Today’s hottest #MeToo take comes from the New York Times opinion page, where Daphne Merkin argues that the movement to expose a widespread culture of sexual harassment and abuse has gotten out of hand. Merkin draws liberally from a genre of #MeToo criticism advanced by the New Yorker’s Masha Gessen, in addition to plenty of conservative columnists, in recent months. The school of thought holds that, in our eagerness to bring the worst of the wrongdoers to long-overdue justice, women are ruining the lives of innocent men, punishing good people for being bad flirts, and threatening to make consensual sex a rare, robotic experience.
Merkin’s op-ed takes nearly every objectionable pillar of this increasingly tired argument and makes its fallacies even plainer. In that sense, it’s a useful document for those of us who’ve been covering this cultural moment and its various strains of backlash. Merkin seems to want to delegitimize efforts to establish standards of sexual consent and hold accountable those who violate them. Instead, she illuminates a growing gap between women whose experiences and identities allow them to shrug off sexual harassment and women whose livelihoods are threatened by it. Merkin seems to think the former have little to learn from the latter.
The first red flag in this piece is her repeated identification of anonymous assenting sources as “feminist.” In this context, the word is employed as a shield to deflect any future critics (hello!) from arguing that these “feminists” have it all wrong when it comes to consent. But the word feminist means nothing when it’s paired with a position that diminishes the rights and safety of women: Think of self-identified feminist Ivanka Trump, or the pro-lifers who argue that “protecting” women from abortion is a feminist act. When I’ve discussed the #MeToo movement with skeptical men, about half the time, they’ve invoked unnamed female friends who supposedly agree that too many innocent men are being mowed down by an overzealous mob. These friends serve the same purpose as Merkin’s “feminists”—to give unearned credence to a dubious claim about what exactly women deserve, and to make one person’s opinion sound like the consensus of a formidable multitude.
And Merkin’s friends sure sound committed to some pretty clearly anti-feminist beliefs. “Grow up, this is real life,” one “feminist” friend purportedly said of the still-growing wave of sexual harassment accusations. Another wondered, “Whatever happened to flirting?” By answering today’s messy, imperfect, entirely vital response to one of the most damaging symptoms of gender inequality with an entreaty for women to “grow up,” these voices undermine the very foundation of feminism and, indeed, any social movement: the belief in, and desire to fight for, a better future. Feminism means taking steps toward a world where “real life” doesn’t mean smiling and swallowing a lump in your throat when a senator grabs your ass during a photo-op, and where “flirting” doesn’t mean an older, married colleague kissing you on the mouth at what you were led to believe was a business meeting.
Merkin’s genre of #MeToo suspicion is deeply concerned with the need for specificity, with taking each separate allegation against each accused perpetrator and evaluating it on its particular merits. Yet few of the essays written in this vein offer many, if any, specific examples of good-natured flirting that has been met with undue punishment or innocent men who’ve been tarnished by false proclamations. Merkin mentions Garrison Keillor, Jonathan Schwartz, and Ryan Lizza—but in all three of these cases, accusers have declined to share their accounts of what happened. The exact circumstances of these allegations may still be mysterious to the public, but it's misleading to frame these as straightforward instances of men being unduly censured. And in all these cases, investigators privy to the accusers’ accounts have determined that the men’s actions were severe enough to warrant dismissal from their workplaces. How can Merkin enact “due process,” as she requests of the rest of us, when she’s only heard one side of the story? She calls accusations of harassment and abuse “life-destroying denunciations,” a patent falsehood. A famous millionaire who loses a job has hardly had his life destroyed.
The Gessen and Merkin school of thought also lacks any meaningful blueprint for how institutions might stop a Matt Lauer or a Harvey Weinstein while allowing other forms of sometimes-consensual, sometimes-nonconsensual sexual advances to continue. Of course there’s a distinction between rape and groping, and between groping and a lewd remark. But in the context of workplace harassment, when administrators tolerate low-level offenses, people are sometimes empowered to push the boundaries even further, priming witnesses to ignore high-level stuff when it happens. People worrying that #MeToo is a “sex panic” believe the problem lies in a few bad actors and their stomach-churning offenses. If the magnitude of the movement has demonstrated anything, it’s that there’s an entire spectrum of sex-based abuse of power that lets those bad actors flourish. It’s not ancillary to the problem. It’s the root of it.
Central to this misconception are two straw men, whom you’ll find in Merkin’s piece and almost every other piece of writing that preaches the dangers of #MeToo. The first holds that routine sexual advances demand a certain suspension of consent. This argument refuses to consider that there are feasible ways, both verbal and non, for a man to find out if a woman wants him to kiss her before he does it and sees if she tells him to stop. As most women who’ve fielded unwanted advances will tell you, a physical lunge need not be the first step in determining whether or not a prospective partner is interested. Asking men to get over their insecurities and wait for a clearer sign—or just ask!—is not tantamount to ending flirtation, unless flirtation is limited to an unexpected lashing-out of limbs and mouths, in which case I’ve been doing it wrong for 20 years, God help me.
The other straw man has to do with affirmative consent, to which Merkin refers as “stripping sex of eros.” The problem is that what Merkin and her feminist friends think of as “eros”—presumably, the kind of sex where nobody talks about what they want and just sort of fumbles around based on guesswork, hoping it’s all consensual—isn’t working for a lot of people. Many of us would rather our sex be 100 percent consensual, even if it means having to say, “I really want to kiss you,” or ask, “How do you want me to touch you?” There is, in fact, a sexy way to do this. And even if there weren’t, the tradeoff should be a no-brainer. Is a little bit more chatter that makes some people feel awkward not worth the effort as a culture, if it prevents some instances of coercion, rape, and assault? As my own anonymous (and, incidentally, feminist) friend said today of the benefits of communication in the bedroom, “The ‘sex panic’ crowd is so obviously just bad at sex. It bums me out.”
In one of her recent pieces on the #MeToo moment, Gessen argued that the rash of punishments for accused harassers suffers from “misplaced scale,” by which comparatively minor sexual offenses are deemed uniquely vile. There is a problem of misplaced scale here, I’d agree, but I see it elsewhere. For what little progress #MeToo has made, especially for working-class women, on a problem whose extraordinary dimensions we have yet to grasp, there seems to be an incredible volume of work arguing that it’s gone too far.