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The Many Faces of the #MeToo Backlash

From Weinstein to The New School: Push back against sexual harassment allegations is gathering steam

For every allegation of sexual assault or harassment there seems to be both a wave of solidarity and also a backlash. The #MeToo campaign, which garnered 1.7 million tweets in 86 countries by October 24, 2017 just nine days after actress Alyssa Milano kick started it in response to allegations of sexual harassment and rape against Harvey Weinstein and others, is but the most recent example. While Hollywood’s actresses turned up wearing black at the 2018 Golden Globes in solidarity with victims of sexual abuse, just two days later, 100 French women, led by actress Catherine Deneuve, wrote a letter denouncing American groupthink as well as the puritanical tone of the #MeToo campaign which they argued had failed to make the distinction between good ol’ fashioned seduction and rape.

This criticism — that all sexual transgressions have been lumped together under the same #MeToo hashtag, as if their intentions and effects were the same — is indubitably important. It is essential to maintain a distinction between these acts and those who commit them. But equally important is the need to acknowledge that a spectrum of behaviors, from verbal harassment to sexual violence, emerge from the same culture of sexism. As Rebecca Solnit writes in Men Explain Things to Me (2014), “We tend to treat violence and abuse of power as though they fit into airtight categories: harassment, intimidation, threat, battery, rape, murder. But I realize now that what I was saying is: it’s a slippery slope. That’s why we need to address that slope, rather than compartmentalizing the varieties of misogyny and dealing with each separately. Doing so has meant fragmenting the picture, seeing the parts, not the whole.”

The signatories of the French letter were not the first to decry the campaign. The outpouring of revelations on Twitter have been viewed by some men and women as hysteria, a sexual witch hunt, and a trial by mob. Others have turned to victim-blaming and trivializing the effects of sexual harassment, with women who have spoken out described as “fragile” or as lacking a sense of humorWriting on Facebook in the wake of the Weinstein allegations, Sheryl Sandberg stated: “I have already heard the rumblings of a backlash: ‘This is why you shouldn’t hire women,’” before adding that these issues reveal precisely why more women should be hired.

The backlash Sandberg wrote of is but one type of resistance. Another involves placing the onus for avoiding sexual harassment squarely on the shoulders of women themselves. In the past, this has included advice to women to stay indoors after dark, to dress less provocatively, and to avoid getting drunk. A similar line of bad advice was offered more recently by actress Pamela Anderson, who stated that Weinstein’s victims would have “known what they were getting into” and should have avoided being alone with the producer. In each of these cases, the implication is that women’s bodies should be confined and controlled, and our presence in the public sphere limited.

Just as The New School isn’t immune to sexual harassment and gender violence, it’s also no stranger to the backlash phenomenon. In his article responding to recent Title IX proceedings, Andrew Arato, a professor of political and social theory, argued that resignation by the accused — as happened recently at The New School — should immediately close a Title IX case. However, it isn’t clear what this would mean — or for whom a resignation provides justice. Ending a Title IX investigation through a negotiated departure prevents closure neither for the accused or for the accuser (depending on the outcome); it ensures that no lessons are learned by the wider community; and it permits the accuser, if guilty, to continue to commit abuses if employed elsewhere. This loophole also has a potential chilling effect; the message to victims is loud and clear: it might not be worth reporting your grievances.

Interestingly, Arato focuses on the Title IX proceedings as the source of failure rather than on the institutional conditions and a department culture that might have enabled the alleged harassment in the first place. This blindness may be generational. Baby boomers grew up in a culture where sexual harassment was the norm, and tolerating intimate relationships between professors and students was part of that. Returning to the French letter, this may in part explain why 100 women, all seemingly of an older generation, viewed the #MeToo campaign as a threat to the power of female sexuality and sexual freedom which many fought so hard for in the sixties. (Although to be clear, there has also been a backlash against the backlash in France, with many women condemning the letter.)

The lack of support for the accuser in Arato’s article may also be due to self-preservation. The consequences of empathy can be powerful, especially if it means reflecting on your own social position and accompanying privileges as well as wider structural injustices. Writing in Trauma and Recovery (1992), psychiatrist Judith Herman noted that although Freud initially linked cases of hysteria to “premature sexual experience,” (p. 36) he later went on to shelve his conjectures. Herman writes: “His correspondence makes clear that he was increasingly troubled by the radical social implications of his hypothesis. Hysteria was so common among women that if his patients’ stories were true… he would be forced to conclude that what he called ‘perverted acts against children’ were endemic … This idea was simply unacceptable. It was beyond credulity. Faced with this dilemma, Freud stopped listening to his female patients” (p. 37).

