American men are afraid. They’re fretting over their ability to give a colleague a well-meaning hug without it being interpreted as lecherous, worried that the scores of powerful men being fired is a sign of a full-blown “sex panic”, and that the era of #MeToo is “criminalizing courtship”.
As the women of Saturday Night Live put it: “Welcome to hell, now you’re in our boat.”
You can understand why, during a national reckoning over rape and harassment, women would have a difficult time mustering empathy for men woeful over hugs and dating rituals. We spend our whole lives afraid, but a few months into men not being able to act with sexist impunity and it’s a “witch-hunt”.
If you think #MeToo will change everything, ask your mother if she thought the same thing about Anita Hill allegations in the 1990s
Across the media we’re hearing from men and women about the supposed consequences of the #MeToo moment. Masha Gessen at the New Yorker says the new focus on affirmative consent could “criminalize bad sex”. Geraldo Rivera responded to Matt Lauer’s firing by claiming that society is “criminalizing courtship”. And Bari Weiss at the New York Times, referring to her suspended colleague Glenn Thrush, writes that we’re “criminalizing behavior we previously regarded as presumptuous and boorish”.
Yet no one has gone to jail. No one has been arrested. In fact, no one’s behavior has been “criminalized” even when it appears that it was actually criminal. Harvey Weinstein is accused of decades of abuse, including rape, which he denies, and he jetted to Europe. Lauer, accused of sexual assault, was making $20m a year. Louis CK exposed himself to women, yet no criminal charges have been brought against him.
But as Rebecca Traister put it: “A powerful white man losing a job is a death.” What we’re seeing now is the national funeral.
Tellingly, few expressing fears in this moment are mourning the derailed careers or battered aspirations of countless women who left their jobs and industries after being harassed. No, the real talent lost is male, gone to the same sad graveyard with men’s treasured ability to touch female subordinates without permission or consequence.
If I sound irked, it could be that a lifetime of watching my back has made me a bit testy. Like most American women, I’ve learned – oftentimes through experience – that I am not safe. Women know that they’re at risk whether in the streets, at work, or at home. Soon I’ll have to pass on this knowledge to my daughter, teaching her to walk the line of keeping herself safe while also trying to remain unjaded. (After all, we’re called naive if we don’t protect ourselves, but if the everyday precautions anger us too much, we’re hysterics.)
#MeToo means I can be honest about why I skip office Christmas parties
Jean Hannah Edelstein
Perhaps the problem is that powerful white men have not been afraid enough. Maybe the incredible sense of entitlement that’s allowed men to treat women so horribly without consequence is something that can be killed – or at least hobbled – with a nice dose of fear. And maybe that fear, even if temporary, will give women a much-needed respite. After all, we don’t even know who we are without that anxiety hanging over our heads; it would be nice to catch a glimpse of the carefree woman we never got to be.