March 23, 2018, 17:55

The Rising Pressure of the #MeToo Backlash |

The Rising Pressure of the #MeToo Backlash |

In the fall of 2016, I started feeling little starburst twinges in the
ball of my right foot. A podiatrist told me that I had a fat nerve, a
neuroma, and gave me a cortisone injection that made the pain go away.
Because something had come back odd on my blood work, he sent me to a
specialist, who sent me for more tests, found everything normal, and
told me to check back in after a year.

That winter, I went to the dentist, who told me that my blood pressure
was a little high. “I think it’s the news,” I told her, and we nodded
and sighed. In the summer, a dermatologist noticed, too. “I just spent
two weeks at the Bill Cosby trial,”
I explained. In October, the Times and The New Yorker reported on allegations against Harvey Weinstein, and I wrote about sexual assault for the ninth time since June. Readers e-mailed me their own stories,
flooding my in-box with accounts of rape, harassment, and shame. I
replied to each person slowly, crushed by how little they expected, how
little they wanted, how they always reiterated that it could’ve been
worse. Over lunch, a friend told me that her first boss, decades ago,
had coerced her into a sexual relationship, and that she was just
starting to come to terms with this. We talked until I had to go to the
gynecologist. I was late filing another sexual-assault story. The
speculum was freezing, and my blood pressure was a hundred and forty
over ninety-five.

When I went back to the specialist, just before Thanksgiving, I told him
that I was feeling fine—my blood pressure had been high, but it was
stress, and I was working on it. He asked me what I meant by stress.

“Oh,” I said, laughing awkwardly. “It’s a stressful time for everyone!”

He gave me a skeptical look.

“I’m a writer, and I’ve been writing about the news a lot, and it’s sort
of intense,” I said.

“What do you write about?” he asked.

“Well,” I said. “Lately, the Weinstein stuff . . . which everyone’s talking
about all the time, anyway, and so it’s a little stressful.”

The doctor wrapped the cuff around my arm. “Let me ask you a question,”
he said, sharply, as the cuff started to tighten. I got a familiar,
awful feeling—a dissociative and desperate shimmer. I knew from his tone
exactly what he was about to do. He was going to say that of course he
was in favor of real victims speaking up, but he was worried that this
whole thing was going too far. He would ask me if I didn’t think it was
dangerous to lump all these things together, and I would try to find the
words to say that the fear of things being lumped together does more to
lump them together than all the speaking up, and then he would continue
asking questions as a way of telling me what he thought. I am no more a
specialist in sexual assault than any other woman, but I’ve found myself
writing about the subject more than maybe anything else over the course
of my brief career—somehow, it keeps coming up—and I have had this
conversation more times than I can count. At this point, knowing that
someone is going to talk to me like I’m unreasonable hits me as a
distinct physical sensation. It feels like someone throwing poisoned
confetti at the back of my neck.

“Weinstein is a real scumbag,” my doctor said, his hand pressing into
the crook of my forearm. “But how far does this go? Someone says
something out of line at the office party—you’re telling me that’s
sexual assault?”

“No,” I said. “I’m not telling you anything.”

“Lot of people calling a lot of things sexual assault, sexual
harassment,” he said.

“I think it’s interesting,” I said, “given the extent of what we’re
learning, how many people seem more concerned with overreach than
anything else.”

“A hundred and fifty-one over a hundred and eleven,” he said.

“Great,” I said, wondering if I would live to see age fifty without my
head exploding into chunks. “We don’t need to talk about this!”

He switched to my left arm. “I’d like to know what you think about this,
being a journalist,” he said. “There are a lot of things going on in
this world. And you’re putting sexual harassment in the newspapers every
day while we’ve got the M.T.A. breaking down, we’ve got this lunatic in
the White House.”

“Give me a second,” I said. The cuff slowly tightened. I closed my eyes
and imagined blue dusk, an open ocean, a quiet unbroken communion
between water and sky.

“A hundred and twenty over eighty,” he said.

“O.K.,” I said. “If you really want to know what I think, I think that
abuses of power tend to overlap, and that Trump wouldn’t have been
elected if people actually thought sexual assault was important.”

“He wouldn’t have been elected if the Democrats had run Biden!” my
doctor said.

“I’ve got to go,” I said, grabbing my coat, trying to get out of the
office before I broke my composure. I walked through Brooklyn Heights,
bewildered at how easily—how naturally—he had made me feel at fault. On
the train to a meeting, I wrote down the conversation so I’d remember
it. I wondered how soon I could get a new doctor, and how soon I could
stop allowing strangers to implicitly hold me accountable for anything
any woman has ever said or might say. I did the first, and I’m trying to
figure out the second. My blood pressure, for the record, is fine now.

