The backlash to the #MeToo movement is in full chorus. The takes have emerged like cicadas from the uneasy earth: inevitable, predictable, the same droning noise about misandry and sex panics and feminism going too far for its own good. They were incipient as soon as #MeToo went mainstream, waiting for some catalyst to fully emerge, whether it was the resignation of Senator Al Franken, the outrage over Katie Roiphe’s forthcoming Harper’s essay, or, most recently, a woman’s account of a sexual encounter gone wrong with comedian Aziz Ansari. The backlash is dressed up as courageous contrarianism, when in fact it is the same old oppression reasserting itself—an inescapable defense of the status quo.
Andrew Sullivan lamented that, in the fury of the moment, transgressions of varying degrees were being unfairly lumped together to prosecute innocent men. “Distinctions among many different types of offenses—from bad behavior at private parties to brutal assault and rape of employees and co-workers—were being instantly lost in the fervor,” he wrote in New York, objecting to Franken’s resignation for “mild handsiness.” Sullivan’s piece came before the feminist website Babe published the claims against Ansari by a woman pseudonymously identified as Grace, but similar sentiments greeted her story. The women of the #MeToo movement are “angry and temporarily powerful,” Caitlin Flanagan wrote in a piece for The Atlantic, “and last night they destroyed a man who didn’t deserve it.”
The critics of #MeToo also say the movement has grown bitter and jilted, and has painted women as defenseless victims with no agency of their own. Flanagan wrote that what Grace “felt afterward—rejected yet another time, by yet another man—was regret. And what she and the writer who told her story created was 3,000 words of revenge porn.” She added, “Apparently there is a whole country full of young women who don’t know how to call a cab.” Bari Weiss, writing in The New York Times, complained that Grace’s story transformed “what ought to be a movement for women’s empowerment into an emblem for female helplessness.” She suggested, “If he pressures you to do something you don’t want to do, use a four-letter word, stand up on your two legs, and walk out his door.” Sullivan had similar advice: “You can also do what a British female journalist did when she felt an unwelcome hand from a powerful government minister appear on her knee. She told him to knock it off, and if he didn’t remove it, she’d punch him in the face.”
What is remarkable about these pieces isn’t their bravery in the face of an overweening majority. Nor is it that the authors are older and thus carry their generation’s views about sexual consent and political correctness to the debate (Weiss is a millennial). What’s remarkable is the familiarity of their arguments: The #MeToo backlash is almost identical to the backlash that greeted the wave of sexual assault reports on campus colleges in the 1990s. It all has the feel of ritual now: One group of feminists will try to define sexual assault and another group will call them alarmists. The latter will say that the anecdotes are hysterical, the statistics are exaggerated, the demands are unreasonable, and the victims, in conclusion, are deliberately weak people. This was, in fact, the premise of Roiphe’s notorious 1993 book attempting to debunk the “rape epidemic” on college campuses, The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus.
That same year, Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, became nationally famous for its Sexual Offense Prevention Policy, or SOPP. SOPP and The Morning After could be said to represent two incompatible poles in the feminist debate at the time. On one side were the students of Antioch, who responded to incidents of sexual assault on campus by creating policies that urged people to seek vocal consent before each sexual act. On the other side was Roiphe and her influential supporters, who argued that the “language of virtue and violation reinforces retrograde stereotypes,” and that “date-rape feminists” had actually watered down the definition of rape by introducing concepts like verbal coercion.
“If we are going to maintain an idea of rape, then we need to reserve it for instances of physical violence, or the threat of physical violence,” she wrote in her 1993 book. “But some people want the melodrama. They want the absolute value placed on experience by absolute words. Words like ‘rape’ and ‘verbal coercion’ channel the confusing flow of experience into something easy to understand. ... It is the passive sexual role that threatens us still, and it is the denial of female sexual agency that threatens to propel us backward.”
The irony is that Roiphe would have nothing to criticize if women had not exercised agency. Her real problem is not that women were passive, but that they were active in ways she disdained. Twenty-five years on, Roiphe enjoys a prominent writing career and a plum teaching job at New York University. Meanwhile, SOPP only recently emerged from its years-long reputation as a punchline. (Saturday Night Live even parodied it.) But SOPP was never intended to legislate every minute sexual act. At its heart sat two ideas: In a sexist society, ethical sexual behavior is a learned skill, and asking for consent reduces the possibility of harm.
It was not intended to blur lines, but to clarify them. What’s lost when a man asks a woman permission to kiss her? Romance must be fragile indeed if requesting consent will kill it.
Furthermore, the argument that we are talking about sexual violence too broadly entails defining our terms down until the problem appears smaller than it is. Any productive conversation about sexual violence must extend to sexual ethics, including how men respond to verbal and nonverbal cues, as Grace’s story showed. Urging women to flee or to call a cab or to punch their attackers prevents that conversation from taking place. It keeps the burden where it’s always been, which is on women, and absolves men of their responsibilities.
But women cannot avoid the stench of victimhood, it seems, no matter what they do. If they speak up about what happened to them, they choose victimhood. If they identify solutions, they choose victimhood. If they talk about date rape or bad sex, they choose victimhood. It is commentators like Flanagan, Weiss, Roiphe, and Sullivan who set these traps for women. Their opinions spread like wildfire over social media—Weiss even bragged about breaking the internet—but not because they are saying anything we haven’t heard before. It is because these supposed dissenters are giving voice to the stubborn consensus that has been there all along.