It is an understatement to say something has shifted in the culture. And that shift is unquestionably to the good.
While #metoo may have done good, it has also done bad. The sword cuts both ways.
Men like Harvey Weinstein and Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer and their less famous counterparts deserve to be kicked out of polite society, ruined, and, in certain cases, indicted.
But are there others who did not deserve to be ruined who were?
Women (and men) feel safer coming forward with stories of abuse and are being believed.
There is an old Russian say that Ronald Reagan quoted: “doveryai, no proveryai”. It is usually translated as “trust, but verify.” It’s fine to trust an accuser, but their account must be verified before someone else’s life is ruined because of it.
But a byproduct of these welcome developments has been an expansion of our collective definition of harassment.
Or of what will be called harassment.
Is it always wrong when a man is attracted to a woman at work, and acts on that attraction? If that man tries to, say, kiss the woman he is attracted to, and she’s not into it, and they leave it at that, was that forcible kissing? If a woman is not attracted to a man who comes on to her, and that man is in a position of any sort of power, is that clearly a fireable offense? I don’t think the answer to these questions is definitively yes.
I would say that, if it is made clear that an advance is unwanted and that is the end of it, the answer is definitively no. But because that is no longer true, men, who should have always avoided these behaviours in the workplace, must now eschew them altogether.
Several women have written recently that they fear a coming backlash—that one false allegation against a famous man will bring this whole new reality crashing down, or that in the understandable urge to name names, women will be seen as the aggressors, out to tar every man’s reputation.
They are exactly right in this. For many, proof of a false allegation isn’t even required. In the eyes of many (for example, MGTOW), merely the fact that anyone who doesn’t go along with the “listen and believe” mantra is being attacked is sufficient to brand the entire movement as a misandric attack by radical feminism.
I have those fears too, but I also fear the consequences of overcorrection, of the concept of harassment ballooning to include perfectly legitimate attempts at seduction—the initial touch, the scooting closer in the booth, the drunken sloppy first kiss, the occasional bad call or failed pass. Writing in the New Yorker, Masha Gessen has talked about the risks of classifying these as actions that, if unwanted, could land you on a viral spreadsheet or be used to establish a pattern of abuse that can get you suspended or fired.
You should. Any man who pursues romance at work these days is a fool.
Attempts by men to express confusion about where the lines are have largely been met with derision.
We are used to derision. Erring on the side of caution is the obvious solution.
When one guy told the New York Times that workplaces should cancel their holiday parties “until it has been figured out how men and women should interact,” he was dismissed in my work Slack.
And yet this is exactly what we see happening. According to Many Companies Scale Back the Annual Office Holiday Party, 11% of employers are not holding a holiday party, 4% higher than in 2016. That marks the highest percentage since 2009 when 25% of companies did not have parties. 47.8% of employers will serve alcohol this year, a decrease from nearly 62% of companies that offered alcohol in 2016.
“I have an idea! How about just not harassing women?” the flippant response goes. But that reaction is too simplistic. The sheriff and the guy who talked to the New York Times are telling us that there is confusion in the culture about what is and isn’t OK. We certainly shouldn’t elevate those concerns over the need to protect women, but why ignore that confusion with an eye-roll?
If you ridicule or ignore those who rightly point out that it is impossible to know what will be branded harassment, don’t complain when men at work ignore you.
The public scorn certainly does nothing to help men privately exploring these questions in their own lives. A friend of mine told me about a recent date he went on with a woman he met online. After dinner, he asked her if she wanted to go back to his place. She declined. They went on several more dates, though, and eventually she told him that the reason she didn’t go back to his apartment that first night was that he didn’t ask forcefully enough. That same friend told me of a memorable line he’s seen in several Tinder profiles: “likes to be chased.” I laughed, because who doesn’t? But what my friend saw in this current moment were mixed messages: It’s good to be aggressive if your date is interested, but read the room wrong and you are done. It feels great to be chased when you are attracted to the person doing the chasing. Otherwise, the chaser might be seen as a predator.
Yep. This is a no win situation for men and women. Men won’t be men for fear of being smeared. Women will be forced to initiate, which goes against instinctive human behavior. I expect we will adjust.
Some people see this confusion as a small price to pay. Better to—as Gessen characterized this line of thinking—“have ten times less sex than to risk having a nonconsensual sexual experience.” But this calculation doesn’t just protect women from abuse; it protects us from experiences that I’m not sure I’d relish giving up.
Too bad. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Being able to ruin people’s lives with accusations comes with the consequence of people being careful not to have their lives ruined.
A world where abusers fear crossing a criminal boundary is clearly a better world. But a world where interested parties fear crossing this new boundary we seem to be edging toward, where any power differential or wrong move is seen as predation, robs women of the ability to consent as well.
Yes. This is the core of the issue. Criminal behavior is clearly wrong, but making an unwanted advance a “crime” means that you won’t get wanted advances either. The criminal justice system requires proof of guilt. The civil courts require a balance of evidence of guilt. The court of public opinion has no requirements at all. Listen, believe, and punish used to be common in the kangaroo courts of the middle ages. It’s sad that there are those who want to go back to such a system.