The myth of the “#MeToo panic”

April 19, 2018

Elizabeth Schulte responds to the criticism that #MeToo represents a "sex panic."

ALMOST SIX months after it began, the #MeToo campaign is still having an impact and generating debate.

Its first steps last year--with women telling their stories of sexual assault and harassment committed by powerful men in Hollywood, followed by tens of thousands more, from all walks of life, adding their experiences--created an opening to discuss something that plagues women's lives, but that rarely gets attention in mainstream politics or the media.

Not everyone reacted sympathetically. Predictably, Donald Trump--who himself faces several accusations of abuse--has maligned a lack of "due process" in defense of two aides accused of domestic abuse.

It's impossible to take Trump seriously when he talks about "due process." This is a man who fueled the rush to judgment in the 1989 Central Park Five case, which led to several Black and Latino teenagers being framed for the sexual assault of a white woman--and losing years of their life to wrongful imprisonment.

If Trump had gotten his way, they would have been put to death before they were proven innocent--he bought newspaper ad space to demand the death penalty for the five.

Protesters take to the streets for the 2018 Women's March in Santa Barbara, California
Protesters take to the streets for the 2018 Women's March in Santa Barbara, California (Louise Palanker | flickr)

Trump's reaction doesn't deserve much of our time. But there are voices on the other end of the political spectrum who still see more problems than gains with #MeToo--and that's worth discussing.

One recent example is a long article by JoAnn Wypijewski featured in the Nation magazine, where Wypijewski argues that #MeToo isn't a movement, but a sex panic.

Comparing #MeToo to "the fever over (homo)'sexual psychopaths' (1950s) to serial rages since the late 1960s against: sex education; gay 'sex rings,' teachers and threats to family; 'stranger danger'; Crime!; Porn!; satanic ritual abuse in day care; sexual abuse dug up from 'memory'; AIDS predators; 'superpredators'; Internet predators," Wypijewski writes:

Sex panic reverses the order that governs law, where, formally at least, innocence is presumed. In panic, the stories are all true, and the accused are guilty by default. Law having been declared a flawed tool for achieving justice--as, indeed, it is--"naming and shaming" takes its place. Garbed as justice, accusations become moral lessons of Good's triumph over Evil; they thus become increasingly difficult to question. Their proliferation becomes proof of legitimacy. Victims are encouraged to "Speak your truth." Everyone else is commanded, "Believe."

THE NATION article is re-raising a debate over due process that was had out in the media months ago.

Wypijewski cites Wendy Kaminer in the Boston Globe, who says that the phrase "believe women" is a form of "vigilante feminism," and Masha Gessen at the New Yorker, who criticized the "selective force" of #MeToo because it forced the resignation of Democratic Sen. Al Franken, as two writers among others who "warned about the indifference to due process."

Unfortunately, she says, "women from Socialist Worker to the Washington Post scoffed."


I can promise that the writers at SW and many others who have taken up this subject will tell you, without scoffing at all, that the accused should have the right to defend themselves and all the other things that are supposed to go along with the concept of due process.

This discussion isn't over the pros and cons of due process for men, as Wypijewski claims, but whether due process exists at all for women who have experienced sexual assault.

What the #MeToo upsurge made clear wasn't just that many women have stories to tell about sexual assault and harassment, but also that there's rarely if ever any way for them to find justice.

So, for instance, when #MeToo swept through the halls of Congress, exposing abusers and attackers in the corridors of power, we learned about the twisted and secretive process that staffers were forced to go through if they tried to report harassment.

We learned about a process that protected powerful men in government from the women they harassed, not the other way around. In this context, #MeToo didn't squelch due process. It sought to create some form of it where one didn't exist before.

WYPIJEWSKI ALSO cautions young #MeToo activists about the dangers of naively fueling the already powerful racist criminal justice system with their complaints.

She rightly points out the inherent racism of the U.S. criminal justice system, and this country's ugly history of targeting Black men and rationalizing it with accusations about the rape of white women.

But acknowledging this very relevant fact isn't incompatible with supporting #MeToo--and it's worth pointing out that many young activists have already drawn those conclusions and include a critique of the racism of criminal justice system alongside their activism around sexual assault, all without Wypijewski's help.

For example, young women organizing on campus today to get their administrations to listen to them are well aware that law enforcement offers no solutions to sexual assault survivors, while taking every opportunity to criminalize Black men.

Groups like No Red Tape at Columbia University changed the conversation about what kinds of measures will make women safer on campus--away from criminalization, by highlighting the ways women are treated by police, particularly women of color, and how Black men are typically targeted.

The targets of #MeToo have been wealthy and powerful men who are ordinarily safe from any threat of reprisal, not victims of a justice system that railroads you if you are poor or Black. #MeToo exposed the way that this select group of men are protected and allowed to continue their predatory behavior.

In the process, it has revealed the policies that protect members of Congress and Hollywood moguls, but also the conditions that women workers are forced to endure with little or no recourse.

Without the voices of the tens of thousands of women who said "Me Too," no one would have heard about that. Without many more standing in solidarity, they probably never would have told their stories at all.

Likewise, there would have been no discussion of what can be done about this previously hidden epidemic. Some people may meet the #MeToo phenomenon with fear and apprehension, but others are greeting it as an opportunity to talk about how a different "normal" can be achieved.

There is now a discussion--one that's certainly far from over--that has raised expectations about how women should expect to be treated and to act. #MeToo began that process. It should be a motivation for why we need more discussion and more action, not writing it off.

THERE IS another point in Wypijewski's article that deserves to be addressed. She calls #MeToo a matter of "privilege," because its insight into the sexism that exists in workplaces supposedly doesn't go further to recognize the exploitation that women workers face every day under capitalism. She writes:

Mainstream discourse borrows the anti-harassment piece but separates it from work's full reality, which is to say capitalism. The result is a pinched, again privileged, conception of power. If sex in the workplace were the sole measure of dignity, strawberry pickers who haven't been sexually harassed should be happy agents of their destiny, sex workers who control the terms of their trade should be ruins, and 26,400 Hewlett-Packard workers discarded by Carly Fiorina should have had no problem.

Where does this criticism lead? To the conclusion that people who understand class inequality under capitalism have nothing to say about combatting sexism--or racism for that matter? That there's no use in fighting sexism because this doesn't affect the "real" problem of capitalist exploitation? Are we supposed to consider sexual harassment of strawberry pickers of secondary importance compared to their exploitation?

If we are going to fight for better conditions at work, it means that all workers, men and women, must see that they have a stake in combatting sexual harassment and abuse--and what's more, that this struggle is connected to the struggle to win better conditions for all.

If women can be treated like second-class citizens because of their gender, and men can be convinced that this has nothing to do with them and isn't their fight, then there's not much hope for a united struggle just for better working conditions, much less against capitalism.

Right now, women on their campuses and in their workplaces are looking for ways to address sexual harassment and abuse, many of them inspired by #MeToo. They are strategizing about ways to build on the momentum of #MeToo, not how to reel it in.

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