The #MeToo Backlash Is a Moral Panic About Women’s Agency

It costs writers like Margaret Atwood nothing to meaningfully support victims of sexual assault. So imagine what it's like when institutional operators with a real stake in the status quo get going.

All of these people demanding that accused men be seen as presumptively innocent seem unwilling to apply that standard to the women they declaim. Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

For the writer or publication willing to stand against women’s liberation, there’s always been gold in them thar hills; now with #MeToo at its height, we’re seeing a veritable Klondike Gold Rush. A slew of opinion columns, many from prominent women writers, has hit the wires asking the most bankable question of the season: “Has #MeToo gone too far?”

What links all of these editorials, besides a loathsome self-pity that unconvincingly masquerades as courage, is the belief that the women who’ve uttered the words “me too”—and those who have taken related actions, such as contributing to the “Shitty Media Men” list—are somehow against the concept of “due process.” What they share is an unwillingness to accept how legions of survivors—famous and ordinary; men, women, or nonbinary—have all failed to receive due process. That failure nurtures grassroots uprisings like this, which are part of a necessary move to update our social contract so that people know how to behave long before the law gets involved.

Even writers of towering prowess have been reduced to rote editorials accusing #MeToo of having become a “witch hunt.” Witness this extraordinary paragraph from Margaret Atwood’s op-ed in the Globe and Mail:

This structure—guilty because accused—has applied in many more episodes in human history than Salem. It tends to kick in during the “Terror and Virtue” phase of revolutions—something has gone wrong, and there must be a purge, as in the French Revolution, Stalin’s purges in the USSR, the Red Guard period in China, the reign of the Generals in Argentina and the early days of the Iranian Revolution.

Comparing a peaceful women’s movement against assault and violence to a range of bloody terrors, some of which murdered millions? This must be her idea of intersectionality. Her self-pitying posture of asking “am I a bad feminist,” tongue acidly in-cheek, would be shameful if it weren’t so utterly embarrassing for someone of her considerable talents. Her banal motivation? Defending a male friend from sexual harassment allegations. (Comment on everything wrong with Atwood’s approach from queer and non-white Canadian authors can be found here, here, and here.)

Andrew Sullivan, meanwhile, ever eager to be the centrist gadfly for respectably liberal publications, did his part to liken #MeToo to a “moral panic”; The only notable distinction of his essay is that he doesn’t seem to understand why nonconsensually removing a condom during sex is a form of assault. Over at the Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan commented on the recent kerfuffle over Aziz Ansari allegedly refusing to listen when his date told him “no,” or to slow down, by writing an article that was packaged with the following subheader: “Allegations against the comedian are proof that women are angry, temporarily powerful—and very, very dangerous.”

Harper’s Magazine, eager to promote an already controversial essay by professional anti-feminist Katie Roiphe, tweeted in enthusiastic support of Sullivan. Roiphe’s forthcoming piece seemed all but set to out the creator of the now-infamous Shitty Media Men list—an anonymously crowdsourced list of men in prominent media jobs who were accused of a range of sex crimes, harassment, and misconduct—until the creator decided to out herself on her own terms before Roiphe’s article could be published.

One of the most common elements in the paint-by-numbers formula employed by these editorials is the trope of women acting as a kangaroo court on Twitter (though the #MeToo movement was started by Tarana Burke years ago and also got significant legs on Facebook), pronouncing men “guilty until proven innocent.” These women fought against actual oppression. These writers are then likening their actions to McCarthyism, Salem, or—as Atwood apparently believes—the entirety of world history before 1980. From that basic, un-idea are all these editorials spun.

On social media, feminists are slammed by these writers’ fans for not “disproving” these arguments, but what more should I need to say to someone who takes a historical event that involved the trial and mass murder of women for the sake of misogynist superstition and uses it as an analogy to men being fired for actual misconduct? How can I argue against the assertion that this is like Stalin’s purges other than to point to objective historical fact and say “no, it’s really not”?

But it’s still worth engaging with the kernel of an argument common to all of these editorials. Is the very nature of #MeToo—and its epiphenomenal actions, like the List—a form of extralegal mob justice that should be resisted at all costs? Sarah Jeong, a senior writer at the Verge, is a trained lawyer who broke a harrowing story about a prominent rapist and harasser in the infosec world. In a widely retweeted Twitter thread, she addressed the issue. After describing how the system had let down many survivors she spoke to, she added, “I hate the shitty media men list. I don’t want to live in a world where people make public google spreadsheets of allegations.” Then she went that extra step, the one that demands true empathy of us: “But decrying all the spreadsheets and all the ‘lack of due process’ won’t change the world we live in, the world that keeps spinning up new and desperate forms of self-help. This chaotic, Lord of the Flies feeling of helplessness? It belongs to all of us now, welcome.”

She speaks for a lot of us, I think, who lamented the potential exploitability of the List while recognizing that the world had reduced us to its necessity. It’s the latter clause that eludes the Andrew Sullivans of the world: people too cowardly to understand the desperation of that reality, who gutlessly wish to assure us all is well. It took a New York Times exposè to bring down Harvey Weinstein because he was untouchable otherwise. The current landscape is overgrown with wildness because institutions have so resolutely failed us. To whom do we report our violation? The cops? Look at how viciously they intimidated a teenage victim, who’d been raped by a policeman. To say that black Americans’ relationship with police is fraught is an understatement; generations of racist policing have all but ensured that they can’t rely on law enforcement for justice. Meanwhile, witness the fury that greeted Roy Moore’s accusers. And remember who Roy Moore was: He was the law. He was a deputy district attorney, with all the coziness with local police that implies, who then became a judge. To whom, exactly, should his victims have complained? And, for goodness sake, an admitted groper and serial harasser is now Commander in Chief of the armed forces.

