When Ariel, a 26-year-old Canadian, was working for a company selling sporting equipment in 2015, she used to dread overnight sales trips. She was always assigned a hotel room with a more senior coworker who creeped her out, and who eventually started to sexually harass and assault her. “Looking back, the events escalated over the span of a couple months,” she tells me. “First, it was inappropriate touching and me asking him to stop, with varying results on whether he’d actually stop. Then eventually it escalated to digital penetration and rape.”
For months after the harassment started, Ariel tried to ignore what was happening, describing herself as being in “huge denial” because she needed her job so badly. But after she was raped by her coworker in late summer that same year, she decided to tell her boss what had happened. Not only was he unsympathetic, he fired her on the spot. “He started the conversation by saying, ‘[Coworker] has been here for a long time,’” she explains. “Then he said, ‘Maybe it would be better if you worked somewhere else.’”
Ariel was floored. She was an exemplary employee, and there was no reason to fire her other than that she’d accused someone who was considered valuable to the company. “I felt incredibly numb and cried a little,” she continues. “I had to call my aunt to pick me up, a few hours drive out of town.” She considered filing a claim of wrongful dismissal against her employer, but decided it probably wasn’t worth it. “It was one conversation and never in writing,” she says, “and I’m certain my employer would have twisted the event if I were to report it.”
Ariel’s experience occurred about two years before the #MeToo movement gained widespread popularity, and she watched the wave of allegations against Harvey Weinstein and other high-profile men with interest, but also with mounting anxiety. “It probably would have been nice for me to speak openly about [the incident] and be met with belief and support, and I might have pushed back more,” she says. “But it seems like #MeToo comes in waves where we’re all, ‘I believe you, I’m here for you,’ and then the next day, it’s business as usual and we all feel like we have to be quiet again. As a survivor, that makes me feel anxious, because I have to be hyper-vigilant of the current social climate to know when speaking out is best.”
We’re supposed to be living in a “post-#MeToo world,” in which sexual assault allegations are assumed to be taken seriously and engaged with in good faith, claimants are treated with respect and there is no longer a baseline assumption that women routinely lie about sexual assault for personal gain. But the idea that #MeToo was a singular historic movement causing a wholesale cultural shift is flawed. Instead, like Ariel suggests, there are waves of disclosure in which there’s relative tolerance of the people making accusations, and periods where people are discouraged from speaking out. And when certain men who are deemed especially important to a cause or organization are accused, it’s like the #MeToo movement never happened.
One of the best recent examples involves the accusations against Joe Biden. Eight women have accused Biden of touching, kissing or sniffing them in a way that made them feel uncomfortable, and one, Tara Reade, said that he sexually assaulted her. Two of Biden’s most prominent accusers, Lucy Flores and Reade, have been subject to hate mail and death threats as a direct result.
After coming forward in March with an allegation of sexual assault, Reade was initially ignored by the mainstream media despite the obvious newsworthiness of her claim. In the intervening months, media outlets pivoted from indifference to intense scrutiny — but of Reade, not Biden. PBS interviewed 74 former Biden staffers to see what they thought about her claim, and Politico asked 12 people who used to know her, including former landlords, for their takes on her character, running the story under a headline that described her as “manipulative, deceitful [and a] user.” CNN attempted to contact her abusive ex-husband, once subject to a restraining order because of his violence against her, to ask him questions about her life and character.
Much of this coverage was invasive, unbalanced and, in the words of Reade’s former lawyer, “not probative of whether then-Senator Biden sexually assaulted her, but rather … intended to victim-shame and attack her credibility on unrelated and irrelevant matters.” Further examples include the outsized preoccupation with a blog post Reade wrote in 2018 praising Vladimir Putin; Politico, Monterey County Weekly and the New York Times exhaustively reporting on whether she inflated her educational credentials in an unrelated matter; and Chicago Sun-Times columnist Gene Lyons calling her very precise account of the assault “so vaguely described it’s impossible to investigate,” before throwing in a jab about how her “personal elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top floor.”
This is totally consistent with the treatment of claimants in a pre-#MeToo world, and one of the key reasons most victims of sexual harassment and violence stay silent. “[Claimants are] terrified of how their coming forth with allegations is perceived from multiple angles — first family and friends, then strangers, then law enforcement if they seek that route,” Ariel explains. “People might be scared that they’ll lose their job or ruin their career, or that they’ll lose their friends if just one person who sounds credible and level-headed enough says, ‘I don’t think you’re telling the truth,’ or ‘You don’t have evidence to support what you’re saying.’”
Again, she says, “#MeToo has created these short periods of time where you can get support. But if you try and speak out in the ‘off-season’ you’re going to be met with the same or worse tone as we had before people were aware of the movement.”
It’s clear from their treatment that Flores and Reade spoke up in an “off-season.” Their allegations were deemed too politically inconvenient to take seriously, and they were dismissed by Democrats and other self-professed allies of the #MeToo movement. For example, in response to Flores’ allegation, actress Alyssa Milano — arguably the figure most responsible for popularizing #MeToo when she kicked off the hashtag in 2017 — said that she was “proud to call Joe Biden a friend.” In response to Reade’s allegation, Bill Maher urged Democrats to ignore her. Meanwhile, Marcia Roth, a former executive director of the anti-domestic violence group The Mary Byron Project, said she didn’t believe Reade was “credible,” and Democrat Virginia Woodward added that the allegation wasn’t “deeply concerning.”
