The Conversation #MeToo Needs to Have

Female rage is the movement’s essential fuel; left unchecked, it is the potent force that will destroy it.

Aaron Bernstein / Reuters

If you haven’t noticed, we’re angry. We’re seething. For some of us, it began the first time we were groped on public transportation and discovered one of the dark realities of living life in a female body. For others—among them, famously, Oprah Winfrey—it began even earlier, and in a much more terrifying way. “I knew that it was bad,” she has said of the sexual abuse she endured as a child, “because it hurt so badly.” We live with it, suppress it, are to some extent shaped by it, but mostly we keep a cork in it. But every so often, that rage roars up to the surface, and it’s not just one or two of us, it’s just about all of us. And when that happens, it seems to us that—if we can just stay angry and if we can just keep going—we might actually change things. Female rage is the essential fuel of #MeToo. Unchecked it is the potent force that will destroy it.

You may also have noticed that we’re starting to lose the crowd. This gets called “backlash,” which makes it seem a product of sexism, but to a significant extent it’s also a product of the rage itself, and the irrational, score-settling things it can make people do. “I’m actually not at all concerned about innocent men losing their jobs over false sexual assault/harassment allegations,” tweeted Emily Linden, a writer for Teen Vogue. “Sorry. If some innocent men’s reputations have to take a hit in the process of undoing the patriarchy, that is a price I am absolutely willing to pay.” These turned out to be sentiments that a fair number of activists shared—along with the assumption that only men would reject them. But when messy hook ups and ill-conceived passes receive the same public shaming and career-damaging punishment as serious crimes, you also get the attention of millions of wives, mothers, and sisters who are not willing to see their loved ones unfairly targeted, and some of them are starting to cool on the movement. As for the men—the good ones—they’re eager to fight rape, but unwilling to lose their jobs over unfounded or minor accusations.

The comedian Bill Maher described himself as “a true supporter of the MeToo movement,” on his show a couple of weeks ago, before imploring its supporters to nonetheless “think rationally.” He was talking about what he called the “Distinction Deniers”: those members of the movement who believe that all acts of misconduct against women are equal, and should receive the same, unsparing punishment. Specifically, he was speaking of the remark Kirsten Gillibrand made after Al Franken was forced to announce his resignation from the Senate: “I think when we start having to talk about the differences between sexual assault and sexual harassment and unwanted groping you are having the wrong conversation,” she said; “You need to draw a line in the sand and say none of it is O.K. None of it is acceptable.”

Gillibrand, the U.S. senator from New York, is emerging as the most radical feminist in Congress—which was an unexpected turn, given the start of her political career. After working at a white-shoe law firm, where she spent years defending Philip Morris, she decided to run for Congress in her home district, which is located in upstate New York, a conservative district in a liberal state. Her issues in those early campaigns were also conservative. She promised to defend gun rights, opposed amnesty for illegal immigrants, and accepted $18,200 in campaign contributions from employees of Philip Morris. In office, she voted against sending federal tax dollars to sanctuary cities, opposed drivers’ licenses for illegal immigrants, and joined the Blue Dog Coalition of conservative-minded Democrats. But when Hillary Clinton vacated her Senate seat, Gillibrand was appointed to it—subsequently winning a special election—and suddenly she was not representing the conservative corner of a liberal state; she was representing the whole, liberal state.

Gillibrand located a signal progressive issue—one for which she had a passion and that did not put her in conflict with her earlier, conservative views—when she saw the harrowing and important documentary, The Invisible War, about sexual assault in the military. She sponsored a bill that would have taken prosecution of these crimes outside of the military chain of command, a creative response to the problem as it was characterized in the film. The bill failed and Gillibrand blasted the opposition: “Today, too many members of the Senate have turned their back on these victims and survivors.” It wasn’t entirely fair—Obama himself opposed the bill, which could have reduced the number of prosecutions—but it established Gillibrand as a crusader in an important field.

Soon after, Gillibrand added a new locus of sexual-assault policy to her portfolio: the college campus. At the 2015 State of the Union address, she brought as her guest Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia student who had been carrying a dorm mattress with her to classes as a protest the university’s handling of her alleged assault. The day after the speech, Gillibrand wrote in The Huffington Post about the suffering Sulkowicz experienced because she had to share the campus with “her rapist.”

Afterward, Sulkowicz grumbled about Obama not discussing the issue in his speech—but he was wise to steer clear of it. The “rapist” in question had already survived a campus disciplinary hearing—of the type sorely tilted against the accused—and was found “not responsible” for the event; Sulkowicz had already ceased to pursue the report she had filed with the New York police. As Ari Cohn of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education pointed out, Gillibrand had laid bare “her disregard for rights of the accused.” For the senator, “allegations of rape = guilty of rape,” Cohn tweeted. Gillibrand not only supported the Obama-era sexual-assault recommendations, which robbed the accused of due process, but co-authored her own bill on college sexual assault, which, like the one on military sexual assault, failed to pass.

And then came the allegations that Al Franken had groped six women, and forced a kiss on one of them. While many of his colleagues in the Senate dithered about whether this was really grounds for banishing him, Gillibrand wrote a 600-word Facebook post entitled “Senator Franken Should Resign.” Within 90 minutes, 15 more Democrats, and one Republican, had joined her in a coordinated push for his ouster. By day’s end, the great majority of Democratic senators sided with her—perhaps because she had persuaded them, and perhaps because #MeToo has made cowards of many people who are terrified of having the mob turn on them. It was after this victory that she gave her news conference about having “the wrong conversation.”

There were a few women who were willing to stand up for Franken. The law professor—and feminist—Zephyr Teachout wrote in The New York Times that she was not convinced Franken should quit: “Zero tolerance should go hand in hand with two other things: due process and proportionality.” These words—a balm of Gilead for anyone hoping to strengthen the movement by adding reason and fairness to its core ideals—seemed not to register within the larger, “burn it down” spirit animating the mob.

Bill Maher told his audience about the trouble Matt Damon got into for saying that “There’s a difference between patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation.” That prompted Minnie Driver to tweet, “No. You don’t get to be hierarchical about abuse. You don’t get to tell women that because some guy only showed them his penis, their pain isn’t as great as a woman who was raped.”

It was like the kind of hyper-gendered conversation that women’s magazines of yesteryear loved to decode for their readers: He was talking about facts; she was talking about feelings.

Men spend a lot of time asking women to calm down, to be reasonable. I’ll help you, they say in one way or another, but you have to stop yelling. Women are wary of these recommendations. How many of Larry Nassar’s young victims were persuasively told to calm down, to listen to reason? And how many women have alienated the very people they need to make this movement successful because they are so blinded by rage that they can only speak in radical and alienating terms? Add the opportunists who see in this movement a potent opportunity for self promotion, and we begin to see the rocky path that #MeToo must travel if it is to grow from a vehicle of outrage to a mechanism for lasting change.