In the wake of the #MeToo movement, “he said, she said,” is quickly becoming, “she said, he cringed and remained silent.” Another variation is, “she said, he apologized profusely and then resigned.”
This would describe Al Franken, who did what he thought was the honorable thing even though many of his former colleagues now regret forcing him out of office (except for former Democratic presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand, emphasis on “former”).
But some men — including, as of this week, Matt Lauer — have decided to change the paradigm and started to speak out after being accused of sexual misconduct. There was Brett Kavanaugh, who passionately defended himself against sexual assault allegations lodged on the eve of his confirmation. There is Pennsylvania State Sen. Daylin Leach, who has filed defamation actions against several parties (including my paper) for making or reporting accusations against him (what I call the, “she said, he sued” dynamic.)
Lauer is the most recent example of an accused male refusing to go gentle into that good night a la Dylan Thomas. The former broadcast star, whose meteoric rise included a stint here in Philadelphia and who became a household name as a long-running “Today” show anchor, was fired after stories of his extramarital affairs became public two years ago. At the time, Lauer remained fairly silent, retreating into a family bubble as he tried to save his marriage and protect his children. The marriage ended, and so did Lauer’s run as a public figure.
That was true until this past week, when accusations of rape exploded in anticipation of the release of Pulitzer Prize-winner Ronan Farrow’s new book, “Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators,” which details the reporting that launched the #MeToo movement. As dramatic as his retreat from public spotlight seemed in 2017, that was the tone of re-emergence this Wednesday when Lauer categorically denied accusations of rape made by Brooke Nevils, a former colleague at NBC. Lauer came out swinging in a public statement on the matter:
“It is alleged that an extramarital, but consensual, sexual encounter I have previously admitted having, was in fact an assault. It is categorically false, ignores the facts, and defies common sense.”
In other words, Matt Lauer is speaking out in his own defense, something that many men have been too afraid to do for fear of being called sexist or misogynistic or other, more indelicate terms that have entered the lexicon thanks to a certain occupant of the White House.
#MeToo has spread the message that women need to find their voices and speak out when they feel they have been abused. As someone who works with female victims of domestic violence and who grew up with women who had been abused by their partners or relatives and never dared open their mouths, I celebrate any movement that encourages victims to tell their “truths” — as long as they are indeed truths. Unfortunately, one woman’s vague, long-buried “fact” can be another man’s defamatory, life-destroying fiction.
That is why it is as important to listen to the men who say, “I did not do this, this was not what happened,” as it is not to shame women into silence or dismiss out of hand their uncorroborated accounts. We have to find that middle point between the two pendulum extremes of “excusing all men” and “believing all women.”
I think that what Matt Lauer is doing is an important step. While his moral code, which apparently allows for serial adultery, is clearly flawed, that does not mean he should wear the label of “rapist” for the rest of his natural life, if he indeed did not commit rape.
Whenever people are given an opportunity to defend themselves against unconfirmed allegations, whether through lawsuits, public interviews, or impassioned statements in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, we guarantee that our social and legal systems will be as fair as humanly possible. Guaranteeing that right for men, in this #MeToo era, is not another way of silencing women. It is the only way to make sure the truth is spoken and heard.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.