Published May 9, 2019
U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
On May 9, 2019, EPPC Senior Fellow Mona Charen testified at a public briefing of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights titled “Federal Me Too: Examining Sexual Harassment in Government Workplaces.” Ms. Charen’s testimony is below; video of her panel may be viewed here (Ms. Charen’s remarks begin at the 1:21:35 mark).
Members of the Commission, thank you very much for inviting me to share some reflections today on the meaning of the MeToo movement.
My name is Mona Charen. I’m a syndicated columnist, author, and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
My most recent book examines the role of feminism and the sexual revolution in shaping some of the social problems we are experiencing as a nation. I argue that the sexual revolution has not served women well and the MeToo movement is a long overdue backlash against it.
On the whole, with some exceptions, the Me Too movement has been a necessary corrective to years of gross behavior by powerful men. Most of the prominent men in politics, media, sports, and entertainment who’ve been identified as sexual predators have not even attempted to deny the accusations.
But it would be a mistake to think of MeToo as a civil rights issue.
As Samuel Johnson wrote in the 18th century:
“How small, of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.”
The MeToo movement is an informal, spontaneous, grass roots cultural phenomenon. And that’s good. We have had laws on the books forbidding sexual harassment in the workplace for years. Those laws may be effective, or they may not. In a major 2016 report, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace concluded that “much” of the training sold to companies has not prevented harassment. Sexual harassment training sessions, which are mandatory at many workplaces, are dreaded by employees and mocked by comedians.
That’s because we are dealing with fallout from the sexual revolution. This is a cultural problem, not a political one.
I readily concede that my view of the MeToo movement as backlash against the sexual revolution is not widely shared. Most of the women who have spoken out have identified as feminists. Some have described MeToo as the latest chapter in female empowerment. But I’d like to suggest that, whether consciously or not, many of the women who are expressing their disgust at being sexually harassed and mistreated are reacting to the obliteration of standards that the sexual revolution ushered in.
Many of the accounts we’ve heard about in the past two years thanks to the Me Too movement show not just that some men are behaving like louts, but that some women do not sense social support for their discomfort. They have received no guidance from our culture about what kind of sexual behavior is acceptable and what isn’t, about what they can object to, and what they can’t.
Take the example of Harvey Weinstein. Again and again, he asked actresses to meet him in his hotel room. And they did. Sometimes he greeted them in his bathrobe and asked for massages. Some of them complied. Many, many women have said he sexually assaulted them. Some have accused him of rape. He seems to be a vile abuser and nothing justifies his behavior. But why did the women ever agree to have a business meeting in a hotel room?
There ought to be understood social codes about that kind of thing so that no decent man would ever suggest such a meeting, and any woman would instantly decline on principle. Here’s the vocabulary: “I don’t have business meetings in men’s hotel rooms.”
Perhaps Hollywood is a special case. There has always been a casting couch. But take the example of Mark Halperin, former political director of ABC News. No fewer than 6 women accused him of groping, propositioning, and touching them against their will. One woman described to CNN her very first encounter with Halperin:
The first meeting I ever had with him was in his office and he just came up from behind — I was sitting in a chair from across his desk — and he came up behind me and [while he was clothed] he pressed his body on mine, his penis, on my shoulder. I was obviously completely shocked. I can’t even remember how I got out of there — [but] I got out of there and was freaked out by that whole experience. Given I was so young and new I wasn’t sure if that was the sort of thing that was expected of you if you wanted something from a male figure in news.
The rules about how adults are expected to behave have become so loose that a young woman just starting her career wasn’t sure whether what Halperin did was normal.
The confusion about what is and is not okay has also led to crazy miscarriages of justice. At a small, liberal arts college in Oregon, a male student was ordered to stay away from a female classmate. He was not permitted to be in any building she was in, which cut him off from his campus job, the gym, and other places. But he did not even know the female student. He was never accused of sexual misconduct of any kind. The reason for the “stay-away” order was that he reminded her of the man who had raped her at another school, thousands of miles away.
Once we dispensed with rules about sex being confined within understood boundaries, like marriage, we have made a mess of things. Unsure of how to proceed, some jurisdictions have made fools of themselves with so-called zero tolerance policies for touching.
In California, two students were roughhousing on the playground. There were no witnesses. One student said that the other boy had touched his upper thigh or perhaps his groin. The offending student was suspended from school and had the incident listed on his record as a “sexual assault.” Both boys were first graders.
Some of the most prominent advocates for the MeToo movement have trouble drawing distinctions between immature or unseemly behavior and sexual assault. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, for example, when she was pushing Sen. Al Franken to resign, refused to acknowledge that his conduct was any different from Harvey Weinstein’s. “I think when we start having to talk about the differences between sexual assault and sexual harassment and unwanted groping, you are having the wrong conversation. You need to draw a line in the sand and say none of it is O.K. None of it is acceptable.”
But drawing lines where Sen. Gillibrand suggests leads to exactly the kind of absurd outcomes we saw in that California playground and many other places.
Exhibit A for Me Too being a backlash against the sexual revolution could be the article that appeared in an online magazine called Babe. It was an anonymous account by a woman who described herself as a victim of comedian Aziz Ansari.
The woman, who adopted the pseudonym “Grace,” described meeting Ansari, flirting with him, and then going on a dinner date with him. She was unhappy with all of it — the fact that he didn’t offer her white wine instead of red, the fact that he seemed keen for sex, the way they had sex — everything. In the cab ride home, she cried and tweeted that she hated men. “He just wanted to get me drunk and F me,” she wrote. Days later, after talking with her friends, she concluded that she had been the victim of sexual assault.
The reaction of feminist Jessica Valenti to the Aziz Ansari story reflects women’s dissatisfaction with the sexual ecosystem. She wrote “A lot of men will read that post about Aziz Ansari and see an everyday, reasonable sexual interaction. But part of what women are saying right now is that what the culture considers ‘normal’ sexual encounters are not working for us and are oftentimes harmful.”
Another feminist, Meghan Murphy wrote: “The Aziz Ansari stuff is the perfect demonstration of how rape culture works and how men are socialized to feel entitled to sex. No, there was no rape, but this thing where men pester women for sex and don’t let up, even when it’s clear she isn’t into it, is RAPE CULTURE.”
Anna Bahr, an antirape activist, told New York magazine that “Rape culture is an attitude toward women in particular, but not even just to women — to treating all people as sexual objects, nothing more than an opportunity for sex.”
The federal government cannot fix the problems that MeToo is highlighting. I hope that the movement will result in second thoughts about the importance of self-control, courtesy, respect, and yes, even chivalry. And I hope it will not become another battle in a long running war between men and women.
Mona Charen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.