See how even in this widely acclaimed reckoning, women of color are always targeted with utmost viciousness: Weinstein tried to cast doubt on only two of his many accusers, throwing daggers at Lupita Nyong’o and Salma Hayek with his dying breaths of credibility.

All of these people demanding that accused men be seen as presumptively innocent seem unwilling to apply that standard to the women they decry. Women who allege they’ve been assaulted are assumed to be not only lying, but doing so maliciously: They’re stupid, greedy, politically motivated, relationship arsonists, or “crazy.” It’s a wretched reality that has always accompanied those who accuse powerful men of rape or harassment.

#MeToo became a movement because it offered something tangible: accountability. Suddenly, serial sexual harassers found themselves on the wrong side of institutional norms and were drummed out of their positions or lucrative deals. Social opprobrium is powerful—and a heady elixir for those who seek to wield it. The movement offered an alternative to the law, where norms themselves could be adjusted to apply social pressure to people who thought they had a license to rape and harass while calling it the cost of doing business.

This isn’t unprecedented or inherently evil. Most of our behavior, and the enforcement of what we consider good or virtuous, is governed by internalized norms that ensure we need never involve a police officer or a judge. Sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom, the author of Lower Ed, put it this way in a Twitter thread: “There is no norm that doesn’t unfairly tarnish some people. That’s literally what they do,” adding, “Our culture decided that adults having sex with children was deviant. And, every year some people are perhaps unfairly labeled a child abuser. But we decide that risk is worth the benefit the norm provides us.” That our society agonizes over norms extending to men’s sexual behavior, she says, makes an “affirmative case” about our values: that we value men more than women or any other gender.

#MeToo is less radical when you realize that it was merely an attempt to apply norms of decency to, say, not whipping your dick out at a business meeting in front of nonconsenting colleagues—a practice the world was rightly shocked to discover was unsettlingly common. That this is considered an effort to make women “dangerous,” in Caitlin Flanagan’s words, is extraordinarily telling. In her rendition, women who are unwilling to physically beat a man who’s assaulting them deserve whatever they get. And we’re the violent, blood-soaked revolutionaries?

“Let it burn y’all” were words appended to the List by an anonymous contributor, and Sullivan gleefully quotes them to make his otherwise thin point, carefully eluding any understanding of metaphor or irony. But frustration, or even anger with the status quo, shouldn’t be confused with an actual desire to “burn it all down.” That’ll come when peaceful revolution is impossible—and that is the outcome that our literary prospectors seem eager to encourage. They wring their hands about men losing their jobs, but there’s not a word, not one word, about the women driven from a range of professions, the symphonies of talent lost to us because mediocre man after mediocre man couldn’t keep it in his pants.

In fact, #MeToo is remarkable precisely for its nature as a peaceful revolution; it’s an astonishingly forgiving and measured response to decades of unspeakable crimes. It’s crowdsourced Truth and Reconciliation, and all its flaws can be traced precisely to its viral and decentralized nature. But the latter has been dictated, in equally precise measures, by institutions unable or unwilling to protect us.

There is certainly no hope to be found in the earliest prospectors of the anti-#MeToo gold rush, who offer only bitter snark and defensive sarcasm. If this is what we get from people like Atwood, Flanagan, and Sullivan—for whom it costs nothing to meaningfully support victims of sexual assault—imagine what it’s like when institutional operators with a real stake in the status quo get going.

If the law is to ever catch up, it’ll have to begin with a wholesale reconstruction of the system itself: HR that exists to protect people, not the company; a world where women aren’t strangled with the thin blue line; a world where we can value women’s potential as much as men’s, and where the loss of a woman’s talent is seen as equal to that of the loss of a talented man. A societal and legal presumption of innocence should be applied to anyone, of any gender, who’s experienced rape, harassment, or assault. We should also recognize, however, that #MeToo’s more radical dimensions are not about strictly legal questions. #MeToo is about changing the culture and making it healthier for all. It is not about ending sex but at last making women’s sexual autonomy a reality—and that transcends laws and constitutions alike.

In the meantime, we will also have to elevate nuanced criticism. The original report on Ansari’s misdeeds was not without its flaws, after all, but that can be discussed without creating an (actual) moral panic about young women and feminism. Indeed, we should discuss how Babe, which broke the Ansari story, has evidently acted with reckless indifference toward the woman who entrusted her story to it. It is exemplifying a worrying tendency towards commodifying women’s pain into clickbaity trauma porn that invites hot takes like Flanagan’s, while selling us out. We are more than our pain, and certainly more than search engine optimizers. And social media is certainly diseased, but its ability to grant the historically voiceless a voice, to turn the individually hurt into the collectively powerful, is assuredly not one of its problems. As such, we should always remember that its use in this particular way is a symptom rather than the malady itself.

If you want our outcry to stop, you should look to what we’re crying out about.