Sadie, a 25-year-old Londoner working in the digital media and PR industry, is telling me how the #MeToo movement has effectively bypassed her workplace. “A married manager spent five months of last year actively trying to push me into having an affair with him, constantly asking why I was ‘fighting him’ on the subject,” she says. Despite nothing romantic ever happening between them, the more senior manager harassed Sadie for resisting his advances and was openly jealous of her friends, dates and even her cat. “I went on a date with someone else and got a barrage of texts from him about it, saying that all I saw when I looked at him was a wedding ring,” she elaborates. “He said he couldn’t believe I’d picked this ‘boy’ instead of him.”
Sadie tells me that dealing with the manager’s constant advances has been exhausting, and she’s anxious that his indiscretions will harm her reputation in the workplace. “It’s been terrifying trying to stop people from finding out and seeming like the cliché younger girl at work going after a married man,” she explains. “When in fact, it’s the other way around.” She says the whole experience has left her shocked that behavior so classically inappropriate could happen in a post-#MeToo era.
To hear many men tell it, though, the #MeToo movement hasn’t only banished classic cases of sexual harassment like Sadie’s, it’s caused mass paralysis among — and muting of — ordinary men, who are now afraid to make “innocent comments” lest they be “taken the wrong way.” “It’s creating a sense of walking on eggshells,” David Bahnsen, a former managing director at Morgan Stanley, told Bloomberg last year in a report about how Wall Street personnel are now simply avoiding interacting with and even hiring women — the so-called Mike Pence rule — rather than tackling the root causes of sexual harassment. Similarly, British actor Taron Egerton told the press that he now avoids being alone with women out of fear of being accused of wrongdoing.
Cody, a 29-year-old web developer in Texas, tells me he shares this fear and quit photography after models started using internet forums to call out photographers who had taken advantage of their power. “It was great, at first,” he says. “Then the bar for what was worth sharing lowered.” He adds it became hard to tell what was genuine after posts became “libelous and slanderous.” “People were using the ‘blacklist’ to out grievances that weren’t related to safety or abuse of power,” he continues. “I stopped shooting photos around then; it was only ever an outlet for me, thankfully, but with a legit job it didn’t feel worth the risk to work with people who might take something the wrong way and then shout from the rooftops.”
However, for many of the other men and women I spoke to for this piece, there was no perceptible difference in how men were behaving at work. Most reported that men at their workplaces continue to proposition and flirt with colleagues, including women they held positions of power over. “I used to work in finance, at a hedge fund, and the entire phenomenon was regarded as a pop-cultural thing, rather than as a systemic indictment of workplace behavior,” Kevin, a 24-year-old New Yorker who now works as a tutor, tells me. “It never resulted in any introspection.” Fred, a 31-year-old working in retail, also says the movement had no dampening effect on sexual approaches in his workplace. “As a guy, I don’t see any behavior changes when guys are around women they want to flirt with,” he says. “It breaks along very traditional gender lines, where the men say either flirty or barely appropriate things, and the women have to smile or they’re seen as joyless.”
For men who do feel that the #MeToo movement has them walking on eggshells, the biggest fear seems to be having their “lives ruined” by false (or exaggerated) accusations. So far, though, nary a man has had his life destroyed by the movement: taking the most prominent accused men as a whole, the fallout has been light. Many have kept their jobs and the vast majority received no criminal or civil sanctions; and even celebrities who admitted wrongdoing, such as Louis C.K., have enjoyed successful comebacks after short periods away from the public eye. Donald Trump was elected President of the United States despite the Access Hollywood “grab them by the pussy” tape, and accused rapist Brett Kavanaugh was appointed to the Supreme Court — clearly even the most powerful positions in the nation are still available to men accused of serious wrongdoing. The idea that #MeToo allegations “ruin a man’s life” therefore doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
Nonetheless, some 40 percent of people polled by NPR now think that the #MeToo movement has gone “too far” — although what “too far” means is far from unanimous. For activists working with marginalized women, the movement hasn’t gone anywhere near far enough: So far, it has centred on wealthy white women in the entertainment industry, and its impact remains to be seen for other demographics. Sexual harassment is rife in low-wage, pink-collar industries: 90 percent of female hospitality workers surveyed in Australia said they’d been sexually harassed, and the situation is also dire for fast-food, retail, hotel and sex workers; all of whom are yet to see a widespread reckoning in their workplaces (and significant media attention).
Despite facing multiple well-evidenced accusations of sexual misconduct since the mid-1990s, R. Kelly is only now starting to face serious repercussions — namely Sony severing ties with him — a delay that journalist Jim DeRogatis and scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw have attributed to the fact that his victims are black women and girls, who Malcolm X famously called the most unprotected women in America. Arguably, the #MeToo movement has only just begun to scratch the surface of women’s exploitation and victimization, and so far, all but the most egregious, oft-accused offenders have emerged relatively unscathed.
This disconnect between how some commentators describe the #MeToo movement — as a frenzied witch hunt that demonizes men and leaves innocents vulnerable to its clutches — and the actual, modest consequences in its wake, makes the idea that the movement has all men “walking on eggshells” seem suspect. If anything, to hear the people I interviewed tell it, sexual harassment continues apace, office flirtation and sexual “banter” is still rampant and most perpetrators remain unchecked, especially if they’re owners or managers.
Take, for instance, Kimberley, a 34-year-old digital marketer from Australia. She says that at her workplace, #MeToo is only referenced to add a veneer of self-awareness to the same inappropriate behavior she’s always witnessed. “As far as I can tell,” she says, “all it’s led to is dudes saying the same old shit, then adding ‘Haha, I’m not supposed to say that now, right?’ at the end.”