The Problem with the ‘Me Too’ Campaign

“Me too.” If your social media feeds have been filled with your friends writing this phrase, you may be wondering exactly what’s going on. You can blame Alyssa Milano. On Sunday the actress tweeted: “Suggested by a friend: If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

Now all she needs to do is send out another tweet explaining exactly which problem we’re trying to measure. Because here’s the thing, folks: sexual harassment and sexual assault are very different things. And just because Harvey Weinstein committed both, that doesn’t mean they are any closer together in terms of their seriousness. The idea that we are going to simply place in the same category forcible rape and some guy whistling at you as you walk down the street is one reason that reasonable people question the whole “war on women” narrative.

This is not the first time that these two problems have been elided, but it usually happens on college campuses. A couple of years ago, Harvard tried to conduct a survey to measure the problem of sexual assault on campus. It asked: “Since you have been a student at Harvard University has a student or someone employed by or otherwise associated with Harvard . . . continued to ask you to go out, get dinner, have drinks or have sex even though you said no?” If so, you may be a victim of sexual misconduct or sexual assault or sexual harassment, but the survey never quite specifies which is which.

Indeed, the idea seems to be to purposely muddy the waters. The survey authors explain: “Sexual assault and sexual misconduct refer to a range of behaviors that are nonconsensual or unwanted. These behaviors could include remarks about physical appearance or persistent sexual advances. These could also include threats of force to get someone to engage in sexual behavior such as nonconsensual or unwanted touching, sexual penetration, oral sex, anal sex or attempts to engage in these behaviors.”

Just to be clear, there are legal definitions of these terms. Sexual assault refers to one range of behaviors, which involve unwanted physical contact. Sexual harassment refers to a different range of behaviors, which generally involve verbal contact and can involve threats of retaliation (in a workplace) if a subject does not respond kindly. One does not want to be the victim of either, but maybe we could restrict the use of the term sexual assault to a specific category of awfulness.

It might also be useful to think about how there are different ways to prevent these behaviors. When it comes to sexual harassment, there are things that we can do to change behavior and attitudes in the workplace. (And I remain convinced that Hollywood and Silicon Valley are the exceptions, not the rules.)

As actress Mayim Bialik wrote in a controversial New York Times op-ed, it does matter how you dress and the attitude that you convey. Some of my most intimidating bosses have been women and frankly I would be shocked if I saw them writing “me too” on their pages. They never discussed their personal lives in the workplace and a few even advertised their gun ownership.

These women are polite, but they don’t giggle and they definitely never flirt. In addition to perfecting their “RBF” there are other things women can do to tamp down workplace harassment. In Bialik’s case, her parents never let her out of their sight when she was a teenager on the set of Blossom.

Sexual assault, though, is a much more brazen and legally consequential act. Men who forcibly rape women are not going to be stopped with dirty looks or shame. There are things women can do to prevent themselves from being the victim—avoid being in a hotel with these men alone, for instance—but the likelihood is that someone else will be.

All of which is to say: If you’re going to write “me too,” could you please be a little more specific about what behavior you’re protesting?

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  • That’s my biggest problem with it. I think it’s doing more harm to those who’ve actually been assaulted. Have I been assaulted? No. Have I been harrassed? Yes. Will I write “Me Too?” Absolutely not.

    • LE Simmons

      thank you! keep thinking the same thing.

    • Elisabeth Bridges

      The original post, if you’ll take a look, says that this movement is for “…all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted…”

      The point that Me Too is trying to make is that the problems are related, and their magnitude is overwhelming. Downplaying the emotional/psychological harm that harassment causes only adds to the problem. If we say that it’s not a problem for men to follow women, shouting explicit remarks, because it’s “not the same as assaulting them,” we’re giving them permission and contributing to rape culture.

      This type of denial is WHY we need this movement.

  • Jean Pennie

    Thank you for this – nails my feeling toward the latest ‘movement’ perfectly.

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  • Kendall Gangel

    I didn’t post a #metoo yesterday. I just didn’t know that I wanted to get any questions. Your article got me thinking though…was my experience enough to qualify? Let’s see shall we. As an early blooming 5th grader with a “d” cup chest, I probably brought on the comments and stares of grown men because you know how sexy and irresistible a chubby, shy grade school girl can be. As a 16 year old cashier at a hardware store who was afraid to go in the cash room alone with the repulsive store manager who talked to my chest and tried to sit touching me while I counted out money drawers, it was most likely my fault. Nothing looks sexier than a pair of jeans and a red and white stripped collard button down work shirt. Perhaps my RBF was not on point yet. How about the time I was followed by a car when I was out walking my dog at 6 in the morning and I had to sneak across the dark middle of a park and run into my apartment building to watch him pull up outside my door. How dare I temp him with my bed head and sweats and a hoodie. I might have been asking for it being out at such an inappropriate time of the day. OR…maybe the family “friend” who groomed me to be his plaything at 6 or 7 will qualify me for the #metoo in your eyes? Who are you to decide who is eligible to use this hashtag? We owe nothing to you or anyone else to justify our experiences. And it’s not just a Hollywood thing, abusers and jerks live in Kansas too. You wanted details…now you have mine and you know what, #METOO!

    • M.Brenn

      Thank you!

  • john f.

