The national conversation has recently turned in one of the darkest and most important directions in recent memory. With the revelations of sexual misconduct by larger than life figures such as Harvey Weinstein and Al Franken, national attention has focused on the topic of sexual harassment and abuse on a scale unseen since the Bill Clinton era. In the nineties Bill Clinton was both condemmed and defended by the mainstream, praised for his accomplishments and hated for his behavior, elected President twice and impeached. Accusations against Bill Clinton sparked an important national conversation that was never brought to a close, quickly transforming into an item of partisan debate that carried on for decades, into the 2016 election.
The wasted opportunity to truly discuss the issue of sexual harassment 20 years ago has lead to the birth of a larger, yet still flawed movement today. While the multiple allegations against Bill Clinton were often brilliantly reported by all sides of the media, the response by political rivals of the president lead exponents of the feminist movement to shy away from the issue, with Gloria Steinem even pronouncing the “one free grope rule”, which is exactly what it sounds like. The #MeToo movement today, in attempting to avoid partisan fights and advance what is undoubtedly a fundamental issue, seems to err on the opposite end of the spectrum entirely: no longer are men allowed “one free grope”, an unquestionably disgusting statement, instead we are ready to equate the disturbing conduct of Sen. Franken and the photo taken of one of those actions with the decades of predatory actions and abuse by Harvey Weinstein or the sexual pursuit of underage teenagers by Judge Roy Moore. In our fear of dismissing legitimate claims and stifling an important social movement, and in rightly avoiding idiotic and dangerous expressions such as “legitimate rape”, we seem to go to the other extreme in refusing to admit that there is a difference between rape and a forced kiss, between pedophilia and grabbing the ass of a colleague, just like there is a difference between clubbing your neighbor with a baseball bat and tripping a blind man in the street; all are crimes, all are despicable, but to different degrees.
As a nascent movement, #MeToo also remains short sighted: the abundance of victims that finally feel free to come out with their stories has left no place for forgiveness and redemption of the perpetrators. While survivors have always faced strong institutionalized oppression, facing new trauma in attempting to expose their attacker and often failing to receive justice, the answer can’t be simply swinging to the other extreme, making retaliation against the offender the end point of a more just process: there has to be room in the conversation for them to return to civil society if they are willing and able to redeem themselves. Without the possibility of reform, exposing and punishing the perpetrators is no more useful than punching a Nazi, or putting a drug user in jail for 10 years. Out of sight out of mind doesn’t work when it comes to societal ills.
We have the chance to forever improve our society, to take a giant leap towards equality and civility, but if we remain unable to address the problems with the current conversation, to accept the existence of degrees of offence and the necessity to work with both perpetrators of sexual misconduct and their victims, we risk facing a backlash that will once again set the issue back 20 years.