Unlike the previous ways the public reacted to powerful men being accused of terrible behavior—such as in the more than 50 women who say comedian Bill Cosby drugged and raped them, or the 19 women who say President Donald Trump sexually harassed or assaulted them—the tides have changed. Women, and men, who are survivors of this abuse are being believed, and the culture has shifted to laying blame and delivering consequences to the predators involved.
That isn’t to say there have been rape culture narratives attempting to discount women who are thought to be liars, or attention seekers, or perhaps too sensitive. These opinions, which usually fall from the mouths of men who have seen a form of such vilified behavior in themselves, argue that we shouldn’t be lumping together the men who send questionable texts with the men who grope women, with the men who masturbate in front of them, with the men who rape them. We can’t just deliver such quick retribution to men who women have said have forced kisses upon them, because what about due process? What about this leading to a slippery slope of a chaste society and to the prosecution of complimenting a woman’s hair?
We know these arguments. We recite them to ourselves when we feel the urge to speak up. We use them to justify why we cannot. These opinions, however, aren’t only peddled by men with a bone to pick, but also by women who say their skepticism wins out over their feminism.
In a New York Times opinion piece titled “Publicly, We Say #MeToo. Privately, We Have Misgivings,” writer Daphne Merkin is speaking for a community of women consisting of her “feminist friends” and women at the supermarket who all think “this is just too much.”
She explores this problem of virtue signaling, in which women who consider themselves feminists are compelled to outwardly say, “Me, too,” yet worry about the “trickle-down effect…in which the accusations are scattered, anonymous or, as far as the public knows, very vague and unspecific.” Merkin includes the cases of journalist Ryan Lizza and former Minnesota Sen. Al Franken within this “troubling” territory. In other words, these are accounts that she and her friends do not believe, or perhaps do not want to believe, because they aren’t as “heinous” as the ones about Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey.
Merkin then writes that through this movement, young women are taught to perceive themselves as victims and no longer exhibit the “agency” to resist come-ons from predatory men, before she asks the age-old question of “where is the line for predatory behavior?” She also, as expected, questions the absence of due process in these cases, then equates negotiating sexual consent to a “retrograde” “childhood game,” and concludes by theorizing that eventually people will be punished for even their fantasies.
The piece is, in two words, a lot:
The women I know — of all ages — have responded by and large with a mixture of slightly horrified excitement (bordering on titillation) as to who will be the next man accused and overt disbelief.
…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.
…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.
…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…Next we’ll be torching people for the content of their fantasies.
As many unpopular essays do, Merkin’s piece set a feminist fire through Twitter, with other women challenging her opinions on the acceptability of sexual harassment and the shaming of women who come forward with such stories.
This is not the same conversation as sexual assault on campus. #MeToo is discussing sexual harassment AT WORK.— Jane Coaston (@cjane87) January 5, 2018
"Expressing sexual interest is inherently messy” SO DON’T DO IT AT WORK
"Stripping sex of eros isn’t the solution” THERE SHOULD NOT BE EROS AT WORK
The conversations around #MeToo sometimes miss the point. This is about power over women by powerful men. When it's dangerous for your career to say no shouldn't have to mean the end of your career or ANY reprimand on the job.https://t.co/JYY94FOrb2— Erin Griffiths (@erindraws) January 5, 2018
Which wave of feminism is the one in which nobody says "Whatever happened to flirting?" That's the one I'm in. https://t.co/yyoPneT5RB— Maris Kreizman (@mariskreizman) January 5, 2018
It always comes with "we don't want to ruin sex" and "that's not the way sex works" arguments like our sexual culture is something to defend— Malcolm Harris (@BigMeanInternet) January 5, 2018
This article is poorly thought out and poorly argued. Merkin asks “what happened to agency” while simultaneously stripping women of theirs by suggesting they can’t tell the different between harassment and flirting. Sex is great, sexual hostility is not. https://t.co/3WQiYTWy1D— Dangerous Witnesses (@DangerWitness) January 5, 2018
At the heart of this piece, Merkin seemingly tells women to stand up against predatory men, but not in this manner, and definitely do not try to create a culture in which we can better discuss sexual harassment, assault, and sexual boundaries so we can further prevent spreading these toxic behaviors.
Merkin calls this #MeToo movement a “reflexive and unnuanced sense of outrage” toward “flirting” and workplace behavior that her feminist friends consider normal in “real life.” Yet, she asks about “what happened to women’s agency,” as if this movement is not agency embodied. How is an international shift led by Tarana Burke’s call encouraging women to come forward with their stories of sexual harassment and assault not a form of 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.
