The #MeToo moment is a crime scene writ large, and as more suspects and survivors are added to the list, most men have been forced to reflect on their complicity in the matter. Make no mistake: We are all complicit. That is a truth so raw in its unflinching specificity that I’ve watched a sort of revisionist history take place, as men look backwards and try desperately to throw themselves on the right side of a monumental injustice.
It goes like this: A man, when prompted, will give his absolute support of #MeToo. He will use strong words to condemn the numerous evils of a Harvey Weinstein or a Larry Nassar. Those men will serve as his line in the sand; the absolute of what constitutes rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, sexual misconduct (listed in order of their perceived severity as reported in the media). Then, without fail, comes a moment where he feels the need to qualify that support.
Liam Neeson did it, warning against #MeToo becoming a “witch hunt.” Matt Damon called it a “culture of outrage,” and reminded us not to confuse “patting someone on the butt [with] rape or child molestation.” And, of course, Quentin Tarantino passionately argued that Roman Polanski couldn’t have raped the 13-year-old girl he was found guilty of raping because it wasn’t “violent” enough to be actual rape. (Tarantino has since issued an apology.)
So what drives these men, and so many of the rest of us, to become armchair attorneys as soon as we hear a woman talk about her experience with sexual assault or Aziz Ansari-esque “bad dates?” The answer is sad and simple: Fear. Fear and self-preservation. A lot of us are looking at ourselves, at our complicity, at our attitudes and mentalities throughout the years – and we don’t like what we see.
Even worse, a lot of men are examining their actions and hearing some chillingly familiar stories coming out of the #MeToo movement. They’re reading “Cat Person,” they’re watching the discussion around what “bad sex” actually means and they’re hearing those events being defined as rape.
And that, at the very least, makes them perpetrators of sexual assault, putting them squarely in “the bad place. And we can’t have that, can we?
So instead, lines are redrawn and definitions are rewritten in ink. Rapists and assaulters are classified as “the guys who do things just a notch above what I’ve done.” It becomes about avoiding the label, and never reflecting on their actions. Rather than confront and change the way they treat, view and respect women, they just make sure they’re never guilty of doing “the worst thing.” Everything else is forgivable.
It’s a sad trick. More than that, it’s not even a new one. Watch people you know avoid being labelled as a racist while doing, saying and believing overtly racist things. Ask them if Black Lives Matter. Ask them if they think white privilege exists. (I’m Black; watching those conversations unfold is practically my pastime.)
Some people have called #MeToo a reckoning, and maybe it is. But there can be no true change until all men are willing and able to reckon with what they have done, what they have allowed and what they may do again. Until then, we are like children screaming “Not it!” as a game of tag starts, hoping to play without being caught. But we are still part of the game all the same.
This story originally appeared in Feburary 2018 with the title “Men, this common reaction to sexual assault actually makes things worse.”