Alex, a 34-year-old social media contractor in Washington, D.C., is telling me about the emotional fallout he experienced after repeated sexual violence at the hands of another student during his sophomore year at boarding school. “I was the smallest, youngest person in the dorms, and it was pretty easy to dominate me physically,” he explains. “I felt how most people [who experience sexual violence] feel when it comes to this kind of thing: shame, embarrassment and like I could have fought more.” He adds that he’s never discussed the incidents in therapy or told his family. “My parents already feel tremendous guilt and regret about sending me to boarding school as they feel they missed out on my formative years,” he continues. “I don’t want to make that exponentially worse, which I know it would.”
Despite being a victim of sexual violence, when I ask Alex about the #MeToo movement, he says he’s never associated it with his experience. “I definitely didn’t think it was for me,” he explains in a past tense that suggests the moment has passed. “Women have been oppressed for so long that the #MeToo movement felt more like a recognition by society of all the atrocious things women have experienced.” He tells me he’s “painfully aware” of how society is geared toward straight white men like himself. “This has created an inner dilemma,” he continues. “As a male, I tell myself that it’s not about me and that it’s important for the spotlight to be on women.”
Craig, a 21-year-old software engineer in the Bay Area who was raped by a woman at a house party, feels similarly. “#MeToo is a great movement, but I’d also feel kinda guilty co-opting it for male victims,” he says, drawing an analogy between men using #MeToo to tell their own stories and a person responding to Black Lives Matter with “all lives matter.” “Sure, there are problems [for men],” he explains, “but I feel like the focus is best on the most affected communities.”
A week from Saturday, October 5, 2019, marks the two-year anniversary of the New York Times story about Harvey Weinstein paying off women who accused him of rape and sexual harassment for decades. Several days later, Alyssa Milano tweeted, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet,” which resulted in social media exploding with personal accounts of sexual violence accompanied by the hashtag #MeToo.
This was the moment that the #MeToo movement was propelled into mainstream consciousness, and the backlash was swift. Several high-profile commentators, including Liam Neeson, described #MeToo as a witch hunt, and a 2018 NPR poll found that 40 percent of people thought that the #MeToo movement had gone “too far.” Meanwhile, media outlets shifted the focus from victims to hand-wringing about the futures of its perpetrators and musing about forgiveness and redemption. And though several high-profile men like Brendan Fraser and Terry Crews spoke openly about their experiences of sexual violence, the most common media framing of #MeToo was about male abuse of women. In particular, publications focused on stories about powerful, rich, white men in Hollywood, on Capitol Hill and in executive boardrooms sexually harassing and violating women in the workplace, and the victims most associated in the public consciousness with the moment are white, female celebrities like Rose McGowan and Alyssa Milano.
This “men vs. women” framing puts men who have experienced sexual violence in a difficult position. Peter, a 43-year-old writer and father in Brooklyn, tells me that, like Alex and Craig, he doesn’t think of #MeToo as being about men like him even though he was sexually abused as a child by two older teen girls. “Nope, this is ‘their thing,’ meaning I see the movement as predominantly about women who have been used, coerced and manipulated by men of power in professional situations and usually have lives or careers derailed with intent,” he explains. “I see #MeToo as a movement to give a voice to women who have had their voices silenced for so long. What happened to me was bad too, but I’d feel very uneasy trying to glom onto their coattails.”
Victims of sexual violence are often reluctant to openly discuss their experiences and identify as “survivors,” but male victims are uniquely prone to concerns that their experiences make them “less of a man.” The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) notes on its website that it’s common for men and boys who have experienced sexual violence to feel shame or self-doubt because 1) they couldn’t physically overpower the perpetrator; 2) they may have gotten an erection or ejaculated during their assaults, feeling confused and/or culpable as a result; and 3) they might have been abused by a male, causing them to question their sexual orientation. After the abuse, too, many men feel as though they should be stoic and unemotional about the incidents. Certain survivors, including black men and trans men, may be especially reluctant to report or discuss abuse.
All of this rings true for Peter, who says he ignored and minimized what happened to him for years because he thought it was “no big deal” and “in the past.” “I thought it wasn’t abuse — abuse is when a priest molests you or you’re raped or something,” he explains. “I’ve researched this stuff over the last 18 months and understand this is all textbook thinking for victims.” He was also made to feel complicit by his abusers. “I was a little kid, but I was getting erections, so they branded me as a pervert,” Peter continues. “I really did believe them — it’s hard to unlearn something that you were taught repeatedly at a young age.”
I also speak to a man who wishes to be identified only as Mike (not his real name), who tells me that performative misandry in online spaces has made him reluctant to discuss his experience of sexual violence. “I don’t like to talk about it for two main reasons,” he explains. “The first is that it’s just really fucking painful even with a whole lot of details redacted, and the second is that a few excessively neurotic cis white bros having breakdowns sounds like an acceptable and possibly even desirable amount of collateral damage [from #MeToo].” When I ask him to elaborate, he points to the MALE TEARS coffee mugs and says he’s probably “drunk from the ‘cis dudes are trash’ Twitter firehose and internalized it.” Basically, he perceives that male pain is considered laughable or even desirable in certain places.