    – sexual assault and forcible rape are also two different things with specific legal definitions, yet the point of this essay relies on conflating and equating the two
    – “You can blame Alyssa Milano.” Isn’t it more accurate to say you can blame the sexual assaulters, harassers, rapers, like Weinstein and Donald Trump?
    – you admit “One does not want to be the victim of either” but then still somehow find a way to make a culture wars issue out of opposing both in this “me too” campaign
    – you would be surprised that the “RBF” female executives you mentioned have very likely been sexually harassed at work; the fact they likely shut it down completely immediately doesn’t change that it happened to them too
    – sexual harassment at work and outside of work is a huge problem that is part and parcel with rape culture because it devalues and objectifies women, denying their personhood as equal professionals on an equal playing field and often stunting their ability to progress professionally in a context in which the harassers control their career paths
    – the slug for this piece says the “me too” campaign is “probably well intentioned” — you are so immersed in your purposeful culture warrioring that you can’t even concede that women writing “me too” status updates and the campaign that inspired it (by a woman who has also been harassed and assaulted) are *in fact* well intentioned
    – saying “RFB” is a solution to harassment or assault again, consistent with the rape culture that seems to be part and parcel with this culture war, places the blame on victims of these attacks — if only they’d had better “RFB” or worn different clothes the hapless men around them wouldn’t have harassed them
    – this essay never mentions teaching and insisting that men cease to be harassers, assaulters, and rapers
    – overall, a very disappointing essay, full of bad faith posturing and projection; very unpersuasive. Sad.

    • Jeff McCabe

      Point. Missed. And talk about bad faith and projection. Physicians, heal thyself. The vast majority of us already insist men (and women) cease to be harassers, assaulters and rapers. As well as murderes, thieves, kidnappers and felons in general. Turns out that isn’t always enough. Who knew? Sad.

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  • Jason N.

    My take on the campaign is that, be it criminal or just someone being an a-hole, neither are acceptable.

  • Mirja Tapola

    I think women like you are part of the prolem. My me too statusis about men sticking their fingers on my butt when I was 13, 14, 15 etc, on the street waiting for the light to switch or on a bus or where ever. It is about boys making a game of grabbing my breasts at school when I was twelve and was one of the first ones to develop. Mine is about the one making a public show of his genitals and suggesting all sorts while walking home… If you’d know me, you’d also know I’ve never flirted, always dressed very modestly and could never have been called beautiful. Nothing I did can have caused it. That’s what me too is about. If you have never experienced you have no idea what these ‘small things’ can do to a person. So please, stop being part of the problem.

    • Rock

      Do you not understand the implications of putting those horrible things that have happened to you, under the same umbrella as “whistling to a woman as she walks by”? Don’t get me wrong, what happened to you sounds horrible. But making this blanketed statement to cover allllll types of nefarious behaviors downplays and waters down the seriousness of what actually happened to you. For instance, you can put “MeToo” for that horrible stuff that happened to you. And an associate can put “MeToo” just because a guy asked for her number outside a bar. Two different situations, two very different levels of severity.

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  • Robin Maxfield

    I think it’s just a way for women to share their feelings with each other, I was treated inappropriately by a manager when I was 18. Of course it was not as traumatizing as a rape would have been but it still left me with a bad feeling about myself and made me feel that I was somewhat helpless when it came to my “superiors” in the work place. I would like to think we have come a long way since 1976 but maybe not. I think being able to share our experiences just lets women know they are not alone.

  • Elisabeth Bridges

    MAYBE those bosses of yours advertised their gun ownership BECAUSE this is a huge problem. The Me Too campaign isn’t just about assault, it’s about any time a woman is made to feel shamed, degraded, or afraid.

    I am polite. I never flirt. But I walk down the street in jeans and a turtleneck sweater, and a car full of young men whizzes by, and they’re all hanging out the windows, whistling and cheering as if I were performing a strip-tease. Are you suggesting I shouldn’t be bothered by this? Are you suggesting that it isn’t a problem that I reflexively go into “battle mode” any time I walk past a man, due to bad experiences?

    As I wrote in my “Me Too” post, my hesitance to share anything at all because my experiences “weren’t that bad” is part of the problem.

    • Kris Hancock

      That’s sexual harrassment and they are idiots. Unfoturantely, men have been doing it for ages. Back before the 60’s and 70’s, men treated women like they had nothing to contribute to society, stay at home, housewives. Women finally started to wake up to that fact in the 60’s & 70’s (I am Woman, hear me roar!!) Some men don’t like it when women have any kind of power over them so they lash out by sexually degrading them, either by harrassement (threaten them with their jobs) or and assault. I think some of these women coming forward recently, allowed the assault and harrassment to happen in order to secure their jobs or positions in society. Others because it was the only way they could suceed in a “Man’s World”!

  • orlando098

    I agree there needs to be more distinction made. If #metoo means ‘did you at any time in your whole life experience some situation where you received some sexual comment or attention that wasn’t really welcome at the time’ well I doubt there is any woman who couldn’t say #metoo, unless she has two heads or something. Or until such time as all men are replaced by androids without sexuality. But rapes and assaults or sexual coertion by those in authority etc is serious and usually criminal and should be treated as such.

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  • Emily Erin de Castrique

    Naomi, we get it: you care about violent-predatory men more than women.