In short, the position of liberals, when one of their guys is accused, has essentially been that a little bit of sexual assault needn’t be a dealbreaker. It’s important to note that this attitude persisted even among people who granted that Reade might be telling the truth, at a time when it was possible to insist on a different Democratic nominee for president. For example, New York Times columnist Linda Hirshman told readers she believed Reade but urged voters to “suck it up and make the utilitarian bargain” by voting for Biden anyway. Nation columnist Katha Pollitt said she would “vote for Joe Biden if he boiled babies and ate them.”
This is what it means to live in a post-#MeToo world when a man “too important” to lose is accused: Claimants are treated as presumptive liars, as ever, and sexual violence still isn’t considered a disqualifying factor for holding the highest office in America.
Essentially, the dial has barely moved.
It’s not just presidential candidates like Biden who get this treatment, either. They might be ordinary, mid-level coworkers like Ariel’s abuser, deemed too important to the company to let go. Or they might be family members who are deemed beyond scrutiny, as is the case for Merna, a 20-year-old graphic designer in Egypt, who was shushed when she told her uncles that her father had been sexually assaulting her from the ages of 6 until 17. “My father is a very successful businessman, our family is huge and he’s the oldest,” she explains. “Their literal response was for me to suck it up because without him, our family business would be ruined.”
Egypt is currently having something of a #MeToo “on season,” with the case of Ahmed Bassam Zaki, accused by over 50 women of rape and sexual harassment, dominating the local news cycle and igniting conversations about consent and victim-blaming. “It’s shone a huge light right now on the fact that girls are afraid of opening up about something like that because of our community and how everybody thinks that it would be scandalous if a girl wasn’t a virgin,” Merna tells me. “When a high-profile news anchor like Amr Adib comes up on TV to say ‘No means no,’ you know something is up. He said something extremely important — that if your wife says no even during sex and you continue, that’s rape. None of our community was prepared for this.”
She certainly knows her own family isn’t ready to hear the truth about her father, and that there’s a long way to go until she’d feel safe enough to report his crimes. “[The Zaki case] did make a difference in that maybe I can share my story with someone close, but unfortunately, it didn’t make a difference in terms of taking legal action,” she says. “I care too much for my mother and sister and won’t be able to handle them financially on my own. Plus, I don’t think after all those years that my cousins and other family members are going to believe me. They never will.”
#MeToo has always been politically unambitious. In 2006, creator Tarana Burke essentially founded a survivors’ mutual support group, with a goal “to remind women, particularly women of color, that they are not alone” in having experienced sexual harassment and assault, leading to “empowerment through empathy.” This focus on individual recovery and growth didn’t change much in #MeToo’s second wave, kicked off by Milano’s influential tweet in 2017, where the emphasis was also on raising awareness, individual “empowerment” through storytelling and (once more) assuring female victims that they aren’t alone.
#MeToo’s leaders also were slow to articulate goals, strategies and tactics to tackle the systemic problem of sexual harassment and violence, and when they did, it was often unambitious and framed in nebulous terms a la “empowerment” and “empathy.” Despite paying lip service to the idea of transformative justice, for example, one concrete policy solutions Burke endorsed was that “rape kits across the country … be tested, so that the survivors who were assaulted can find some sort of justice through that system.” A carceral solution, in other words, within a system notoriously hostile to victims. And Milano, for her part, called for “laws that demand publicly traded companies [be] transparent with cover-up money,” a proposal so feeble it’s hard to know where to begin.
One problem is that #MeToo is predicated on the assumption that there’s something inherently empowering about disclosure, about laying out your sexual trauma to an audience. The thinking seemed to be that if only people knew how common sexual harassment and assault are, something would change. But we’ve known this for decades and repeated disclosure of the problem doesn’t in itself cause change. In fact, it means that #MeToo sometimes functions like entertainment, constantly evolving and throwing new players into the scene like an unfolding drama. As journalist Melissa Gira Grant noted in 2017, reporters rushed to find “a man ‘important’ enough to report on” and included “detailed accounting of hotel robes and incriminating texts along with a careful description of what was grabbed, who exposed what and how many times.”
After laying their sexual trauma bare for a social media audience, #MeToo claimants were assured that they’d no longer be treated as presumptive liars, hence the “Believe women” slogan, echoed by Biden himself. But very few claimants are treated with this promised dignity, especially if they aren’t perfect victims, they speak up at the wrong moment or they accuse someone too beloved or “important.” In Ariel’s opinion, Tara Reade perfectly encapsulates all of this. “Most of what I saw refused to focus on the actual accusations, and mainly focused on her motive and the political logistics of coming out ‘at this time,’” she notes. “I think that’s what a lot of people are afraid might happen if they come out with a story in ‘off-season.’”
In her view, #MeToo hasn’t stopped a claimant’s credibility from hinging to a large degree on irrelevant factors like timing and the inconvenience of having accused a particular figure. “When you come out with your story at the same time everyone else does, nobody asks you why you’re doing it — they just know,” she continues. “But if you come out at a time where the outpouring isn’t there, your motives get scrutinized tenfold.”
“Sometimes it feels like you have to just keep telling your story until you get caught in the right ‘moment,’” she concludes, “and people suddenly feel sympathetic.”