WASHINGTON – Four months since the viral spread of the #MeToo movement, President Donald Trump, early Saturday morning, seemingly weighed in on the growing cultural movement amid previous silence on the issue:
Peoples lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation. Some are true and some are false. Some are old and some are new. There is no recovery for someone falsely accused – life and career are gone. Is there no such thing any longer as Due Process?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 10, 2018
Though it mentions no names, his tweet comes in defense of two former White House aides that recently resigned in the last week over domestic abuse allegations from ex-wives. (Staff secretary Rob Porter and speechwriter David Sorensen both denied claims of physical and emotional abuse.) Trump’s call for due process aligns itself with a common argument made against the #MeToo movement, which calls for believing women survivors of assault, harassment and sexual misconduct when they make their allegations public.
On Tuesday evening, The Atlantic hosted a panel discussion with three prominent writers currently shaping the discussion on the movement. Megan Garber, a staff writer and Gillian B. White, a senior associate editor, have written viral analyses on the backlash to the #MeToo movement as well as the lack of inclusion for women of color in the national conversation. The two millennial women have publicly disagreed with third panelist and contributing editor, Caitlin Flanagan, who has criticized aspects of the movement. A woman in her 50s, her arguments often highlight a generational divide between the second and third waves of feminism. But the trio addressed the call for stricter distinctions between issues of workplace harassment, violent abuse and rape and consent. Their ardent disagreements show the movement is far from reaching a consensus on these contentious issues.
Several opinion columnists have argued that publicly naming sexual harassers is “mob justice,” and that the #MeToo movement has gone too far in publicly shaming harassers and ruining their careers. Director Woody Allen, following the Harvey Weinstein allegations, warned of the movement leading to “a witch hunt atmosphere, a Salem atmosphere, where every guy in an office who winks at a woman is suddenly having to call a lawyer to defend himself.”
Last month, Babe.net, a women and lifestyle site, published a detailed account of a sexual encounter between actor Aziz Ansari, and an anonymous woman “Grace” who said she felt violated by Ansari. The public outcry of critics of the #MeToo movement were joined by some supporters from the other side. They felt that feminists were “angry and temporarily powerful, and last night they destroyed a man who didn’t deserve it,” wrote Flanagan.
The rallying cry of “Believe Women” was never about ignoring due process or an investigation at all, White said. The phrase, commonly used by #MeToo supporters and often times evolving into “Believe All Women,” White argued is only used in a literal sense in order for critics to shut down its original sentiment.
“Women historically have not been believed,” Garber said, pointing to Anita Hill’s sexual harassment testimony before the Senate judiciary Committee in 1991. The phrase “Believe Women,” Garber and White said, is about flipping the narrative around women’s harassment allegations.
“Let’s have the default be ‘let’s investigate this’ and believe that if a woman says something horrible or violent happened to her that we’re going to take that claim seriously,” White said.
The language used to describe harassment, assault and sexual misconduct is vague and encompasses a wide scale of experiences, Garber said. But it’s necessary, she said, in working to capture the range of things that can happen to a woman when it is taken for granted that her body is not fully her own.
The Ansari story marked a turning point for the nascent #MeToo movement. Perpetrators like Olympic gymnast doctor Larry Nassar easily fit the mold of violent abuser created by the early takedowns of Hollywood mogul Weinstein and actor Kevin Spacey.
But the Ansari episode put the national spotlight on intimate relationships, involving consent and power imbalances outside of workplace environments.
Flanagan criticized the way Ansari was portrayed in Grace’s account. “Together, the two women may have destroyed Ansari’s career, which is now the punishment for every kind of male sexual misconduct, from the grotesque to the disappointing,” she wrote.
She argued that while most of the movement is hesitant to separate these different degrees of abuse, assault and misconduct into different boxes, it’s necessary for the movement’s survival. Women are hesitant to “impose categories” for fear of implying that one woman’s experience is lesser, she said, but without them the moment will just fade. If #MeToo is going to tackle a wide range of experiences head on, they need to provide solutions.
However, Garber and White see the creation of a hierarchy of sexual misconduct through these experiences as detrimental. It could relegate the voices of victims of misconduct from different backgrounds and identities out of the #MeToo conversation.
In fact, calling for precise definitions and guidelines on harassment post-Ansari could distract from the more important narrative emerging from Grace’s accounts. Her story made it clear that when it is acceptable for women to engage in intimacy without enthusiastic consent, the power of sexual coercion is enlarged. The #MeToo stories that exist in the gray middle between feminists’ sex positive movement and their anti-harassment moment, could largely be erased by trying to fit each story into boxes.
White says there’s a false binary at play. “You’re either having fun and have total agency… Or you’re just a passive victim.”