Though every woman I know has been anticipating a backlash since about
thirty seconds after the Weinstein story broke, more than two months
ago, the media equivalent of my visit to the doctor didn’t begin in
earnest until 2018.

A few days into the new year, Daphne Merkin published a Times Op-Ed
with the headline “Publicly, We Say #MeToo. Privately, We Have Misgivings.”
Within it, Merkin evinced the genuine frustration of many women who find
that the conditions that they fought for in previous decades seem
intolerable to a younger generation. “What happened to women’s agency?”
she asks. “What exactly are men being accused of? What is the difference
between harassment and assault and ‘inappropriate conduct’?” These are
good and useful questions if you attempt to answer them, which she did

On January 9th, a rumor began circulating on Twitter, and was quickly
confirmed: Harper’s was planning to run a story on the post-Weinstein
moment by Katie Roiphe, the feminist writer who made her name arguing
that date rape didn’t really exist. Fact-checkers had reached out to
Moira Donegan, asking if she was the creator of the “Shitty Media Men” spreadsheet; though Donegan later identified herself in a nuanced essay for the Cut, the knowledge wasn’t yet public, and the revelation could
have put her at risk of harassment, or worse. After writers pulled their
forthcoming stories from Harper’s and readers called the magazine to
protest, Andrew Sullivan wrote a piece for New York called “It’s Time to Resist the Excesses of #MeToo.”
In it, he scoffed at the spreadsheet—one man, he noted, with
inexplicable disdain, was accused of “secretly removing a condom during
sex,” not of workplace misconduct—and urged his readers to “resist this
McCarthyism, to admit complexity.” He noted, approvingly, that a group
of French women had issued a letter that denounced #MeToo, arguing
(where no argument was necessary) that a woman could possess workplace
power and still enjoy being sexualized. “Imagine that: enjoying being
the sexual object of a man!” Sullivan wrote.

Then, on January 14th, the Web site launched itself into the
spotlight with a poorly executed article about Aziz Ansari, in which a reporter related a young woman’s
story of a bad, sad, uncomfortable night with the comedian. At The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan—who had previously written a piece called
“To Hell with the Witch-Hunt Debate,”
arguing that the new movement was not a “war on sex” but a “long-overdue
revolution”—concluded that this same revolution was now engulfing “the simply unlucky.” “Apparently there is a whole country full of young women who don’t
know how to call a cab,” she wrote, adding, “They are angry and
temporarily powerful, and last night they destroyed a man who didn’t
deserve it.” (She has since written another post, titled “Babe Turns a Movement into a Racket.”) The next day, Bari Weiss, at the Times, wrote a piece arguing that
Ansari was guilty only of not being a mind-reader.
“I’m apparently the victim of sexual assault. And if you’re a sexually
active woman in the 21st century, chances are that you are, too,” the
article began.

I have been confused by the tone of all of these pieces, which seem far
more inflamed, over-generalized, and fatalistic than the relentlessly nuanced and self-interrogative essays that have actually delineated #MeToo.
At the center of this discussion about discussion, there is a question:
What are the parameters in which we should hold people responsible for
more extreme versions of their behavior? Just as I resented my doctor
for asking me to answer for the hypothetical woman crying rape after a
joke at an office party, I resented these writers for asking “the
movement” to answer for the obviously inexperienced and strategically
brazen reporter who wrote the Ansari story at the previously unheard-of
Web site

Then, of course, I wondered if this was the frustration that men feel
when they are asked to personally answer for women’s inequality, when
their inappropriate or coercive behavior is placed on the spectrum that
ends in violent rape. But men benefit from gender inequality in a way
that women do not from perceived feminist overreach. The extremes of
male sexual misconduct typically serve to make lesser acts—such as
secretly removing a condom, or removing plastic guards in the midst of shooting a sex scene, as James Franco allegedly did, though his attorney contends the
accusation is “not accurate”—seem, in the grand scheme of things, really
not that bad. From the beginning, there’s been a reflexive cry: we
shouldn’t lump all male misbehavior together. There has been little
insistence on parsing and making room for the gradations of women’s
resistance. When women push back on sexual misconduct, the viability of
the entire movement seems to hinge on each act.

The Internet makes things more confusing: the world of sexual misconduct
and confusion stands in front of us, exposed and quasi-litigated in new
tweets and posts and essays every day. I wonder if we’re overestimating
how much we can affect stories and situations that we have nothing to do
with. I keep asking myself what it would look like just to hold each
other responsible—really responsible—for our own lives. This is an
unprecedented moment of flux on an impossibly complicated topic; this
movement is not even three months old yet. The fact of a hashtag
flattens these stories, makes them seem unified, but they are profoundly
individual. If we stop looking for straightforward collective agreement,
we might find we need it less than we think.


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