The #MeToo movement — which began with accusations of sexual coercion against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and became a tidal wave of women, and some men, coming forward to name other alleged predators — will soon turn 2 years old.
There is widespread agreement that #MeToo shone a much-needed spotlight on powerful abusers who enjoyed impunity thanks to their status, whether in Hollywood, in the media or in politics. And yet virtually from the start, there have been worries of #MeToo overreach — of careers and lives being destroyed by charges that, while not necessarily false, have plenty of gray areas.
Two years later, it seems clear that the concerns were warranted.
Some of the men taken down by #MeToo (and they are nearly all men) certainly faced what looks like a long-overdue reckoning. Among them are former CBS host Charlie Rose, credibly accused by multiple female staffers of coercive sexual advances that included unsolicited nudity, and former Metropolitan Opera conductor James Levine, accused, after years of rumors, of molesting several men when they were minors.
But other cases are far less clear-cut. Take the resignation of Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) in late 2017 under a barrage of charges that began with a 2006 photo in which Franken — then a comedian — mimed groping fellow entertainer Leeann Tweeden on a flight home from a tour before U.S. troops, and continued with claims of inappropriate kissing and touching. A recent story by veteran journalist Jane Mayer in The New Yorker strongly suggests Franken got a raw deal.
The prank with Tweeden, while tacky, was a humorous reference to the bawdy skit the two had performed on the tour. Mayer’s article debunks Tweeden’s claim that Franken had deliberately written the skit in a way that would force her to kiss him, and casts serious doubt on the other charges.
Another comedian, Aziz Ansari, was nearly destroyed over a charge of being a jerk on a date and misreading a woman’s confusing cues. Ansari is performing again, but only at the price of displaying abject contrition in his monologues.
Jack Smith, a former writer for the millennial-oriented progressive website Mic, was not as lucky: He lost his job last year after five women accused him of being a controlling, manipulative, sometimes overbearing boyfriend. (One woman claimed Smith once choked her nonconsensually during sex, which he denied.)
There are more stories out there, many of them obscure. Some accused men may be guilty of nothing worse than a flirtation or relationship gone wrong. Some may have behaved badly but in the context of a mutually toxic relationship — or of mental illness, as in the case of Canadian game developer Alec Holowka. Because of an accusation of sexual and emotional abuse against Holowka in a nearly decade-old relationship, he was dropped from a project he’d helped create and killed himself.
To frame these complicated situations in a black-and-white formula of male oppression of women is simplistic and polarizing, with little room for nuance and forgiveness. The public seems to agree. For instance, the recent #MeToo charges against opera legend Plácido Domingo, whose offense seems to have been persistent but noncoercive pursuit of some female colleagues, have been mostly met with sympathy for the accused.
We should look to restore the balance. Sexual abuse can destroy lives and careers; so can accusations that result in punishment far beyond the crime.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.