The #MeToo movement wasn’t started by Alyssa Milano, even if her 2017 tweet triggered the viral takeoff of the #MeToo hashtag. It was created by activist Tarana Burke after she was haunted for almost a decade by her own response to a young girl with whom she was working at a youth camp, who revealed to Burke the grotesque abuse she suffered at the hands of her stepfather. “I listened until I literally could not take it anymore, which turned out to be less than five minutes,” Burke writes about the genesis of the #MeToo movement, a movement she says “started in the deepest, darkest place” in her soul:
“Right in the middle of her sharing her pain with me, I cut her off and immediately directed her to another female counselor who could ‘help her better.’ … I could not find the strength to say out loud the words that were ringing in my head over and over again as she tried to tell me what she had endured. … I couldn’t even bring myself to whisper… me too.”
Spurred by the pain of this moment, Burke has been a committed public advocate for victims of sexual violence ever since. “In 2006, I pulled out a piece of paper, and I wrote ‘Me Too’ on the top of it,” Burke said in a 2018 TED Talk. “I proceeded to write out an action plan for building a movement based on empathy between survivors that would help us feel like we can heal, that we weren’t the sum total of the things that happened to us.”
Because #MeToo has been cast in terms of gender wars and partisan politics, men have tended to see their role in it as either allies to women who have experienced sexual violence (especially if they have progressive politics) or as defenders of men and conservative values. Only a small number of men see their role as being that of fellow survivors. “I really didn’t feel like #MeToo had anything to do with my experience,” Tom, a 24-year-old contractor from Washington, tells me, even though he was raped by a girl when he was younger. “It was really good for the women it spoke to and was a net positive overall, but I felt like it wasn’t for me or my place to say anything.” (Tom, too, speaks of #MeToo in the past tense.)
However, Burke has explicitly and repeatedly affirmed that the #MeToo movement is for all survivors of sexual violence, including men and boys. On the TED stage, she describes #MeToo as “a movement of survivors and advocates,” and stresses the importance of focusing on power structures that operate on an intersectional basis:
“This is a movement about the 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys who are sexually assaulted every year and who carry those wounds into adulthood. It’s about the 84 percent of trans women who will be sexually assaulted this year, and the Indigenous women who are three and a half times more likely to be sexually assaulted than any other group. Or people with disabilities, who are seven times more likely to be sexually abused. It’s about the 60 percent of black girls like me who will be experiencing sexual violence before they turn 18, and the thousands and thousands of low-wage workers who are being sexually harassed right now on jobs that they can’t afford to quit. This is a movement about the far-reaching power of empathy.”
Still, many of the men I speak to use language that makes it clear that they’re familiar with, and sometimes supportive of, a certain political approach centered around identity that’s become popular online, in which people with “privilege” are expected to humble and decenter themselves by developing perspective about the advantages afforded to them by virtue of being white and/or male and/or heterosexual (and so on). Recall, for example, Alex’s “painful awareness” of how society is geared toward “straight white men like him” and his contention that it’s “important for the spotlight to be on women.” Or Craig’s “all lives matter” analogy. Or Peter not wanting to “glom onto the coattails” of female survivors.
These are well-meaning sentiments, and it can only be a good thing for people to have perspective about the relative amounts of power they hold and to consider how to amplify more marginalized voices, especially in the context of movement building. But the idea that men talking about the sexual violence they’ve experienced would be “taking up space” or “hogging the spotlight” is antithetical to the goals of #MeToo, which Burke has explicitly said isn’t about gender per se but rather about the power structures that make sexual violence so prevalent and devastating. “#MeToo isn’t a women’s movement,” Burke told an interviewer during the Time 100 Summit in New York City. “Men’s first role in this movement is as survivors. We don’t even acknowledge men as survivors.”
“We have to dismantle the building blocks of sexual violence: power and privilege,” Burke says in her TED Talk. “So much of what we hear about the #MeToo movement is about individual bad actors or depraved, isolated behavior, and it fails to recognize that anybody in a position of power comes with privilege, and it renders those without that power more vulnerable.” She points out that teacher/student, coach/athlete, law enforcement/citizen and parent/child relationships can all have “an incredible imbalance of power” and that “we have to re-educate ourselves and our children to understand that power and privilege doesn’t always have to destroy and take — it can be used to serve and build.”
And so, if #MeToo is understood as a two-year-old hashtag and social media moment focused on powerful, famous male perpetrators and sexual harassment in white-collar workplaces, it’s not surprising that it’s failing to spark mass solidarity — not only among men like Alex, Craig, Peter, Mike and Tom who have experienced sexual violence, but also among people of all genders who have been violated by non-famous bosses, managers, priests, romantic partners, parents, grandparents, corrections officers and coaches.
But if Me Too (sans hashtag) is understood as an ongoing movement comprising survivors and their advocates — focused on power, solidarity and mutual support rather than famous “bad apples” and gender antagonism — then thousands more people have a reason to join, and men should absolutely be among the ranks.