Making Sense of #MeToo, Part 1
I’ve been watching the #MeToo news over the past few months, and I have to confess that I have mixed feelings about the movement. While I tend to consider myself very liberal on social issues and a supporter of women’s rights, I also believe in finding a fair, rational, and balanced view of things. I’m also a strong supporter of sexual freedom so long as one’s sexual expression is consensual and everyone involved is of legal age. Where my views tend to differ from a number of feminists (but not all feminists) is that I don’t believe sexuality and expressions of sexuality are inherently negative or to be repressed or closeted. I don’t believe that appreciation of naked bodies is necessarily objectification. And I also believe that it’s okay for men and women to have separate groups and events (as well as coed groups and events) so long as these groups aren’t about bashing the other gender and so long as we live in a free and pluralistic society.
On the positive side of the #MeToo movement, a number of really sleazy and predatory men (and possibly even a few women) have been called out for some pretty heinous things like rape, sexual assault, predatory behavior, and using positions of power to force women (and some men) into having sex with them. On the negative side, there has been the public shaming of men for minor (and sometimes unintended infractions) and for just being having an interest in sex and beautiful women (and again in some cases – men). I’ve seen a number of denials that #MeToo is about shaming men for such minor transgressions and declarations that it’s only about going after the big and monstrous cases. But for every denial, there’s also a news story shaming a male celebrity or public figure for something like putting his hand on a coworkers leg during an television interview, being a little touchy feely, being overly insistent about going on a date or sex, or not picking up on signals that a woman (or man) isn’t interested in more. And, of course, what happens when you have someone who generally supports women’s issues, but then gets called out for something that wasn’t rape or assault, but still involves following their sexual impulses? Is it unfathomable to believe that a man can support women’s rights and still be interested in sex, not to mention fallibly human?
The good thing about the #MeToo movement is that it’s opening up dialogues between men and women about what’s appropriate behavior, except I’m not sure it really is. Any disagreement with aspects of the #MeToo movement is seen (and shamed) as defending sexism and sexual assault, preserving a sexist patriarchal system, or as being on the same level as our conservative and not so enlightened social and political adversaries.
I’m not so quick to turn every man accused of something into a monster, nor am I quick to discount the stories and experiences of women as nothing more than overreaction and hysterics. At the same time, some of these men are monsters, and some women are jumping on board #MeToo over seemingly trivial offenses. Reality often falls somewhere between the extremes.
One of the criticisms I have of #MeToo is that it comes across as a mob mentality. The politically incorrect comedian, Bill Maher, even dubbed it #MeCarthyism. We live in a country where people are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, but #MeToo shames alleged perpetrators, even destroying their reputations and careers, based on accusations and hearsay. Admittedly in some cases, patterns of abuse come out, but in others only a few accusations stand. There’s also the point brought out in my recent “Trouble with Normal” post that there are differing attitudes about sexual morality and even rival moralities. Not all views of sexuality involve puritanical and heterocentric ideas involving monogamy, family units, or the idea that sexual expression in and of itself is negative. While we might all agree that rape and assault are bad (not to mention illegal), we might not all agree that patting someone on the leg, appreciating someone’s beauty, being a little persistent, or being attracted to someone in a different age group (so long as they are past the legal age of consent) is necessarily predatory behavior.
As a gay man (and as someone who hangs out with poly folks and fetish people), I’m very sensitive to the public shaming of people for their sexual inclinations. There was a time when LGBT folks were shamed. Many poly and fetish folks still worry about being shamed. Such shaming was part of mid-20th century McCarthyism that sought to root out not just communists, but homosexuals and sexual “deviants.” This included crusades against a number of Hollywood celebrities at the time. Often an accusation, regardless of hard evidence, was enough to cost someone their reputation and career. Back in the day, LGBT folks were also shamed in lists in the newspapers as criminals and sexual deviants after police raids of gay establishments. Many lost their jobs, families, and reputations. Compare this to some #MeToo lists of alleged predators that have sprung up on the internet. As a Pagan, I’m also aware that many folks had their reputations and lives destroyed during the Witch Trials, often based on flimsy or unsubstantiated accusations. Often these rumors included accusations of sexual deviance. Some of these folks even paid the price with their lives.
One of the big questions I have about #MeToo is: Are we really that surprised that men like sex and will go to great lengths to get it? Or that men like looking at naked women (and sometimes men)? Likewise, are we really surprised that women have different expectations about sexuality than men? Back in the 90’s there was that book claiming “Men are from Mars, and Women are from Venus.” And of course, there are differences in expectations and socialization for men and women. Men have been traditionally socialized to be the initiators in dating and sexual relations; while women have traditionally been socialized to be on the receiving end of date requests and so forth. Men have traditionally been given greater freedom and encouragement to have more sex and more partners, while women have traditionally been expected to save their virginity for the one special man they marry. Of course, women with multiple sex partners are shamed as “sluts”, while men who have multiple partners before marriage are seen as “virile” and to have a positive sexual prowess. Popular culture – including television, movies, and music – often even reflects these expectations. How many romantic comedies show the unlikely, but persistent, guy winning over his reluctant female love interest? How many songs talk about winning someone’s love? How many romance novels (even those written by women) portray women swooning over the strong, masculine, aggressive, virile, and possibly even dangerous male?
What is at issue too is that men and women have never really learned to communicate with each other, especially over issues of sexuality. Some have, and they probably have great relationships, but many others have not. There are a great many men out there who have no clue when it comes to communicating with or attracting women. There are a great number of women out there who never learned to set boundaries or to assertively say “no” when needed. Then, of course, there are even more folks who never learned to read body language and subtle signals. If they had, perhaps there would be fewer women who find themselves in compromising situations and more men who could pick up that a woman just isn’t interested.
I’ve often thought that maybe there should be a class in high school where folks learn appropriate behavior for dating and interacting. I remember getting the sex education part describing all the biology and mechanics, but don’t remember learning the ins and outs of dating behavior. Maybe some folks had these kinds of classes. Some folks might argue that teenagers get this through extracurricular activities like dances and formals, or just learning to date each other. Perhaps early dating is an indicator of being better able to date and interact as adults, but not everyone gets this experience. As a gay person, I really didn’t have the opportunity to start dating until college and by then dating was even more complex. I was also the nerdy and socially awkward bookworm in high school, so even if I’d been straight, that’s not a guarantee I would have been dating.
That brings me to another point in this conversation about the #MeToo movement and sexuality. Sexism has largely come to the forefront in this movement, but what about other –isms related to sexuality. Some have argued that things like ageism and lookism have come into play in the accusations. I’m not sure there’s a word for it, but there’s also a prejudice against the nerdy, geeky, and socially and sexually awkward. While things like sexual assault and predatory behavior might be more cut and dry, there’s also this idea of “unwanted advances.” Aside from the fact that one cannot truly know if an advance is unwanted until one makes it and the other party clearly indicates they aren’t interested, “unwanted advances” can also indicate general undesirability on the part of the person making the advance. One can be undesirable if he is too old, not fit enough, differently abled, another race, socially or sexually awkward, or any other number of other subtle and not so subtle factors. I’m not at all indicating that someone should accept the advances of someone they are not attracted to or interested in, only that certain portions of the population are more likely than others to receive harsh contempt for simply making an advance or being assertive about dating or sex in the first place.
Too be continued…