This past weekend, the maelstrom of rage and recrimination surrounding our national pandemic of sexual abuse shifted into a new phase, defined by two little words: “Me too.” The concept began years ago, with activist Tarana Burke’s grassroots support network of the same name, but a tweet from actress Alyssa Milano injected it into the current news cycle, with viral results: Women in every social media space said “Me too” and used the #MeToo hashtag to share their experiences with harassment and assault, creating a chorus meant to reveal just how monumental the problem is — and how the victims can stand in solidarity against the vast array of predators, creeps, and enablers.
The #MeToo groundswell, like so much about the revolution against toxic masculinity, is a fluid, open-ended tactic with uncertain benefits; it arose from frustrations with a culture unwilling to heal itself when this topic is discussed in private, and it bets everything on the clarifying glare of public awareness. But in no time at all, men were looking to hijack the conversation by way of a mirroring movement, patched together with a constellation of hashtags including #IDidThat, #IHave, #IveDoneThat, and #IDidIt. In these response posts, men professed or alluded to their guilt and complicity with great sighs of regret.
You’ve probably noticed the pattern here. Whereas women spoke in visceral detail of the moments in which they were manipulated, humiliated, and degraded by men, the guys have a rather opaque manner of confession entirely unburdened of something like a direct apology, and disconnected from the actual women they mistreated. To state the fucking obvious: This isn’t helping, and it shows the lengths to which the woke misogynist will go to preserve his particular brand of cognitive dissonance.
Many rightly see this wave of self-pitying pseudo-reflection as a return to the hashtag discourse we lived through in 2014, after mass murderer Elliot Rodger’s misogynist worldview came to light: #YesAllWomen became a rallying cry against pervasive violence and hateful attitudes toward women, while the defensive stance #NotAllMen, a weaselly attempt to absolve a theoretically enlightened segment of the male population, festered into a satirical meme that skewers this denialism as an answer to a clear and dangerous trend. In 2017, no longer able to argue their individual decency as paramount without inviting a hail of scorn, men hope to demonstrate said decency by admitting that they are (read: were) total shitheads. They want forgiveness, the freedom to forget the injury they’ve dealt and embrace their destiny as unproblematic allies.
As styles of martyrdom go, this reads like a grave miscalculation. Women ran with #MeToo and revisited old wounds because they have no choice but to continually overcome the trauma of abuse. For men to act as though they were equally hurt by their own immoral choices — and ignore a conversation about how to practically change the future so they can instead mope about what they’ve done wrong up until now — is to minimize and condescend to the women they seem to think they’re amplifying. Unless you’re willing to take responsibility for a specific “Me too,” the “I did” falls quite flat.
So far it appears that the men acknowledging a human victim rather than vague crimes against a whole gender have done so only when backed into a corner. In reply to accusations of sexual aggression and coercion, for example, writer Sam Kriss put out a statement in which he sought to make his behavior “more explicable if not more excusable.” That, it may go without saying, is not what people typically look for in a declaration of remorse, and his exculpatory gesture turned into a lightning rod thanks to its reliance on the kind of “context” abusers always cite: We’d been intimate before, she kept in touch afterward, I didn’t realize there was no consent. Crueler still, this came on the heels of blunt recognition: His conduct, he wrote, was “absolutely unacceptable.” Unless you want to reframe the unacceptable as inevitable, why not leave it at that?
In the reputation economy, we develop an instinct to preserve our own. What sets the #MeToo phenomenon apart from the male reaction is that women risk their status and safety by telling the truth — facing more harassment and retaliation — yet men are trying to enhance their name by preemptively dragging it through the mud, and lightly enough to avoid a permanent stain. Nobody should mistake this for a sacrifice, though I doubt anybody will. Men know they are in dangerous territory these days, and that silence is no longer an option. Their next available solution is to take control of the narrative.