Support for alleged male perpetrators and the silencing of women has a long history, and when accusations go unresolved they live on regardless of what did — or did not — happen. Take for example Juanita Broaddrick, who accused Bill Clinton of raping her in 1978 and who has publicly stated that Hillary Clinton intimidated her into silence for years. Likewise, US attorney Anita Hill’s accusations against Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearings for Supreme Court in 1991 were discredited in typical fashion: she was denounced as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty,” age-old twin slurs against women, while Thomas came away unscathed.

Weinstein too had previously silenced his victims with secret settlements and has now hired the services of hotshot lawyer Benjamin Brafman who previously defended former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn in a case of sexual assault in 2011. No criminal charges were ever brought against Strauss-Kahn who was accused of sexually assaulting a hotel maid, and separately also of rape, but he eventually settled the first in a civil case that came with a non-disclosure clause. Each of these cases reveals the magnitude of male power made all the more potent when coupled with financial resources; history has shown us that wealthy, usually white, men are often victorious in situations where there is no clear evidence of an assault but a woman’s word that it happened.

There’s a logic to it: pushing back on accusations is easier than challenging the status quo, which requires that men relinquish power and privilege. Were we to believe accusers, we would also have to confront the numerous questions that have re-emerged over the past few months. Why is sexual violence against women — and transgender people and other men — so widespread? Why are men overwhelmingly the perpetrators of sexual violence? What is the cause of their violence? How are women and men complicit in perpetuating the systems that give rise to such violence? What do we need to do to bring about change?

What is most tragic about push back is that it hurts us all because we never get to these questions. The same patriarchal system that privileges men over women, that props up and is propped up by sexism, that is perpetuated by both men and women, is detrimental to everybody. Essential to the process of understanding sexism is an interrogation of masculinity and the structures which reproduce its most dominant and toxic forms. Such examination is necessary to penetrate the myth of masculinity and reveal it not as synonymous with the natural and the normal but as socially constructed, relational, gendered, and thus, always open to question.

It is somewhat heartening that there have been consequences for alleged perpetrators over the past few months in the United States. I say somewhat, as these consequences have come before allegations have been proven to be true, played out in the court of social media, a point not lost on the detractors of the #MeToo campaign. Differently, in the UK, a robust libel law has prevented a similar rush of public allegations, with media reluctant to report on cases without firm evidence at hand. But this too has consequences.

It was not until his death in 2011 that the British media first reported on the more than 60 allegations of sexual misconduct against BBC TV host Jimmy Savile. In 2016, an independent report into the case revealed that a “macho culture” and “untouchable stars” at the BBC had protected the TV personality against decades of allegations of sexual abuse. In such cases it is clear that our veneration of celebrities can lead to a willful blindness. This glorification of celebrity has grown gradually over the years. In 2011, a study found a dramatic shift in values among tweens in the US. The study, which took place over a 50-year period from 1967, found that by 2007 “community feeling” fell from the top spot as the most prized value and was replaced by “fame,” up 15 places out of a possible 16.

It is no surprise that the #MeToo campaign was galvanized by celebrities. But what happens when we run out of superstars to speak out against sexual harassment? What happens when we are only left with ordinary women’s horrific tales of sexual abuse? Many commentators have lauded the past few months as a “watershed moment,” words that are all too reminiscent of #YesAllWomen, a social media campaign launched in 2014 in response to a misogynistic shooting spree which the killer described as a “war on women.” Oh, and remember #EverydaySexism? Whatever happened to that movement?

As with previous awareness raising campaigns, it is not unlikely that the backlash will snowball and that the deeply entrenched patriarchal mechanisms that have maintained sexism for centuries will reassert themselves. That is after all how the system has survived to date. It is also all too likely that we will all — men and women — soon grow weary of allegations of sexual harassment as we have done in the past, making #MeToo a distant memory, a bud that did not blossom into long-lasting structural change. As Jessa Crispin writes in her manifesto about why she is not a feminist, popular social movements must, by their very nature, be “banal… non-threatening, and ineffective.” This underscores the problem with movements propelled by hashtags and celebrities.

