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The #MeToo phenomenon and what, if anything, anyone can do about it

By Don Aitkin - posted Tuesday, 13 March 2018


For those who have somehow missed all this, 'Me, too' is what someone wished she had said when a thirteen year-old girl told her she had been sexually abused. #MeToo became a digital movement in 2006, and spread astonishingly in October last year after allegations were made against the alleged sexual predations of film producer Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein was fired from the company he started, and suffered other losses as well. His career is in ruins. Thereafter came a cascade of allegations about other alleged baddies in the media, Hollywood and television, which you can see here.

In the USA the movement has spread to other areas of male dominance, like the judiciary and politics. Sometimes the alleged miscreant resigns at once, or withdraws from the scene. Few of the allegations have yet come to court. One man in Australia has gone on the attack, taking to court the newspaper that reported the alleged harassment by him. Nothing has been heard since of the allegations about him. I'm not using names in this essay, because the names are not the point. What I want to reflect on are some issues that arise from the #MeToo phenomenon.

The first is that some of the alleged miscreants have been tried by media, and found guilty at once. No trial of any kind. Weinstein was certainly one. Ordinarily, a person accused of some crime is presumed innocent until found otherwise by a duly constituted court. That has not been the case in any of the examples I have read. Indeed, as I wrote above, nothing has yet come to court, to the best of my knowledge.

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The second is the awful problem of what is to count as evidence. I once had to sit in adjudication on a complaint where a young man and a young woman gave conflicting accounts of a relationship. For her it was under duress. For him it was consensual. What duress? If she did not continue the relationship he would tell her family about it, she said, and she would be unmarriageable. There was disagreement even about the extent of consensuality at the beginning. Two stories, both plausible, each without any corroborating evidence of any kind. I was able to arrange a more or less acceptable outcome, and as far as I know that was the end of it. Certainly, there were no further complaints from the young woman. In the #MeToo list there are hundreds of cases where there would be no evidence, just two stories.

Third, the nature of the complaints ranges from rape to wolf-whistles. The first has a technical meaning in law, and means what you probably think it means. But what exactly is 'sexual harassment'? What is 'inappropriate behaviour'? What about 'suggestive remarks'? What about 'undressing me with his eyes'? What about 'touching'? Touching one another is often called for, in occasions of grief or joy, or in meeting, or with grandchildren, or when one needs to help another. When is it 'inappropriate'? When the woman doesn't like it, is my inference from what I have read. Fair enough. Some women are happy with a man inside their personal space; some don't like it at all. How is a man to know in advance?

Fourth, how indeed? Without giving men a Get out Jail Free card, it has to be said that most young men have a lot to learn about women, and much of it they will need to learn through failure. In short, interactions between young men and young women, the first looking above all for sex, the second looking for a man with whom they could have a meaningful relationship, are bound to produce a lot of trial and error. When is it OK to compliment a woman on her dress (often code for her physical appearance)? When is it permissible to suggest a date, a dinner, a movie? How persistent should you be, if the desired woman says no to an invitation? (I recall Mr Collins's proposal to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.) What about flirting? There seems to be a growing and angry feminist response that the woman must be in sole charge of these interactions. I wonder how that could possibly work.

Fifth, there is a power + beauty element in all of this. There are areas where you get a lot of alpha men and a lot of attractive women. Parliament is one, as I mentioned the other day in the essay about Barnaby Joyce. Hollywood, television, the media generally, the theatre - all have something of this characteristic. The 'casting couch', where a powerful man beds a young and aspiring actress, is as old as Broadway theatre.

That is not to excuse the use of power to gain sexual favours. But it as well to remember that women are attracted to powerful men, and can have the illusion, or the delusion, that they might become such a man's girlfriend, mistress or even wife. In consequence they may be prepared to ride their luck, rather than saying 'No' at once to certain kinds of invitation. There's neat little story in The Atlantic that suggests such a state of mind, and you can read it here.

Sixth, setting the sex element aside, what the women who contributed to #MeToo have been talking about is a more general question, which is workplace bullying. Men too have faced a lot of this. In their case, what is implied is something like 'Shut up, know your place, or you're out of here!' For women the threat is 'Come across, or you'll never get any work in my organisation'. In both cases it doesn't even have to be said. If you're there, you know what the threat is.

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I have no general solutions to all or any of this. I think that the rise of women to positions of power in Western society has occasioned an impatience on their part with older styles in which many men almost thought they had an entitlement to pursue and harass colleagues or employees. Glass ceilings or no, women are beginning to make waves in medicine and in law, just because so many of the graduates are women. Even there, whistle-blowers are not protected enough. What saved the initial speakers against Mr Weinstein was the sheer number of women who added their own names and complaints. Too often the complainant in such a case is told to grow up, or let it ride. #MeToo is powerful, and suddenly the victims are men. As the new boss in one place I was quickly asked to intervene in a work situation where a man in charge of several women felt able to pull at a bra strap, or make suggestive comments. Previous CEOs had not taken the matter seriously, and I was new. I could stop it, and did. I was told that the news of my action ended some other examples of male high-handedness. I was both puzzled and annoyed that a man would behave like this.

I was brought up, as I have written in other essays, to treat women with respect. My entire school education occurred in co-educational schools where the girls were our equals in academic proficiency, as was the case at university. Walking on the road side of the footpath with my girl ('to protect her from carriage splashes', as my first girlfriend noted), opening doors for women and allowing them to precede, pulling chairs out for them - I have practised that courtesy protocol all my life. I have only once had my actions rejected, and then rudely ('I'm quite able to look after myself, thank you!'). This was the late 1970s, from memory. Courtesy and respect are everything. Are these underpinnings of civilisation disappearing in our society?

What can we do about it? As parents we need to give our children firm guidelines about how adults treat the opposite sex, and these guidelines had better reflect our own behaviours. What should you say to your pretty daughter who wants to work in films. 'Read about Harvey Weinstein', I might say, with the caveat that nothing has yet come to court. At a wedding the other day, a gay wedding with a most moving ceremony, I asked an long-standing woman friend whether she had been sexually abused. 'Not at all,' came the quick reply. 'What about sexual harassment?' I persisted. 'I guess so.' 'What did you do then?' I asked. 'I told him to piss off', came her reply. I then asked the young woman serving behind the bar, explaining the reason for my intrusive questions. I got exactly the same answers.

It sounded good, but it might be more difficult if the man was the head of the film company, and you wanted a part. Rule #1, I think, is 'Don't go into his bedroom'. If it is a professional matter, say you'll see him in his office. If it is not, then you are on your own.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Moving On, was published in 2016.

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