A year after The New York Times published a volcanic expose on sexual harassment charges against movie executive Harvey Weinstein, sexual harassment returned to the headlines with the sentencing of comedian Bill Cosby and the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
It’s the #MeToo movement’s first birthday. Have things changed?
The confirmation of Kavanaugh along party lines may give the impression that part of the country is done with #MeToo and another is not.
That may or may not be the case. But while some men are showing halting support for their female colleagues, others are nervously examining their memories and their consciences.
"When the #MeToo thing happened, I wrote to a number of girlfriends, colleagues, women I dated, women I worked on projects with," said Matt Arnett, a fixture in the Atlanta art scene and scion of noted folk art dealer Bill Arnett.
Arnett spoke of remarks or jokes that he remembered uttering, and asked, in his communications, “at the time I did this I never thought of it as anything other than humor and good fun, and it occurs to me you might have taken that differently than it was intended.”
He found out that, yes, indeed, he had sometimes strayed out of bounds, and one college friend said he owed her an apology. “I had to dig deep in my memory to try to recall the event.”
#MeToo may not have recruited numerous male champions, but it has challenged many men to re-evaluate their behavior, and left some ill at ease.
“Women have been walking on eggshells for thousands of years,” he said. “For men to have to be conscious of how we’re moving through the world, and how it affects people: That’s a good thing.”
For more than 30 years, the Decatur-based Men Stopping Violence has been teaching men how to pay attention to women and to hear what they are actually saying, as an effort to stop domestic violence. About half of the men who come to the organization’s six-month program are batterers, sent by court orders, but the other half come on their own, to try to learn how to mend fences with their female partners.
The events of the past two weeks have brought sexual assault back into the national conversation, and into the conversations among Loughlin’s clients. “As a result of the #MeToo movement, men are more likely in class to name the sexual coercion they’ve done,” said Loughlin. “A lot of men are feeling defensive right now,” he added.
The reaction is understandable, but not useful, said Kim Frndak, director of community outreach at the Women's Resource Center to End Domestic Violence. "One of the main things is: Check yourself," said Frndak. "If you feel defensive, it might seem like it's a personal attack, but it's really not."
What she has seen, said Frndak, 62, is that men want to help, but they worry about speaking up.
“Men are worried about having their manhood questioned by standing as an ally with women,” she said. For example, “If you’re in a bar and someone makes a derogatory joke about a woman, you say nothing. If you say something, you’re a big buzzkill. If you say something, they might wonder: What kind of man are you? Are you gay? We want men to know it’s OK, in fact, it’s essential, to not join in with that.”
Mary-Pat Hector has seen those go-along men, and she also knows some good allies. Hector, 20, is a senior at Spelman College, and a double major in political science and comparative women's studies. She is a political activist, and the national youth director of the National Action Network, a social justice organization.
Some men, she said, are not afraid to express solidarity, including her 12-year-old brother Mason. “I’ve overheard conversations with my younger brother, who will say, ‘Hey, dude, that’s not cool. You’re not supposed to talk about grabbing a woman by the butt.’”
Art dealer Arnett, 50, knows how difficult that alliance can be. A product of 1980s private schools, he played sports and comes from a privileged background.
“There was a code of protection. You circled the wagons if someone came after one of you, ‘cause the next thing you know, they could come after you.”
That world is changing, and Arnett is glad. “I have a (15-year-old) daughter. Would I want my daughter to live in the same world that I lived in in the ’80s? No, I wouldn’t. I want men and boys to treat her with more respect.”
His teenage son, he says, is “way more enlightened than I was.”
Thomas W. Dortch Jr., chairman of 100 Black Men of America, has three daughters and three granddaughters. He feels the same way. "Any response I have is guided by the fact that I love my sisters, I love my mother, my daughters and my granddaughters. I have to take in mind what could happen to them. … My response and the response of the 100 Black Men of America is that women have the right to choose whatever they want in their lives, the right to exist in this world without being harassed, molested and raped."
The downside of the #MeToo movement is that it can attach itself to unrelated political goals, which is what happened in the Kavanaugh hearings, said Robert Whitmer, 85, a retired CPA. Whitmer was unconvinced by the charges against Kavanaugh, and repelled by what he called the efforts of Democrats to “make political hay out of it.”
Frndak said the political fallout is immaterial: Women are at risk, and should be heeded. “It’s incredibly rare for a person to fabricate a story,” she said. What many men can’t imagine, Frndak added, is the average woman’s constant stress, worrying if they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. “This thing you don’t see and accept is this reality of women and girls: We have to be afraid all the time.”
Arnett was inspired to speak out recently because he is among men who have also been attacked.
It was 2001 in New York’s Tribeca district. He’d been to a party with a friend at her neighbor’s house, then to a bar. The party was hosted by a fashion designer and her financier husband. The husband stayed behind at the bar. Arnett realized the man had slipped something into his beer. “Something went into my mouth that shouldn’t have been in my drink.” He immediately got up to leave, with the man chasing after him.
He made it to his friend’s loft, practically next door, before passing out on the kitchen floor. “I recognized what was happening and was able to get to safety,” he said, but he suspected that there are others who weren’t so lucky. “Watching Dr. Ford yesterday, I realized that we all need to tell our stories,” he said. “That’s the only way we have any prayer of having things change.”