Do You Say Different Things About #MeToo in Private?
Psychology can help bring our private beliefs into the public forum.
Posted Jan 19, 2018
“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:
- While a number of the folks I surveyed disagreed about whether or not we should have zero tolerance for any kind of sexualized interaction from men toward women, they all agreed that eventually there could be some space for flirtation and touching. “It’s just that we need to start to educate boys about how to be sensitive to girls’ communications, so that as men they will know how to be sensitive to what women are communicating to them,” is how one person put it. “What are the ground rules?” and “What is a relationship?” were other comments.
- Many agreed that the problem is not simply sexual, but a question of power. “Those in power need to learn how to be sensitive to those who are not in power,” said another.
- While several pointed out that women are still almost always in a position of less power than men, some also noted that a feminist position must also require that women take responsibility for themselves in the ways that they can. One person said, “I thought Oprah’s speech at the Golden Globes was phenomenal, totally phenomenal. But then the next actress who came out was practically half naked. Presumably by choice. It seems to me that women don’t always recognize that their clothing communicates a message, sometimes a mixed message. A woman should be able to wear whatever she wants. Maybe. Because what would we say about a man who wore something to the Golden Globes where his butt cheeks were exposed? You’re saying something to the other people you’re interacting with when you wear clothes that make you look like a sex object. It doesn’t mean you are asking to be raped. No one should ever be raped, no matter what. But it does communicate that you want to be seen in a certain way. What is it? As a sex object?”
- Educating girls as well as boys was one of the points that came across over and over again. “Children don’t always know how to be in relation to other kids,” said one parent. “In our family, we work to teach our daughters to respect themselves and to respect other people. We teach our sons the same thing. And when they come home and ask about if it’s okay to kiss or to flirt or to drink at a party, we talk with them about their relationships with the kids they’re kissing or flirting or drinking with. It’s not cut and dried. It’s about respecting and being respected. It’s about being a good human being.”
- Another person said, “I wish the conversation now was more about being good people, not about whether or not someone did something; people can make mistakes, but it’s not’s that hard to know if you’re raping someone, or harassing them. These guys just don’t care. They get caught and they make up apologies; but for them it’s not about the other people, the people they might have hurt or abused.”
- And someone else: “I don’t get all of this hatred and hostility. Who cares what a person is. Why do we have to be so horrible to each other? Of course no one should go to work and be harassed. It’s just a sad commentary about what’s going on these days.”
- And yet another spoke of the numerous organizations that have been working against abuse of women all over the world, and the One Billion Rising movement spearheaded by Eve Ensler, Jane Fonda, and others, which is all about relationships—with others and with ourselves.
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.