The backlash against #MeToo is gathering steam, with a chorus of voices raising concerns about “overreactions” to “minor” transgressions and citing threats to sexual freedom.
The #MeToo movement has launched a tsunami of discussion and awareness on systemic workplace sexual abuse and harassment, building upon decades of activism by the feminist and labor movements.
The backlash rests on two claims: First, good men may be undeservedly punished for their behavior as fairness and due process are discarded in the rush to appear on the “right side” of sexual harassment. Second, this is removing all the “fun” from male-female interaction.
I find these claims infuriatingly wrong.
The specter of many innocent men being accused of minor sexual harassment, losing their jobs, and being branded as sexual predators is extraordinarily unlikely. And it masks an underlying message that women should in fact put up with having their butts pinched, enduring offensive comments, and even having unwanted sex, all to avoid hurting otherwise all-around good guys. This idea relies on a pernicious stereotype: that women lie about consensual sex so often that society has to invent ways to ensure that innocent men are properly protected.
For example, many countries, including my native South Africa, until very recently had versions of the cautionary rule. This required judges to adopt a cautious approach to the evidence of certain witnesses on the basis that they are inherently unreliable and should not be believed without corroboration. The rule was most often used against victims of rape, a crime that disproportionately affects women, is disproportionately perpetrated by men, and mostly happens without witnesses. Undermining women’s credibility contributes to the low rate of prosecution and conviction in rape cases throughout the world.
While it is hard to quantify the rate of false reporting of any crime, research in the US, UK, New Zealand, and Canada put false reporting of rape at approximately eight percent. Human Rights Watch research has found that stigma around sexual violence creates a strong disincentive to complain, confirming other research that shows rape is a vastly under-reported crime. Our research in numerous countries shows how discrediting victims of sexual violence, including workplace sexual harassment, has led to their complaints being ignored, dismissed, or not investigated.
The #MeToo moment is a direct response to a system that has punished victims, rather than the perpetrators, for coming forward. The answer to concerns about fairness and proportionality about penalties, however, is not to discredit victims or undermine their complaints about offensive speech, inappropriate touching, and harassment; instead, it is to ensure that we have fair processes to assess allegations and responses. This means that workplaces must put in place fair and transparent procedures to receive, investigate, and respond to allegations of sexual harassment.
The second argument is particularly infuriating since, yet again, it relies on stereotypes of women (especially feminists) as unable to take a joke or distinguish between a man making a clumsy misjudgment and a predator/serial offender—that we don’t like casual, no-strings-attached sex, harmless flirtations, or a little “fun” by the photocopy machine.
But the #MeToo movement is not about sex. It’s about the implicit system of power in the workplace: who has it, who exercises it, and who suffers due to lack of power. It’s about showing how this power imbalance pushes women out of the workplace, undermines their career progression, and prevents them from competing on an equal basis for jobs, promotions and training. Men have no inherent right to flirt with, kiss, or touch their co-workers. Women (and I assume, many men) generally do not go to work to engage in sexual foreplay, and they certainly don’t go to be harassed, threatened, or victimized.
Fortunately, the #MeToo movement and social media have shone a harsh spotlight on pervasive and depressingly similar sexual harassment in many sectors, and they are also helping to create the space for women to determine how and when sexual encounters happen.
Liesl Gerntholtz is the executive director of the women’s rights division at the Human Rights Watch. An expert on women’s rights in Africa, she has worked and written extensively on violence against women and HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa.