No, #MeToo Isn't McCarthyism

Critics of the movement against sexual harassment and assault charge that it’s going too far, but their arguments take very little stock of what women are actually saying.

The #MeToo Women's March In Hollywood, California, on November 12, 2017 (Faye Sadou / MediaPunch / IPX / AP)

One of the criticisms of the #MeToo movement that’s emerged and reemerged most tenaciously over the past few months is that women are consistently conflating major crimes with minor ones. Violent sexual assault isn’t the same thing as a swat on the behind in a crowded bar. Targeted sexual harassment isn’t the same thing as a clumsy pass after too many vodka sodas have been consumed. But this is a straw man argument—I have yet to find evidence of a single woman claiming that any of these things are equal. Most women do, unremarkably, know the difference between an incident where their personal safety (or their job security) is being threatened and an incident where it isn’t.

Moira Donegan, who wrote a powerful essay this week exposing herself as the creator of the Shitty Media Men list, knew this too. She made efforts to draw distinctions between men whom multiple separate women had accused of rape, and men in the media who were simply, well, shitty. The list itself includes a disclaimer at the top stating that it’s only a collection of misconduct allegations and rumors. “Take everything with a grain of salt,” it advises. “If you see a man you’re friends with, don’t freak out.”

And yet the list does include allegations of simple shittiness rather than just workplace harassment and assault. There’s a reason for that, and that reason is largely why it’s called the Shitty Media Men list and not the Serious Sexual Harassers and Rapists in Media list. Men, this list was not for you. Nor was this list intended for 99 percent of the people who eventually saw it, since it was conceived as a private way of sharing information between acquaintances, not a McCarthyite effort intent on ruining careers. It was a warning, not a witch hunt. It had no purpose beyond better enabling other women to protect themselves from men whom other women had had shitty experiences with, big and small.

What the list represented, as my colleague Megan Garber has written, was so many similar warnings that have taken place in person, in less instantly viral formats. Because here’s the thing: While women aren’t confusing egregious incidents with less obviously offensive ones, the small ones matter, too. And not talking about them is the easiest way to ensure they go on and on, ad infinitum. One clumsy pass in a bar might be a forgivable mistake; a pattern of clumsy passes on younger women signals an abuse of power. Andrew Sullivan might scoff at some women using the Shitty Media Men list to complain about men who routinely take credit for the ideas of women of color, but what that behavior adds up to is women of color being systematically isolated and pushed out of the workplace. (For the record, Sullivan also downplays accusations against men who remove condoms during sex, which some lawmakers in the U.S. are currently making efforts to classify as rape.)

None of these examples of women speaking out about their experiences amounts to McCarthyism. The women adding names to the Shitty Media Men list thought they were doing so privately; when the list eventually did become public, it was partly thanks to a man with his own political agenda, who was the first to post a handful of names from it. A substantial number of men on the list remain in their jobs. Those who don’t have been investigated by their employers, and the claims against them have been validated. That’s not a witch hunt—it’s a version of due process. Nor is this evidence of women being hysterical about gallantry and seduction, as the French actress Catherine Deneuve has argued. Those who charge, as Deneuve and Sullivan do, that women are conflating innocent catcalls and actual assault, are ignoring the actual key distinction here: Unsolicited comments on the street are one thing; unsolicited comments from your boss are totally different.

If the people who’ve written about their own objections to #MeToo have another thing in common, it’s an impulse to wantonly exaggerate what they think women actually want. “These are scary times, for women as well as men,” Daphne Merkin wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times. “There is an inquisitorial whiff in the air, and my particular fear is that in true American fashion, all subtlety and reflection is being lost. Next we’ll be torching people for the content of their fantasies.” I’m hesitant to speak on behalf of any proportion of women, but to characterize what the women I know hope for, here it is. A workplace where women aren’t harassed, excluded, or forced to compromise themselves for fear of losing their jobs. And outside the workplace: sexual encounters that are consensual from beginning to end. The ability to ride packed subway cars from Union Square to Grand Central without having grinning men grind their erect penises against our hips (if this last one is oddly specific it’s because it happened to me, and I laughed about it later but still tend to take local trains when I’m in New York if I can).

No movement is, or ever has been, perfect. If there’s an impulse to overcorrect in some cases, it would be helpful if the people rushing to liken #MeToo to a sex panic could stop critiquing women (and men) supporting it for things they haven’t said or done. Rather than demonize what you imagine people might want, listen (or even better, ask). As Moira Donegan wrote, this moment isn’t about “a prescriptive dictation of acceptable sexual behaviors but the desire for a kinder, more respectful, and more equitable world.”