Why the #MeToo Movement Is Not About Women Overreacting in the Workplace

As with nearly all feminist efforts, the #MeToo movement has attracted the usual voice of antagonistic male egoism-- yet this time the condescension has taken on a dangerous and subversive form in its effort to discredit the struggles women have faced in their professional lives.

Perhaps you have seen the comics circulating in which a man asks a woman out on a date in what is perceived to be a normal and respectful way, only to receive exaggerated and ridiculous accusations of sexual harassment. “Is it harassment to respectfully ask out a woman you work with?” ask the disgruntled and utterly uncomprehending men who feel that they have been targeted. If you have had the luck of thus far avoiding the woefully ignorant media attempting to undermine the #MeToo movement, I’ve provided a few examples for you to cringe at:

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Of course these men with beer should be afraid of standing too close to this woman! They might accidentally grope her or force themselves upon her! And this woman standing under the mistletoe is simply asking for it, isn’t she? Her skimpy and work inappropriate outfit also seems to be clearly signaling that she would like to be approached, but all of these gentlemen would risk sexual harassment claims if they so much as stood next to her-- what a tease!

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And of course the #MeToo movement wouldn’t exist if all sexual abusers were attractive! This movement is all about women refusing to accept the advances of a nice but mediocre-looking man, isn’t it?

 

The men creating this media want to paint the systemic practice of sexual abuse in the workplace as “harmless flirting” which has led to yet another “overreaction” from crazed and oversensitive women. An ill-concealed threat belies this attempt to discredit women-- some men have even been grumbling, “Why would I hire women if I have to risk them accusing me of sexual assault just for being nice to them? Now they’re just making it unnecessarily dangerous for me to be in the workplace.”

UC Berkeley’s proximity to Silicon Valley gives us a prime vantage point from which to observe the ways women must deal with harassment in male-dominated spaces. A research project named The Elephant in the Valley conducted a survey of over 200 women, all of whom had at least ten years of experience in the tech industry. Approximately 91% of these women worked for companies in Silicon Valley, including Google, Apple, and VMWare. Of these women, 60% reported that they had received unwanted sexual advances from coworkers. Within this population of women who had been harrassed, 39% did not report the harassment because they were worried it would negatively affect their careers, 65% had been harassed by a superior, and 60% of the women who did report their harassment felt that it was unsatisfactorily dealt with. Susan Fowler, a former engineer for Uber, revealed that after she had received unwanted sexual advances from her superior and reported them to HR, she was told that she could either switch to a different department or risk receiving a negative performance review from her harasser. One HR representative even told her that receiving a negative review would not be retaliation as she had “been given an option.”

In the face of the overwhelming evidence that women have faced brutality and humiliation in their attempts to advance their careers, some men still want to believe that this movement is the hysteria of the archetypal slighted woman. We may think that we have progressed far beyond the antiquated and sexist politics of “hysteria” which condemned women and their decisions as inherently irrational and nonsensical, but here we see that same logic at work. We may no longer be committing women to psych wards for not wanting children, but as evidenced by these cartoons, some people would like us to believe that the painful and traumatic aftermath of assault is nothing but self-imagined hysteria, leading silly women to damage the careers of older, smarter men.  

The people who create this demeaning media content want the paint the victims’ bravery in sharing their stories to be seen as an attention seeking effort. Even as abusers are outed by ten, twenty, or even one hundred and sixty women in Larry Nassar’s case, there will be an opposing voice using patriarchal rhetoric to try and convince us that this is all one big mistake, and that the overwhelming evidence and momentum toward change are simply misplaced energies.

We need to crush this snide voice. Both men and women should challenge it. If your friend makes a joke about not wanting to flirt with a new coworker because she might report him, give that friend hell. This movement was not born because women were upset by harmless advances or casual workplace flirting-- this movement addresses abusers forcing women to comply with sexual coercion to maintain their status in the workplace. This movement is about normalizing a woman’s lack of consent because her career hangs in the balance. If a woman is afraid to say no, she cannot say yes, and that is exactly the point that these men have missed. Just in case anyone, particularly the people attempting to portray sexual violence as harmless, needs a reminder, consent is defined as a partner’s willing engagement; consent cannot be coerced, and it can be withdrawn.