old man” who didn’t mean any harm. “They just didn’t know any better,” she reflected. “And as I’ve said before, we can prosecute and forgive at the same time. I understand that my [family] thought he was a nice old man, because who were they going to believe: the patriarch or the vulnerable, dependent child who was upsetting the social norm?”

Of course, upsetting social norms has become the lifeblood of sexual power dynamics in America. Judd’s not crazy to hope that today, vulnerable children (and adults) are more likely to be believed. But research suggests the majority of survivors will remain shamed, ignored, and potentially punished for speaking up against sexual abuse.

Instead of viewing this reality with despondence or hate, Judd chooses optimism. She’s committed to seeing the best in everyone, including Weinstein, who turned himself in to authorities last month on charges of first- and third-degree rape and a first-degree criminal sexual act.

Weinstein is one of the first accused sexual predators of the #MeToo era to be held legally accountable for his behavior, which Judd described in an op-ed for Time magazine as “thunderous news.” At the Harvard event, Judd put the arrest in context for women who are unsure what to make of the impact of men on the movement, saying:

“Harvey is not going to be the guy who leads the way of contrition, accountability, restitution, and restorative justice. But part of my perspective on his arrest is that when a public person does take personal accountability and publicly interrogate his abuse—because there are private citizens who’ve done that abundantly and with great dignity—they’re kind of going to be my male counterpart in this movement.

“They’re going to be the pioneer that shows men a new way forward, and helps release an enormously healing energy. It would unleash healing in our culture and society when that happens. So that’s really what I’m focused on, and the guy for whom I am waiting.”

Judd even expressed potential interest in a TV show where she’d spend a year with an accused harasser, like Charlie Rose.

To some, the notion of forgiveness may feel more like a “get out of jail free” card for men who do wrong but seek redemption. But as Judd reminded her audience, the perceived dissonance between ending misogyny and forgiving reformed misogynists is only real if you let it be.

Of course, no survivor is required, or expected to forgive her aggressor. Nor is it women’s responsibility to “integrate men” into feminism, or the #MeToo movement. As Teen Vogue journalist Lauren Duca, a prominent feminist, recently told me in an interview for Quartz At Work’s How We’ll Win series: “I have trouble with framing it as inviting men into the conversation, because I think that that sets up a power dynamic that doesn’t exist, in which women are sitting at a table and deciding whether or not to let men in. The reality is that men own the table, and we’re desperate to sit there.”

Patriarchy exists because of men. So, how can we turn them into allies in dismantling patriarchal structures that allowed such rampant harassment of women? Judd has an answer.

How to help men help themselves

According to a recent, nationally representative survey conducted by GQ and Glamour, nearly 50% of men in America have not discussed the #MeToo movement with anyone. Nor are the men who are actively engaging with #MeToo the woke 20somethings you’d expect; rather, per this survey, the #MeToo-aware man is more likely to be older, midwestern, single, without children, and making less than $100,000 a year. Meanwhile, men at the executive level—those with the most power to shift workplace norms—were significantly less likely to be discussing #MeToo.

Problematic as these statistics are, they present an opportunity. When men find personal responsibility and purpose in the movement, everyone wins, says Judd. “Though I’d be a genius if I had the answer to how to make that happen at a global scale,” she admits.

Referencing a recent Kennedy School paper titled “Predators and Prey: Standing By or Standing Up,” which directly addresses men, Judd endorsed the idea of direct engagement. “Whenever men reach out to me to better understand sexual harassment, or help redeem themselves,” she said, “I refer them to organizations like A Call to Men and Mentors in Violence Prevention.” The first educates men worldwide on healthy, respectful manhood, while the latter applies the bystander approach to issues of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and relationship abuse. (The bystander approach helps broaden the conversation to include men who don’t see themselves as potential perpetrators about sexual violence, by positioning them as friends, family members, teammates, classmates, colleagues, or co-workers of women who were or might one day be abused.)

But perhaps the biggest opportunity for engaging is in the interpersonal relationships with the men we’re closest to, says Judd. “My pop and uncle both voted for Donald Trump,” she said. “We were sitting in our local diner the other day, and pop called the female server ‘honey,’ and everybody’s head whipped around to me. And they asked, you know, ‘Is that okay? How do you feel about that?’ And so it was an opportunity for us to just have an undefended conversation.”

Judd said she flipped the scenario on her male relatives, asking them how they felt about calling the server sweetheart, and why that was their instinct. These conversations need to make room for context and nuance, she explained, noting that the server had actually called her pop “honey” first.

“To be able to have honest conversations about gender dynamics with an exquisitely listening ear, and in an undefended posture, I think that’s really what allows people to change,” said Judd. “I really believe and have staked my life on listening as the essential transaction for individual—and therefore, ultimately, social—change.”