In a recent New York Times op-ed “Publicly, We Say #MeToo. Privately, We Have Misgivings,", Daphne Merkin expresses the private disdain she and her other “feminist friends,” as well as “random people [she talks] to in supermarket lines,” have with the #MeToo movement.
Merkin laments what she calls a return to “victimology paradigm”—young women are perceived to be and perceive themselves to be “as frail as Victorian housewives.” Additionally, Ms. Merkin speaks to the experience of the “majority of women” she knows who have “been in situations in which men have come on to them,” and who took the risk that came with rebuffing these unwanted advances. What she fails to acknowledge, however, is that not every woman is in the position to take this risk, for reasons that are a far cry from frailty. First, women are valid in their fear of retaliation. Whether it’s concern for their physical safety or their careers, confronting men in the face of harassment and abuse is no easy feat. Especially when it comes to sexual misconduct in the workplace, most women do not have the luxury of career success, a large fan base, and secure livelihood that is held by trailblazers of the movement such as Ashley Judd, Selma Blair and Taylor Swift. Most women facing workplace harassment are not frail in the slightest—they are working class women with the incredible strength to keep supporting their families, since confronting predators could result in the absence of food on the table.
Merkin also expresses distress about the lack of clarity around defining the difference between harassment and assault and “inappropriate conduct.” She describes asking for verbal consent to proceed with a sexual advance as childish. I believe that Merkin is entirely missing the point of the #MeToo movement. There is certainly a spectrum of objectionable behavior—driven by context. This is not a movement about asking your long-term romantic partner for permission to hold hands. Nor is it a lesson in proper etiquette when out on a date. I agree that inappropriate behavior is not necessarily sexual harassment. When the offender is your boss, however, the range of appropriate behavior shrinks significantly. Merkin conflates expressing sexual interest in someone with the abuse of power. It is never appropriate for an employer to make sexual advances on employees. Even an employee must exercise caution when pursuing a co-worker, ensuring that the person of interest does not feel forced and that a rebuff would not jeopardize their work relationship.
Contrary to Merkin’s unease, I see a clear difference between flirting and sexual harassment. Flirting is playful and fun. It requires reading another person’s emotions and body language well, and makes everyone involved feel good. Sexual harassment, on the other hand, degrades and disregards. It is forced and uncomfortable. Yes, it would certainly be awkward if my boss asked before making a sexual advance on me. Because consent is “innately clumsy and retrograde?” No, because my boss should never be making anything remotely resembling a sexual advance on me. No woman should feel undervalued and unsafe at work, nor silenced for fear of losing everything. The #MeToo movement demands equal respect; it is far past time for women and their work to be treated and valued equally to men.
Merkin believes this is a scary time for women and men—a witch hunt, she goes so far as to mention. We can all do better, she says. We can raise both our sons and our daughters better. Yet her callous defense of men and wild cries of censorship and moralism only incite further division. Rather than question women’s agency when hearing about “adult women who helplessly acquiesce to sexual demands,” Merkin might instead try to build the strength she wishes to see by believing and supporting fellow women.
Miriam Levitin is a Trinity junior.