“I’m planning on joining the women’s march. And even though some women are hostile to men being there, I think it’s so important to show that this isn’t just about women. Men have to step up to the plate here. But I have mixed feelings about #MeToo, but it seems like it’s not okay to talk about them. People jump down your throat if you’re not completely on board. But I think it’s really complicated.”
These comments were made by a forty-something man, but I have heard similar concerns often in the past few weeks, in therapy sessions and in conversations with colleagues, friends, and even casual acquaintances.
I’ve also heard comments like, “We have to start with zero tolerance,” and on the other end of the spectrum, “Really, what’s the big deal? Women have been dealing with this kind of thing from the beginning of time.”
How do we understand and deal with the problems of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and #MeToo? And how do we understand and deal with the tremendous amount of discord that the issue has brought along with it?
Perhaps it’s simply a sign of our times—opinions are strongly held and deeply divisive in almost every area we might consider significant. Right and wrong are no longer clearly delineated, although everyone has a strong sense that her or his stand is the right one; and compromise is hard, perhaps even impossible to find.
As Daphne Merkin wrote in a recent NY Times column, for many weeks now, the conversation that has been going on in private about this reckoning is radically different from the public one. This is not a good sign, suggesting the sort of social intimidation that is the underside of a culture of political correctness, such as we are increasingly living in.
Her comments, which sparked a lot of their own controversy, dovetail beautifully with what I have been hearing in private conversations and seeing and hearing in the media.
In an effort to understand some of the psychodynamics of these conversations, I conducted a small and highly unscientific survey. My interviewees were men, women, straight, gay, and bisexual, with a variety of political perspectives and from different age, ethnic, racial, educational, and socio-economic groups. Here are some of the comments I gathered:
As I listened to their thoughtful, insightful, and openly confused comments, I realized that there is an extremely important psychological factor that has been left out of most public conversations about these issues — the significance of relationship.
Clinical psychologist David Wallin tells us that connections with others inform our sense of who we are and how we feel about ourselves. Further, he writes, that our feelings and beliefs are often experienced and processed through relationships with others. Murky or confusing feelings get played out in interactions with important others. Anger, hurt, and revenge can be experienced through nonverbal and often unthought behaviors in relation to others.
And this is directly related to #MeToo, sexual harassment and sexual abuse.
Relational and attachment theorists have come to understand that our self-respect and respect for others are mutually interactive. We take care of our own needs when we respect the needs of others. The #MeToo discussion would be far more nuanced and productive if we could pay attention to the relational impact of behaviors. The work is to find ways to teach people to do just this.