Trigger Warning: Discussion of accusations of sexual harassment, assault, rape, #MeToo, #TimesUp, #TheEmptyChair, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Larry Nassar, and the social consequences of all of this.
There’s a lot of talk lately about whether the #MeToo movement has gone too far, especially after the accusations about Aziz Ansari came out. And honestly? It’s a good question to ask. Society is experiencing a massive shift, and people who once got away with horrid behavior are now, finally, being held accountable for it. Often, that means being held accountable for mis-judged comments or creepy behavior. Many times, it means getting in trouble for violating consent. And it also means being held accountable for assault and/or rape.
I think that, in a way, it has gone too far. But the twist?
I don’t think that’s a bad thing. In fact, I’m glad it’s going too far, and I think it can go further.
And here’s why…
With #MeToo and #TimesUp in the news and popular consciousness, the history has been less talked about. But the reality is that all of this became part of the wider public discussion not with Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo, but with Bill Cosby and #TheEmptyChair.
A lot of people think it started when, in October 2014, a video of Hannibal Buress leaked on the internet calling Bill Cosby out for yelling at people about cussing while being a rapist. But it didn’t. It started many decades before, in December 1965. Kristina Ruehli was potentially the first of Cosby’s victims. She told her boyfriend at the time about it and told her daughter in the 1980s. But she didn’t go public with it until… 2005. It was during the Andrea Constand case, and she came forward anonymously, as Jane Doe #12.
However, women came forward even earlier than that, despite their stories not being published. First was Joan Tarshis, who told her story in the early 1980s to freelance reporter John Milward, who chose not to publish it. Then, in 1996, Playboy Playmate Victoria Valentino made accusations in a video exposé about the lives of playmates. That video was also never released. Then, in the year 2000, Lachele Covington filed an accusation against Cosby with Detective Jose McCallion of the Manhattan Special Victims Bureau. After questioning Cosby (who, of course, denied it), the police handed the case over to the D.A., who decided not to prosecute.
Then there was Andrea Constand in 2004, and, in 2005, Tamara Lucier Green, Beth Ferrier, and Shawn Upshaw Brown all came forward. Brown has a daughter, Autumn Jackson, who claims to be the illegitimate daughter of Cosby. By the time accusations against Cosby had stopped, at least 59 women had accused him of attempted or completed sexual assault and/or rape.
As can be seen, the accusations against Cosby had already been filed well before the infamous Hannibal Buress video was leaked. But it was that video that started the sudden stream of accusations. And it was in that stream that #TheEmptyChair became a hashtag.
On the week of July 27th to August 9th, 2015, the magazine New York published an exposé about the allegations. The cover featured 35 women sitting in chairs, and a 36th empty chair. Elon James White, CEO of TWiBNation, saw that and started a hashtag called #TheEmptyChair, where he shared the horrid stories of people on Twitter, keeping their anonymity. Other users used the hashtag to go public with their own stories, as well. And all of this sparked a national conversation… one very similar to the conversation we’re having now.
Things quieted down after a bit, but there was a palpable feeling that something was in the atmosphere. And the conversation, while it became page 2 news, never died. And then, three years later, things suddenly exploded in a way that went far beyond #TheEmptyChair.
The reality is that, like Cosby, people in the industry knew about Harvey Weinstein. People made jokes and comments about him as far back as 1998. But it all became a public spectacle when, on October 5, 2017, New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey published a report about the accusations against him. Not five days later, journalist Ronan Farrow published yet more accusations in The New Yorker (side note: I find it interesting that Ronan Farrow gets so much credit, here, while I’ve barely heard of Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey). As of right now, there are over 100 accusations against Harvey Weinstein, and of course there’s likely more.
Since the accusations against Weinstein broke, a good 41 men have been accused of sexual harassment, assault, and rape, and that’s the minimum. This includes both Ben and Casey Affleck, Mario Batali, Al Franken, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey, and so many others. And of course, there’s Larry Nassar, whose victims number over 265.
What I find odd is that this “trend” (god I hate that word used in this context) of people coming forward to expose powerful men for the creepy harassers, assaulters, and rapists that they are is being called the “Weinstein Effect”. I’m curious as to why it’s not being called the “Cosby Effect”, since it was with him that this all technically started (at least, depending on how you look at it). It’s also being forwarded by the hashtag #MeToo, not started by Allyssa Milano, as many seem to think, but by social and civil rights activist Tarana Burke back in 2006, who started the movement to let victims know that they aren’t alone. Of course, at the time, it was not a hashtag, but an activist movement. It was Alyssa Milano who made it an active Twitter hashtag, although it already existed as a hashtag before that.
