Some notes on a column by Daphne Merkin published in The New York Times today that has done the inevitable and rolled all of the bad backlash arguments against the #MeToo movement into one tired thinkpiece.
Here’s the headline:
The main theme here is that Merkin believes that women are not speaking up about how they really feel about the #MeToo movement.
But privately, I suspect, many of us, including many longstanding feminists, will be rolling our eyes, having had it with the reflexive and unnuanced sense of outrage that has accompanied this cause from its inception, turning a bona fide moment of moral accountability into a series of ad hoc and sometimes unproven accusations.
For many weeks now, the conversation that has been going on in private about this reckoning is radically different from the public one. This is not a good sign, suggesting the sort of social intimidation that is the underside of a culture of political correctness, such as we are increasingly living in.
She attributes this to the “social intimidation that is the underside of a culture of political correctness.” I would posit here that the social intimidation that women continue to feel from men who use the power they have to harass them is a bigger and more important force than fears of being contrarian.
In private it’s a different story. “Grow up, this is real life,” I hear these same feminist friends say. “What ever happened to flirting?” and “What about the women who are the predators?” Some women, including random people I talk to in supermarket lines, have gone so far as to call it an outright witch hunt.
One random woman once told me on a supermarket line that the beans were on sale. I did not then and go write a column about said beans being on sale, but that’s just me.
Perhaps even more troubling is that we seem to be returning to a victimology paradigm for young women, in particular, in which they are perceived to be — and perceive themselves to be — as frail as Victorian housewives.
It seems strange to paint young women who are speaking up and taking stands against sexual harassment, despite the fact they often have less economic and career security than their older counterparts, as frail Victorian housewives.
What happened to women’s agency? That’s what I find myself wondering as I hear story after story of adult women who helplessly acquiesce to sexual demands. I find it especially curious given that a majority of women I know have been in situations in which men have come on to them — at work or otherwise. They have routinely said, “I’m not interested” or “Get your hands off me right now.” And they’ve taken the risk that comes with it.
This argument—with its underlying suggestion that women are choosing to paint themselves as helpless—reflects Phyllis Schlafy’s comment in 1981 that “sexual harassment on the job is not a problem for the virtuous woman.” The danger in this, as Melissa Gira Grant wrote in the New York Review of Books, is that our view of who is a credible, virtuous victim almost always reflect biases of race, class, and sexuality. Nor should we lionize the idea that women who speak up have “taken the risk that comes with it.” As long as that risk exists, real “women’s agency” does not.
The fact that such unwelcome advances persist, and often in the office, is, yes, evidence of sexism and the abusive power of the patriarchy. But I don’t believe that scattershot, life-destroying denunciations are the way to upend it. In our current climate, to be accused is to be convicted. Due process is nowhere to be found.
Losing your high-profile job, from which you likely have accumulated millions of dollars over decades of a successful career, is not “life-destroying.” And most of these men underwent internal reviews within their companies before they were fired. (It’s true that there are problems with the current system of at-will employment, but that’s another conversation altogether.)
When people bring up “lack of due process” for men, they rarely mention the fact that due process has never existed for women who are sexually harassed. This is clear from Congress’s murky sexual harassment reporting policies, from Harvey Weinstein’s army of spies, and from the stories told by Ford factory employees, hotel cleaners, and domestic workers.
And what exactly are men being accused of? What is the difference between harassment and assault and “inappropriate conduct”? There is a disturbing lack of clarity about the terms being thrown around and a lack of distinction regarding what the spectrum of objectionable behavior really is. Shouldn’t sexual harassment, for instance, imply a degree of hostility? Is kissing someone in affection, however inappropriately, or showing someone a photo of a nude male torso necessarily predatory behavior?
Most of the women who have come forward have made clear the distinctions between different types of men’s behaviors; many have taken great pains to speak about the complexities around the issue of consent.
I think this confusion reflects a deeper ambivalence about how we want and expect people to behave. Expressing sexual interest is inherently messy and, frankly, nonconsensual — one person, typically the man, bites the bullet by expressing interest in the other, typically the woman — whether it happens at work or at a bar. Some are now suggesting that come-ons need to be constricted to a repressive degree. Asking for oral consent before proceeding with a sexual advance seems both innately clumsy and retrograde, like going back to the childhood game of “Mother, May I?” We are witnessing the re-moralization of sex, not via the Judeo-Christian ethos but via a legalistic, corporate consensus.
Asking for affirmative consent might seem awkward for some because it is a newer standard but, I promise you, it only gets easier with practice. It can even (gasp) be sexy.
On this one point, Merkin and I agree. Calling out individual offenders is not the solution; it’s a band-aid on a bullet wound. Women don’t want the power to get men fired. They want to live in a society where men aren’t empowered to harass and abuse them. But focusing on the way we bring up our sons and daughters (a necessary task) does nothing for the women who are being harassed today.
Stripping sex of eros isn’t the solution. Nor is calling out individual offenders, one by one. We need a broader and more thoroughgoing overhaul, one that begins with the way we bring up our sons and daughters.
Where Merkin sees a loss of subtlety and reflection, I’ve seen people begin to seriously pick apart the complicated threads of sexual harassment and power, bringing conversations to the mainstream that often live at the fringes. There is always a need for more nuance, especially when it comes to race and class. But that isn’t what Merkin is bringing to the table.
Ironically, the Times released this ad celebrating the very cultural moment Merkin is trashing (and, by extension, its role in bringing that moment about) on the same day that it published her op-ed.