Thursday, January 11, 2018

The #MeToo backlash is predicated on a field of strawmen

There are a few very popular strawmen making the rounds among certain circles, including pseudo feminist circles, that suggest #MeToo is a joy killing, testicle crushing, Evil Feminist Plot to criminalize basic male-female relationships. There was Daphne Merkin’s absurd piece in the New York Times, where she opined that women are watching accusations come out with a "mixture of slightly horrified excitement (bordering on titillation)" - but secretly “rolling our eyes” at the “witch hunt”.

The cadre of anonymous “feminist” friends Merkin cites offer a whole battery of strawmen that she suspects represent how the rest of us are feeling (spoiler alert: they don’t). Things like, “Grow up, this is real life.” And “What about the women who are the predators?” And, of course, my favorite of the straw sisters: “What ever happened to flirting?”

This, as it happens, is a popular refrain. In a statement in Le Monde, more than one hundred French women expressed similar concerns, chiding advocates to remember that, “insistent or clumsy flirting is not a crime, nor is gallantry a chauvinist aggression.”

And these, of course, are sentiments that pop up in any public forum where the issue is discussed, with ample histrionics from men who profess fear that any and every interaction with a woman might lead to their ruin. Perennial scandal parasite Matt Walsh took it as far as to suggest that its time for men to avoid professional contact with women as per the Mike Pence rule.

Naturally, most of these apologetics are couched in the language of “of course I think rape is bad, but...”

So let’s take a look at these strawmen, one by one. To begin with, I’m going to start with the most obvious and absurd: “what about women who do the same thing”.

It goes without saying - that is, it should, to any thinking person - that people don’t get a free pass to behave badly just because someone else behaves badly. I can’t rob a bank or steal a car or anything else because someone else has done so, even if they got away with doing so. Whataboutism is a terrible argument and a complete moral deflection.

But the problems with this particular argument go deeper. #MeToo isn’t just for female victims (Terry Crews and Anthony Rapp are two examples of men who bravely spoke up as part of the movement). It’s also not a definitive statement on sex crimes and abuses. It is, however, shining a light on rampant abuses by privileged or powerful people (usually men) against those they have control over (often women). Simply by the virtue of power distribution in this and other countries, the most common (protected and successful) offender is going to be a (white) male. The cabal of enforcers answering to Harvey Weinstein demonstrates the insidiousness of the power differential on an extreme level, but we’ve seen countless examples come to light because of #MeToo, from boardrooms to pulpits. And when corporate, church and political leadership is still overwhelmingly male, this is still a real concern for any female employee who finds herself in a similar situation. So when we live in a world where those men in power have routinely protected abusers and persecuted the women abused, that is worthy of note in and of itself.  It is a unique aspect to sex abuse women face.

None of which is to say that men being harassed or raped is anything less than appalling - but the solution to abuses against men is to address the problem, not just mention it as a cover to protect men who abuse women.

Anything short of helping men who have been abused is deflection and nothing more. It’s literally exploiting male victims to cover for male predators.

The “grow up” line is also worth looking at. The implication is that being subjected to  unwelcome groping, masturbation, and other forms of non-rape abuse that have led to the downfall of prominent men is just part of “real life” (or, as the statement in Le Monde put it, “insistent flirting”). And that in turn is a symptom of just how acclimated to male abuse of women society has grown. Let’s face it - CK Louis and Franken were not toppled for asking a girl out, or asking for sex. No one was. The “witch hunt” has only taken down men who used positions of prominence and power to put their hands (or other members) where they didn’t belong, to leverage that power over women to get what they wanted, or to force women against their will to participate either actively or passively in their sexual activity.

The fact that people - particularly women - would chide young women to just accept these abuses as part of life, as part of growing up, is perhaps a stronger indictment of our society than any hashtag.

It’s very strongly linked to the patriarchal misogyny of men like Matt Walsh, who see abuses as the natural extension of women having agency over their own lives. “How can men not grope and rape and masturbate in front of unwilling audiences, if there are women walking freely around us?” asks the Walshes, as the Merkins chime in, “grow up gals, that groping and harassment is just life!” Walsh’s solution is Taliban-esque gender segregation and “modesty”, and Merkin’s is “suck it up, buttercup”; but on this they can both agree: if you’re a woman out in society, you have to accept that your mere presence warrants sexual abuse. Walsh, at least, (and this may be the only time in my life I have cause to utter this phrase) has the decency to honestly proclaim his disdain for feminism. He’s a troglodyte, and proud of it. Merkin, on the other hand, pretends  she - or, rather, those titillated “feminists” she knows - is a friend of women, while aligning herself squarely with the most regressive patriarchs of our political landscape. If she’s looking for a hashtag, how about #ThanksButNoThanks

All of which brings me to the final strawman: is flirting doomed because men can no longer grab women’s asses or whip out their penises among casual acquaintances? Is romance dead because a boss can’t pressure an unwilling female (or male) subordinate to have sex? Is the human species going to go extinct (an actual concern I heard, believe it or not) because women don’t want to be pawed, molested and subjected to other people’s genitals against their will?

Well, in a word, no. Of fucking course not. And, frankly, if you can’t tell the difference between unwelcome fondling, groping and raping, and consensual flirting, it’s not the human race that’s in trouble: it’s you.

In defense of this strawman, Merkin writes that:

Expressing sexual interest is inherently messy and, frankly, nonconsensual — one person, typically the man, bites the bullet by expressing interest in the other, typically the woman — whether it happens at work or at a bar.

Which is true, of course. But show me the man who has suffered “life-destroying denunciation” from asking someone out. It hasn’t (and of course shouldn’t) happen - because only in a deeply strawmanned version of #MeToo is it about neutering male sexuality. The men who have suffered are men who subjected unwilling women to touching, vastly inappropriate situations (ie nudity and genital exposure at work), serial harassment, and so on. No one has been hunted for expressing interest in a woman, and respecting her autonomy and answer in the process.

Still, Merkin worries that this radical idea of not touching and keeping your trousers zipped until you know doing otherwise would be welcome is ruining and“re-moralizing” sex, into a “legalistic, corporate consensus”. She writes:

Stripping sex of eros isn’t the solution. Nor is calling out individual offenders, one by one. We need a broader and more thoroughgoing overhaul, one that begins with the way we bring up our sons and daughters.
These are scary times, for women as well as men. There is an inquisitorial whiff in the air, and my particular fear is that in true American fashion, all subtlety and reflection is being lost. Next we’ll be torching people for the content of their fantasies.

So, to recap, Merkin wants us to believe we can’t hold offenders accountable personally; we need an “overhaul” of the next generation (which of course doesn’t prevent that generation from suffering abuse at the hands of preceding generations who haven’t had that upbringing - and who we can’t hold accountable, because, you know, witch hunts); and demanding that men keep their paws off of unwilling women is just a step away from policing people’s fantasies.

If you’re looking for a master class in strawmen, Merkin’s piece could be your entire curriculum. The fact is, romance doesn’t need assault or harassment. No means no, and women’s bodies aren’t an erotic jungle gym for any male interested. Mutual respect for other human being’s bodies and boundaries doesn’t “strip sex of eros”. #MeToo is about bringing abuse to light, so we can live in a world where we respect each other. So we can live in the kind of world  where the next generations of women and men won’t have to say #MeToo, and won’t have those stories to tell. Where men won’t think being unable to paw nonconsenting women and men is an unreasonable limit on their love life - and where women won’t take other women to task for asking not to be pawed, harassed, coerced, and otherwise disrespected and abused.

It would seem we’ve got a long way to go yet...

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