Change is slow; change that requires a radical cultural shift is even slower. Feminist philosopher Nancy Fraser has argued that we are need of root and branch transformation of the institutions and structures that buttress neoliberal capitalism, not just its bedfellows, patriarchy and sexism. Fraser, who takes issue with a contemporary feminist movement that has become a “handmaiden” to capitalism, argues that such a transformation must change the lives of the 99% of women, and be a “majority feminism.” Unlike its predecessors, Fraser argues, today’s feminist movement serves white, professional women, advocating workplace equality as the panacea for gender equality. Such “lean in” feminism, a nod to Sheryl Sandberg’s book of the same name, focuses solely on the advancement of a few women into positions of power within the same old hierarchies.

There is no trickle-down effect: those who rise to the top in order to achieve that gold standard of having it all by being successful both at work and at home inevitably “lean on” other women, usually women of color, a process that involves both subjugation and exploitation. As Fraser writes, feminism should not be individualistic but “rather about overcoming those hierarchies,” which “requires challenging the structural sources of gender domination in capitalist society.” As a result, it is not sufficient to want equality with men within the existing system, which is inherently designed to privilege the few over the majority, men over women, white over people of color, rich over poor.

This strikes at the heart of one of the most central problems with #MeToo: it is not a campaign for the 99% of women, and has served largely to amplify white women’s voices at the expense of others. In fact, before it was hijacked by Alyssa Milano, the phrase “Me Too” was originally used by Tarana Burke, a black activist, in 2006 to highlight sexual assault in underprivileged communities and the scant resources available to help survivors.

This history — and a history of sexual harassment cases that were often litigated to bring women into highly-paid union manufacturing jobs and the building trades — seems to have been forgotten. Today, women from low socioeconomic backgrounds, often women of color, face sexism, racism, and classism, and it is their voices that routinely go unheard. The effects of each of these — sexism, racism, and classism — are both harmful and cumulative. In the words of author and activist Barbara Ehrenreich: “Our current sex harassment discussion is woefully class-skewed. Too much about actresses and not enough about hotel housekeepers.”

I do not want to be dismissive of the very real allegations made by the rich, white female celebrities who have spoken out against sexual harassment in recent months. They have captured the popular imagination and much-needed media attention. But it is time to turn to the 99%, to those who also work in low-wage industries such as farm work, domestic work, and hotel cleaning where sexual abuse is endemic, and where employees are not only vulnerable to abuse but have little bargaining power and few avenues for recourse. And of course, the many women in between.

The same logic applies to the academy where a number of US universities have already incorporated discussions on sexual harassment into their curricula: “At Vanderbilt, there are classes on Uber and ‘bro’ culture. At Stanford, students are studying sexual harassment in the workplace. And at Harvard, the debate encompasses sexism and free speech” (New York Times, December 25, 2017). While such responses can be seen as progress, the importance of a national conversation that is inclusive is of utmost import. Ignoring the lived experience of a diversity of men and women will not bring about the critical consciousness, reflection or sense of personal investment required for sweeping, lasting change. In the early twentieth century, Marxist Antonio Gramsci noted the important role of “organic intellectuals,” representatives from different working class substrates who stood in contrast to traditional intellectuals i.e., those in the academy, who he argued were beholden to and complicit in perpetuating the hegemonic ideology. With universities increasingly viewed as exemplars of neoliberalism, Gramsci’s theory applies more than ever.

In a similar vein, in her book Feminism is for Everybody, bell hooks recalls the early years of the feminist movement, before feminism was co-opted by the academy, when women from different backgrounds would gather in small groups to contemplate their own sexism as well as the anti-sexist future they envisioned. There is much to be learned from the inclusive nature of this act, including the leveling of all experience as equally valid and the pluralistic approach to knowledge creation. If we are at a historic juncture, as so many have claimed, this is the time not just for celebrities, or academics, or others who exist in similarly rarefied social spheres to speak out but also for those women in the margins who have historically gone unheard. It is a time for every single one of us to imagine the kind of future we want and the type of people we want to be, not just for the 1% but for all women.

Maryam Omidi is a psychology student at The New School of Social Research. She is a former journalist and author of Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums

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