When companies like Netflix instruct their employees that they must not stare at a fellow colleague for longer than five seconds, it does make me wonder what the world is coming to. People are campaigning to turn wolf-whistling into a ‘hate crime’. Women are wary of men who strike up a conversation with them in bars out of fear of being sexually harassed. Men are paranoid about overstepping the mark. And for all of this, I blame #MeToo.
Thursday’s Union debate on the motion ‘#MeToo has failed’ and an interview with Kate Andrews, (Associate Director of the Institute of Economic Affairs and prominent political commentator), has prompted me to reflect on the state of the feminist movement. Like Miss Andrews, I am sceptical of the #MeToo movement and concerned about its impact on attitudes towards sexual harassment.
We should acknowledge that #MeToo has inspired many women to come forward with their stories who may have otherwise stayed silent. However, what it has also done is turn women into victims, generate unnecessary hysteria about sexual harassment, and instil fear in men.
I don’t think it would be a stretch to suggest that rather than eradicating inequalities between men and women, the #MeToo campaign has served to accentuate divisions and even encourage women to be afraid of the opposite sex. Women live in fear of being sexually harassed, and #MeToo has at least contributed to this victim culture which has emerged.
The #MeToo campaign had all the potential to be a force for good. Dr Miranda Horvath, one of the guest speakers at the Union debating in opposition to the motion, drew attention to the simple fact that women who have experienced sexual harassment or abuse just want to be believed. And #MeToo has made many women feel confident enough to come forward, because of the culture of mutual support among victims of harassment. As Horvath put it, the movement has encouraged “empowerment through empathy”.
However, because of the movement’s knock-on effects in terms of general attitudes and expectations among men and women, I believe that on balance #MeToo has done more harm than good.
For one, the #MeToo culture encourages women to be afraid of men and see every mild flirtation, brush of the knee, or cheeky smile as a prelude to sex. As Spiked assistant editor and Union guest speaker Ella Whelan stressed during the debate, it has encouraged the view that sex is a danger.
#MeToo’s legacy is that young men are afraid to flirt, to be gentlemanly or affectionate towards women – for fear of being branded as sexual predators. Almost a quarter of male American millennials participating in a 2017 YouGov/Economist survey thought that asking a woman out for a drink amounted to sexual harassment, and the same was found for young women in France. As Andrews said in our interview, the culture of #MeToo “instils fear in those who don’t need to have it”.
Moreover, I believe #MeToo should be more focused on women’s experiences – the movement doesn’t even have to be about gender per se, but just providing women with emotional support, a support network and the courage to come forward. Instead – particularly in some high profile cases – women feel pressured rather than supported.
The recent controversy over the Kavanaugh allegations is testament to this. #MeToo pushed Christine Blasey Ford to testify even though she would have preferred to remain anonymous. It is unlikely that Miss Blasey Ford will ever get justice for what happened to her. Yet – because of #MeToo – she was pressured into testifying.
And this arguably highlights a wider problem. These women come forward with their stories – which is fantastic – but they will never get true justice or empowerment. The perpetrators get away with it scot-free (and probably guilt-free), while the rest of the male population (who aren’t sexual predators) end up feeling paranoid, vilified, and afraid.
Thus, #MeToo is not addressing the heart of the problem: the movement has not had an impact on conviction rates for rape and sexual assault. #MeToo’s focus needs to shift Rather than concentrating on more trivial instances of sexual harassment (and arguably these are the allegations which are doing more harm than good), we need to tackle the more deep-seated problems with the legal system.
Some – not all – of the allegations made are against men who probably don’t even realise they have done anything wrong. This simply serves to drive a wedge between the sexes, leaving men feeling denigrated.
The recent Westminster sexual harassment scandal – almost certainly a knock-on effect of #MeToo – highlights this. Damian Green was forced to resign from his position as First Secretary of State in February as a result of sex allegations, including a charge of harassment by writer Kate Maltby and the discovery of pornography on his work computer.
The pornography is of course another matter, but the alleged charge of harassment was – ridiculously – a mere brush of the knee. Maltby herself even claimed it was “so brief it was almost deniable”. Yet based on this, Green was branded by the #MeToo campaign as a ‘sex pest’.
What sort of a world are we living in when a casual show of affection is labelled as sexual harassment and costs a politician his job? This trivialises the very real and very horrific cases of sexual assault, and the meaning of abuse. The true victims – of domestic rape, of child abuse, of genuine sexual violence – get forgotten in the hype about knee-brushing, staring and wolf-whistling.
Lastly, it has to be recognised that this hype is also a product of the media. The #MeToo campaign has been hijacked by celebrities and dominated by a series of high-profile cases which, as Andrews put it, “aren’t empowering women”. Struggling victims of rape, harassment and abuse don’t care about Hollywood actresses or Westminster MPs: what they want is justice, something which #MeToo cannot provide them with.
It is easy to see the #MeToo movement as a historic turning point in the long and not very well-trodden path to gender equality. In reality, it has done very little to generate a productive conversation about those grey areas surrounding sexual harassment. Instead, it has served only to generate hysteria, heighten divisions, and alienate men and women from one another.
So, to all men: think about the impact of your actions and words on women, but don’t be paranoid and don’t feel vilified. The true villains are the men who don’t care, who are aware they are making a woman feel uncomfortable, but carry on anyway. If you at least take a second to stop and think, you are probably doing something right.
And to all women, I urge you, don’t be afraid. If a man wolf-whistles, or yells something crass, or uninvitedly grazes your knee, don’t tweet ‘#MeToo’, don’t think to yourself I’ve been sexually harassed, just say something to make him feel small, stick your middle finger up at him and move on with your life.