The #MeToo movement was born about three months ago in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. By all accounts, he exhibited sexually predatory behavior in Hollywood for years with the protection of others in power and the willful blindness of those dependant on his favor. Not only did these revelations rock the industry, they started a more generalized movement to identify not only sexual predators, but sexually inappropriate behavior according to radical feminist standards. And a hashtag was born.
The hashtag became a gathering of women who for one reason or another, chose to identify themselves as victims. Sometimes decades after the fact. With the distance of years and the application of new standards to old behavior, some men were marked as harassers and abusers. The disruption in the entertainment industry was so emotional it spurned the Motion Picture Academy to develop guidelines to police the problem that are being embraced by some members and questioned by others.
It also caused political leaders to begin to take inventory of their own members and take a position in the movement. This is where Attorney Cynthia Garrett, Co-President of Families Advocating for Campus Equality (FACE), and Board President of Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (SAVE), gets increasingly concerned. Cynthia has been on the frontlines of the campus sexual assault debate and sees the politicization of the movement as both dangerous and concerning for several reasons.
According to Cynthia, the early roots of defining sexual harassment in the workplace and educational institutions made perfect sense. At the time "quid pro quo" was defined as the demand for sexual favors in a relationship when a clear power differential existed between those involved. A body of law was created and remedies became available.
However, this morphed into "hostile workplace", where no power differential needed to exist and the perception of hostility relied almost solely on the receiver of the communication. The drive to broaden the definition of sexual harassment has continued up through the Dear Colleague letter policies at universities nationwide and the #MeToo movement. Sexual misconduct and abuse can now consist of non-sexual physical contact, repeated requests for a date and even regret after the fact. With this expansion what is now labeled sexual assault or sexual harassment, Cynthia is witnessing some worrisome trends.
The first is a move by several groups to lengthen or eliminate the statutes of limitations for sexual crimes. With evidence and witnesses disappearing over time, she sees the potential to criminalize both legitimate misunderstandings in relationships and behavior in one instance that might have been impolite, but not predatory.
Another is a move by one contingent within the American Law Institute (ALI) to criminalize a lack of affirmative consent in sexual relations. This concerns her because the ALI drafts model criminal and civil codes that are often adopted at various levels of government. Are we really ready for a "he said, she said" as to whether or not there was an explicit "yes" to a particular sexual act? Do they plan on developing pre-coital contracts? So far the organization has not issued such a code, but it remains a subject of debate.
Next, she sees the concept of "believe the victim" seeping into the criminal justice system. This includes District Attorneys taking cases that do not rise to the criminal definition of sexual assault because of political or social pressure. According to Cynthia, "This trend has the potential to turn the entire concept of "innocent until proven guilty" upside down in cases of sexual assault." She has already seen the willingness to throw out due process on college campuses.
She also sees politicians, such as Senators Gillibrand and Harris front and center in the #MeToo movement. The forced resignations of John Conyers and Al Franken seem like a signal to her that the idea of sexual misconduct is going to be weaponized politically to include persistent or distant lousy behavior that is not criminal assualt. Will one former college co-ed who says that male candidate for this particular district pinched her bottom at a frat party 15 years ago be enough to derail a campaign in 2018? At the rate we're going it could be.
On the bright side, Cynthia is encouraged to see women speaking out against the more worrisome elements of movement. Some, such as Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid's Tale, are particularly encouraging. This third wave feminist icon recently wrote a stinging op-ed regarding the #MeToo movement. In it she labels herself a "Bad Feminist" and likens the movement to the Salem Witch Trials:
This structure – guilty because accused – has applied in many more episodes in human history than Salem. It tends to kick in during the "Terror and Virtue" phase of revolutions – something has gone wrong, and there must be a purge, as in the French Revolution, Stalin's purges in the USSR, the Red Guard period in China, the reign of the Generals in Argentina and the early days of the Iranian Revolution. The list is long and Left and Right have both indulged. Before "Terror and Virtue" is over, a great many have fallen by the wayside
So much for wearing red dresses and bonnets to the next protest, right ladies?
Most of all Cynthia is struck by the victims of criminal sexual assault who say this all encompassing definition undermines their experience. There is no comparison between being raped and a bad or uncomfortable relationship situation or rejection.
Cynthia believes this now pervasive trend started on college campuses and has now morphed into something much larger. Her hopes to reverse this trend lie in her work with FACE and SAVE working closely with policy makers, institutions and those on the other side of the issue to address real problems and preserve due process. Let's hope there is success before too many fall by the wayside.