And yet, for Merkin to question the abilities of women to express their agency, to shove off predatory men, and to embrace the brunt of whatever consequence make come as a result, she full-on attempts to shame women into silence. She is victim blaming, if that isn’t too modern or sensitive a term for Merkin, and shows that she fails to understand how women in that position may not be able to react to sexual harassment the way she would like.
Ijeoma Oluo, editor-at-large at the Establishment, best addressed Merkin’s concerns of “due process” in a piece she published in November titled, “Due Process Is Needed For Sexual Harassment Accusations — But For Whom?” In the essay, Oluo reflects on being asked by USA Today to write a piece denouncing due process for the sake of women finally being believed. Oluo ultimately didn’t write the piece, but not because she doesn’t believe in due process—but because due process can’t happen if there is no process that takes women seriously in the first place. Oluo writes:
“…If there’s anything these stories show, it’s that these men in their years of open abuse were given more than just due process — but the women, many of whom had tried bringing this abuse to those in authority years before, were given no process at all. I said I’d love to write about the countless women whose careers were ended by coming forward with the abuse they faced, about the countless women whose careers were never able to get off of the ground because of abuse and gender discrimination. Due process. Women would love ANY process. They would love to even be heard.”
As a whole, Merkin’s arguments echo the same rhetoric that has stopped women from coming forward in the first place. It’s the same argument peddled to manipulate people into thinking that this is the status quo, how things ought to be. It’s the same tactic used to shift the conversation toward a topic that is just as valid and needs to be included within the narrative of exploitation of power, but is instead used to distract and diffuse the blame that predatory men face.
It’s also important to note that, while the opinions the writer offers seem misguided, even misunderstanding of the justice and equality that women have become “brazen” to demand, Merkin is not alone. As Time reporter Charlotte Alter points out, this opinion isn’t surprising—and, more likely, isn’t shared as often as you’d think, for the same reason why I’m writing in the first place: because of the hate and vitriol that often comes in disagreement.
We saw this opinion in a Slate piece written by a woman who eventually married her boss, who questioned if her husband’s advance was inappropriate and crossed a line (as his subordinate, it very well could have). We see this opinion more often from men who long for the days of being able to “compliment” a woman without being considered a harasser. I see this opinion from my conservative family members who wouldn’t believe a woman’s account of sexual harassment or assault without being proven in a court of law—unless that woman was related to them (which is a whole different topic to unpack in itself). It’s an opinion we’ve seen in the white men and women who voted for Trump and Republican Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, candidates that faced their own numerous sexual impropriety allegations, the former who came out on top and the latter who lost by mere percentage points, despite the accounts against them.
This is not to say that “women these days are overreacting” is a partisan opinion—Merkin calls the women who believe this opinion “feminists,” and a scan of her Twitter account shows slight slams at Trump and former Trump strategist Steve Bannon. But it’s not surprising that this is an argument that people still feel the compulsion to field, possibly showing just how much un-learning we must do as a country in order to just believe women.
Fundamentally, it is un-feminist to tell another woman what it is she should think. And yet, I want to. I want this to be a conversation about how pervasive misogyny can be—to the point of it being so internalized that we first shame other women for not standing up for themselves, then shame them when we do. To the point of thinking that any amount of sexual “eros” in the workplace should be expected, or normal, or will have to be fielded in order for someone to do something as necessary as work.
To the point of conflating the end of sexual harassment and assault with the end of social interaction, and for thinking that obtaining consent for sex—an understanding that allows sex partners to better define what they are and aren’t OK with, and subsequently avoids violating boundaries and sexual assault—is somehow childish and unworthy of pursuing.
Perhaps it is not my place to tell other women that they’re being misogynistic, or that they’re misrepresenting the #MeToo movement in order to justify their own un-sung experiences with harassment or even to absolve the men they like from predatory accusations. I am, after all, not them.
It is with confidence, however, that I can say that Merkin and the women she’s spoken to about their discomfort with the #MeToo movement need to re-examine their feminism.
If their feminism doesn’t allow other women the space to come forward with stories of assault and harassment, if it doesn’t allow other women—particularly those who do have to live with this daily pressure, lest they lose their livelihoods, such as the Ford plant workers or female strawberry pickers—to express that they do have a problem with how they’re treated, even when Merkin and Co. do not, then who is their feminism for?