And so, we get here, where we are today. And now the think pieces are coming out, the letters signed by dozens of people are being released, and they all say the same thing: #MeToo has gone too far.
Why? Because, I guess, men are having their lives ruined over “innapropriate comments” or… something.
What do I say to this?
I say good.
Have you ever watched a pendulum swing? It starts on one side, then swings wildly back and forth, before eventually coming to rest in the middle.
That is what’s happening here, and it’s good. For just about ever, society has shamed and ridiculed victims while protecting the accused. Many will defend this practice under the guise of “innocent until proven guilty”. And yes, that is a very powerful and very important ideal in upholding justice. It is a requirement in a court of law. But it has also been used by society to basically destroy the lives of rape victims and coddle and comfort their rapists, making it near impossible for victims to come forward.
Now, suddenly, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. Suddenly, we’re believing the victims and cancelling the accused. But people misunderstand this. They are so afraid of false accusations that they ignore the fact that these are exceedingly rare. They misunderstand the idea of “believe victims”, because they think it means ignoring facts, when it demonstrably doesn’t:
Contra Weiss, “believe women” does not actually come into conflict with fact-checking sources; there’s a difference between engaging with sexual assault claims in good faith and having the legal grounding to print those claims, and even passionately feminist reporters understand that journalism has to adhere to the second standard. The other accusers’ stories were not discredited by association, as O’Keefe evidently hoped; in fact, they actually look more credible, now that we know they passed through the same rigorous fact-checking process that Phillips’ failed.
Though “false rape accusations” make for a good bogeyman, they are both rare and, according to the best evidence we have, shockingly obvious. Quartz recently published a round-up of the available research on false rape allegations, finding in the most detailed study ever conducted, “out of 216 complaints that were classified as false, only 126 had even gotten to the stage where the accuser lodged a formal complaint. Only 39 complainants named a suspect. Only six cases led to an arrest, and only two led to charges being brought before they were ultimately deemed false.” And furthermore, the research finds that false accusers tend to fit a recognizable profile: “[Almost] invariably, adult false accusers who persist in pursuing charges have a previous history of bizarre fabrications or criminal fraud.” Finally, these accusers usually make claims of exceptionally violent sexual assault—if they want to frame somebody, there’s no point in framing them for a crime that might be dismissed as “minor.”
We say “believe victims” and “believe all women” because society doesn’t. It’s an attempt to force the pendulum to swing. It does not mean uncritically believing every accusation regardless of the evidence. For the police and the D.A., it means taking all accusations seriously, genuinely investigating every piece of available evidence as thoroughly as possible (if an accusation does indeed turn out to be false, this is how it’ll be proven as false). For society at large, it means not outright dismissing victims, burning down their homes, and making fun of them. It means not blaming victims for what happened to them, and not crying crocodile tears over the “ruined futures” of “poor” rapists. It means building a society in which victims, regardless of their gender, feel safe going public and pressing charges. It means building a society where pressing charges isn’t potentially even more traumatic than the assault and/or rape itself.
So sure… maybe #MeToo is “going too far”. Maybe it’s catching men in its net that perhaps only deserve a light smack on the wrist and a “don’t do that again”, who instead are seeing their futures thrown into jeopardy.
But I cannot, for the life of me, see that as a bad thing. It’s not because I want men overall to be torn down. It’s not because I want innocent men to be caught in the crosshairs. It’s because society has been at the opposite extreme for far too long. And because the justice system has failed victims so thoroughly and so completely, this may be the only way to affect some real change.
I also hope that a part of that change is the broadening of the scope of who can be a rapist, and who can be a victim. There are more than two genders. Cis men are not the only rapists, and cis women are not the only victims.
I foresee the pendulum evening out. I foresee a (very near?) future when accusations are taken seriously and investigated thoroughly. When victims don’t feel as if a Twitter hashtag is the only avenue they have to talk about what happened to them because the police refuse to actually investigate. I foresee a future when #TheEmptyChair, #MeToo, #TimesUp, and similar hashtags are no longer needed.
I hope I live to see that future, and I hope you do, too…
Commenting note: Again… as always… this blog is first and foremost an SJW blog. I will not suffer “skeptics” lightly. Conversation is open, here, but it must be in good faith and must operate on both believe the victim and innocent until proven guilty… these are not contradictory. I’ve already explained this above. You must be, first and foremost, empathetic and sympathetic to victims if you wish to comment here. I will delete any gross denialism, and I reserve the right to define what that means, as this is my blog.