It’s been one year since the New York Times and New Yorker investigation into the sexual misdeeds of Harvey Weinstein unleashed the #MeToo movement and a courageous fury over the ways women are mistreated. We look back at the movement that has completely reshaped the way we think of men, women, sex, and power.
When Avital Ronell, a New York University professor, and Asia Argento, an actress and leading figure in the #MeToo movement, were both accused of sexual misconduct in close succession earlier this year, many feminists seemed unsure of how to respond. Standing against sexual abuse is fundamental to a feminist worldview. But these tales of female misdeeds added to story after story on Fox News of predatory female teachers, made one wonder if this was the beginning of a backlash reconfigured as a kind of perverse equality — where #MeToo isn’t just #NotAllMen, but “women do it too.”
It’s not that these stories don’t deserve attention. Cases of female abuse deserve every bit of the outrage and accountability they’ve mustered, and add crucial complexity to the conservation about sexual abuse. But because “women abuse men” has been such a long-standing misogynist men’s rights activist talking point, a lot of us reflexively get our backs up when we hear it. The good news is that these stories do not have to undermine a movement that has focused on the systematic harassment and abuse of women. But in addressing the full landscape of harassment and assault, we also can’t ignore the very real gender dynamics at play, and the root cause of sexual violence: Power.
Power and gender are so deeply intertwined that it’s nearly impossible to peel them apart. It’s no coincidence that the men who serially mistreat women are also often bullies or misogynists. It’s also not surprising that bad, bullying, sexually abusive behavior is not equally performed by the sexes. Power, especially in men, leads them to act with greater entitlement, especially toward women, and especially sexually.
But women, being human, also have the ability to be capricious and cruel, and to abuse those over whom they hold power — a dynamic illustrated by the accusations against Ronell and Argento, and also in the home.
The fact is if we want to curb abuse, understand it, and speak about it honestly, we must also take into account the broader context of gender and power — political power, social power, cultural power, financial power.
For much of American history, the primary people women held power over were children, and those were the primary people they abused. It remains true that a higher proportion of child abuse or neglect fatalities are caused by mothers acting alone, as compared to fathers acting alone; it is also true that mothers are many times more likely to be the sole caregivers for children. Female violence is real, in other words. But the statistics also suggest that while men spend less time as the sole caregivers for children, they are more likely to seriously abuse or neglect children in that time. And men still abuse women in far greater numbers
So it’s not as though abuse at the hands of women is new. What is new is that it’s happening outside of the home, due to the fact that women are now in positions to have power over a growing number of people. Still, there is good reason to believe that women would not behave identically to men if we had the same power as men. After all, women remain less likely to abuse power when we do have it, and are radically less violent as a general population. Which is why it’s far too facile to treat women abusing men and boys as stemming from the exact same place as men abusing women and girls.
The fact is if we want to curb abuse, understand it, and speak about it honestly, we must also take into account the broader context of gender and power — political power, social power, cultural power, financial power. We must examine how access to power and displays of authority also function as gender identifiers. So much of male power rests on female subservience and service, that we have built entire societies dependent on this unequal relationship, from our families to our workplaces to our legal system. Being male still hinges on being seen as not female — not soft, or deferential, or sensitive to the needs of others around you. Being a man, and especially being a successful man, hinges on dominance. A man who is not an alpha, after all, is a beta – feminine, cowed, dominated. Our president has crafted an entire persona out of this hyper-dominance act, which allows him to claim a hold on masculinity without offering much in the way of physical potency, conventional attractiveness, or sexual appeal. He uses bullying and scare tactics to assert himself as a real man, and his money enables him to do it. His followers eat it up.
This is an attitude that goes hand in hand with abuse, and it’s not one on offer to most women. One must only look at the vastly different mannerisms and temperaments of Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh last week at the Senate Judiciary hearing to see this theory in action. We also know that when men feel emasculated – when they feel their unearned power over women is threatened – they tend to take it out on us.
One question, then, is how to treat female abusers. The answer is equally under the law, as well as equally (and proportionally) in the court of public opinion.
One question, then, is how to treat female abusers. The answer is equally under the law, as well as equally (and proportionally) in the court of public opinion. That means that of course women should be held exactly as legally and professionally accountable as men. They should face criminal penalties if their acts break the law. They should face workplace penalties if their behavior runs afoul of sexual harassment rules. They should receive media attention and condemnation where their actions are newsworthy — where they are public figures, for example, or where they are in positions of significant power.
But that coverage should be proportionate and newsworthy, without the undercurrent of suspicion that female abusers somehow invalidate the #MeToo movement. Women perpetrate less than nine percent of sexual abuses against children; sexually abusive women make up more than 30% of Fox News’s sex crimes coverage. Why the conservative news onslaught? The answer is that it’s a convenient narrative for conservatives that women are just as abusive as men. It’s also not that they really want women to be held accountable – it’s that they don’t want men to be.
Conservatives see women’s demands for equality as a zero-sum game, which will ultimately result in punishing men and taking away what’s rightfully theirs — high-paying jobs, elite educations, sex on demand, the ability to work and simply not worry that all is taken care of at home. They also argue that men and women are already equal, it’s just that men and women are fundamentally different. Feminist demands, then, are a kind of greedy grab for extra privileges, justified only if women are superior to men — gentler, kinder, less likely to misbehave. From that vantage point, stories of women behaving badly undercut feminist claims, and justify men’s near-monopoly on power.
What these stories of female offenders demand is that we maintain perspective, while not offering knee-jerk defenses of the women who do use their power to abuse or harass others. Ronell, for example, saw a great many prominent academics, including many feminist-minded women, jump to her defense before they knew the full story (some have since apologized).
We must take more care therefore to understand that women too can commit acts of harassment and violence, even if men commit the vast majority. We must take more care to understand that those who are harassed or abused by women may feel a particular kind of shame, and don’t experience the harassment or abuse identically to a woman who is harassed or abused by a man – a more pervasive, but at least better-understood, dynamic.
But we must also consider the source, and ask whether these stories are being promoted in order to hold the powerful to account. If they facilitate a conversation about harassment, violence and power, that's a good thing. But they may alternatively be part of an anti-feminist propaganda campaign.
Sometimes, the same story might be both at once. Either way, we must look it in the face demand that abusers — regardless of their gender — be held accountable.