Updated: Thursday, October 19, 2017, 5:42 AM
I was five years out of law school when Professor Anita Hill put on a sky-blue suit and walked into our consciousness, and history. The coverage of her accusation that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission seemed like a circus, complete with flashing cameras, clueless senators, and salivating commentators. Still not jaded by experience and convinced that there was purpose and meaning to these public confessionals, I was appalled by the glittering Hollywood veneer that overlaid the proceedings. Mind you, this was before the O.J. trial, the Clinton impeachment, and The Real Fishwives of Wherever.
Today, the Hill hearings seem sober and constrained. Social media has made it impossible to have any conversation about any topic without devolving into the trite, the shallow, and the tweeted. It’s not at all surprising, then, that sexual harassment has gotten the hashtag treatment.
Last weekend, Alyssa Milano invited women across the country to put the words #metoo on their social-media accounts to show solidarity with victims of abuse. My Facebook feed began to fill up with stories of misconduct ranging from rape, to “date rape,” to lewd jokes in the workplace, to being whistled at, to being ogled, to childhood abuse. It evoked some confusing emotions in me.
The first one was empathy for women who felt victimized. There was such a flood of responses that you couldn’t dismiss the phenomenon out of hand. There were women the age of my mother who recounted tales of sexual violation, and the thought that those incidents were still so fresh decades later was sobering.
But that emotion soon gave way to annoyance, and then anger. Yes, at abusive men. But that’s the easy part. I have known abusive men, grown up around them, feared them, avoided them. They are not unicorns. And yet, they are also not as ubiquitous as this social-media onslaught would allow us to believe.
My deepest and most enduring anger is at people who, in a misguided attempt to help women, will use this moment to both trivialize the phenomena of sexual abuse and limit the class of people who can be shown compassion.
This hashtag business is stupid. I know I’m not supposed to criticize the #metoo because it’s a 21st-century way for people who don’t even know each other but have suffered similar calamities to bond and connect. Actually, it’s not. It’s more a way for marginal characters in these dramas to jump on the sympathy bandwagon and say, “Hey, don’t leave me out; it happened here, too!”
Here is why I am not moved by this digital campaign to hold men accountable for their evil deeds. First, it’s too easy to confuse harassment with actual abuse. Being made to feel uncomfortable because some caveman drools in your face is unfortunate, but it has no business being included in a #metoo scenario alongside of a woman whose ex-husband held a gun to her head unless she had sex with him. This campaign has thrown all sorts of unpleasant activity together, so that the college student (me) who had a crush on her professor and then got propositioned by him thinks she’s been harassed. Maybe I was, but I have no right putting that alongside of women who were raped.
More insidious is the way that men have been made to feel guilty, and then silenced, if they, too, suffered abuse. When I suggested on my Facebook page that men are in a virtually statistical dead heat when it comes to cases of domestic abuse, I was criticized by those who have a vested interest in keeping this a woman’s issue. When I said that boys who are abused by female teachers are treated differently than girls, I was told to be quiet, and that women are never physically capable of overpowering men (a lie). When I mentioned my immigrant clients who had been battered by their U.S. citizen wives, it became an “immigration issue.”
And when I saw men apologizing on social media if they had offended the women in their lives, I realized this was a Stockholm syndrome situation.
This is moral laziness. There is a problem, and it should be addressed soberly, not manipulated with social memes.