In the continuing fallout of the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse scandal, another wave of allegations subsumed us this week: Kevin Spacey was accused of groping and assaulting multiple actors, including a 14-year-old boy; top NPR editor Michael Oreskes, of making unwanted sexual advances against women he worked with; Brett Ratner, of forcing a teenage Natasha Henstridge to give him oral sex and “furiously” masturbating in front of Olivia Munn; actor and Scientologist Danny Masterson, of raping four women; Jeremy Piven, of “forcefully fondling” an actress’ breasts on the set of Entourage; Mother Jones’ David Corn, of making “rape jokes” and “inappropriate comments about women’s sexuality” in the workplace and “regularly... engag[ing] in uninvited touching” with female co-workers.
This is just a skim of the headlines. A sexual harassment and abuse scandal has also gripped the U.K. Parliament. Across industries, women and men are wondering who will be next. Dozens of prominent, powerful men have been forced to defend themselves or apologize for sexual misconduct—and there’s no sign that this deluge of allegations is letting up.
This is welcome. We are clearly in the midst of a landmark cultural moment for a pervasive and under-reported issue. Certainly, these allegations reflect gradations of abuse, and we should recognize the distinctions—legal and otherwise—between rape accusations and claims of inappropriate remarks. However, their overarching link is the abuse of power by men, and how it manifests on a broad anti-women harassment and abuse spectrum.
As someone who used to believe “rape culture” was too often invoked as a thought-stopping cliché, the #MeToo stories have forced me to reckon with the term. We’re living in a time defined by the seedy, and worse, behavior of characters like Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein—men who have abused their power to subjugate and sexually abuse women.
The stories that have emerged confirm our worst fears about men. So it makes sense that women feel they must be band together and be on their guard. And it makes sense that many women are issuing edicts for a new sexual etiquette between men and women—an enforced sexual morality.
These women aren’t just demanding that men stop masturbating in front of them. They’re calling for a new social order that affords women more power. Under this new social order, maintaining a “Shitty Media Men” list isn’t just a way for media women to warn each other about men in the industry who have sexually harassed or assaulted women. It’s a useful way to expose and shame these “shitty” men anonymously, so that even those whose only offense is sending “creepy DMs” are scared into silence and subservience.
Right now, women are trying to achieve this new social reality by telling men how to behave. One list of rules for men to follow demands that they “Seek out women to be your heroes and mentors,” “Jerk off without porn for a while,” and “Talk less. In all spaces. At all times. At a lower volume.”
Let’s be realistic: This isn’t going to work. History has shown us that targeting male behaviors alone has never been a particularly effective way of curbing sexual assault.
If we’re going to subvert the social order as we know it today so that power is equally distributed between men and women, it’s not just men who have to change. Women need to alter their desires and expectations about men. Women need to abandon stereotypes about masculinity, and change their behavior.
Women may also have to accept that we like some aspects of the way we interact with men just as they are, and what that means. How can we achieve equality and level the playing field when we still expect men to pick up tabs on dates? How can we change a sexual dynamic around power for the better if our sexual ideal is either a big, strapping man or a bad-boy type? What changes to fantasy and romance, and their relationship to lived reality, will we initiate?
We need to abandon the notion that male bosses should take special care to hold the door for us because we are women. If we expect men not to talk about “fat bitches” or “hot bitches” and brag about their sexual conquests, we should probably resist the urge to name call (“those cocky pricks”); to gush over big, strong men; to publicly joke about how someone with an inflated ego must have a small penis.
If we want equality and a culture where women have more power, we need to recognize that policing male behavior isn’t going to work in the long run. This pits men against women and creates conditions for men and women to be segregated in the workplace, just as we were in the 1950s.
Whatever this move to a new equality is, it will be a test of society—and of men and women, and how they relate to one another in and out of the workplace—to embrace its true meaning, and how it might work in practice.