Time has named “The Silence Breakers,” their term for members of the #MeToo campaign and other people breaking the silence about sexual abuse and assault, as its people of the year. This is an incredibly welcome change from last year’s neo-nazi of the year, President Trump1, and a fitting tribute to the dozens of people who came out against Harvey Weinstein, the most high-profile female participants and the seeds of the social phenomenon, and also to people like Anthony Rapp, who braved the stigma against men talking about surviving sexual assault, and confirmed what has long been known in the industry about Kevin Spacey.
This isn’t some thing we’re looking back on, either. It’s still going, just a couple of days ago, John Oliver confronted Dustin Hoffman about his own sexual assault allegations at what was supposed to be a fluff press event, making it obvious to everyone that Hoffman had no real excuse for the allegations, and also making it quite clear that he’s sincere when he talks frequently about women’s rights on his show, because this could seriously impact his opportunities to do similar events in the future. And this campaign has only been talking about the really big stuff, not the small things that add up over time. New women and men are breaking the silence regularly, and old allegations are coming to a head in the US in a way that’s honestly refreshing.
But here in New Zealand, the initial social media campaign landed, with people sharing their stories, but didn’t seem to gain any particular traction or momentum. Despite having a fierce advocate as Minister for Women, and a female Prime Minister, all of a sudden we’re lagging behind the USA, a country whose President is a thoroughly-accused sexual predator, in our progress for women’s right to confront their abusers and actually expect some sort of consequences. Instead, we have empty whataboutisms with no examples of the problems they decry (in this case, overreach in allegations) from lightweight commentators. If you want an example of what it’s like to come out about these sorts of things in New Zealand right now, Angela Cumings is dutifully chronicling the worst of the replies to her experiences on twitter. (You may remember her story from certain ridiculous road sign pictures, and the facts of the case are not in debate anymore, just people’s various interpretations of it) Here is just a taste:
— Angela Cuming (@AngelaCuming) December 3, 2017
.@NZStuff Morning! You guys have published an entire 'opinion' piece rubbishing me & saying I faked being upset about sexual harassment to get attention but you've not published my comment as right of reply? Like this 👇 is published but not mine? 🤔😐 pic.twitter.com/VdyOJMS7Zr
— Angela Cuming (@AngelaCuming) December 2, 2017
So my old paper the @waikatotimes has published a column by Richard Swainson calling me a publicity seeker who should harden up & laugh off jokes. This is not cool.
THIS IS WHY WOMEN DON'T REPORT SEXUAL HARASSMENT! #metoo https://t.co/fdC4oZy6Uk
— Angela Cuming (@AngelaCuming) December 1, 2017
The success of #MeToo in the USA is likely a convergence of factors we simply don’t have in New Zealand: A collective frustration at a leader who is an all-but-proven sexual predator, a powerful abuser whose career and politics are arguably out of favour with those in institutional power at the time the publicity boils over, the ease of sharing stories on social media and the ability for men to actually find out just how many women (and sometimes, men or others) they know have dealt with this nonsense, (okay, we have that one, but it needed mentioning to explain how it happened in the US) and probably most critically, a finally receptive audience of men willing to become allies and join the pressure against this behaviour as unacceptable.
The culture for New Zealand men is deeply embedded in this kind of toxic masculinity- we’re expected to have only two types of visible feelings: anger, or a kind of stoic friendship generally expressed in the terms of “ah, he’s a great bloke, isn’t he?” Anything else is to be dealt with by going out as soon as practically possible and drinking yourself comatose. We defend guys who seem like ‘good blokes’ in public because most abusers never show the same face to everyone else as they do to their victims. If someone like me can accept that Kevin Spacey is absolutely guilty of what he’s been accused of and needs to get help and spend some time in career jail as a consequence of his actions, then rugby-heads, police fan-boys, and But He’s A Good Guy apologists are absolutely capable of accepting that the people they thought were their heroes might actually have some really deep issues, without actually compromising how they see themselves or their interests.
And maybe we might accept that as men we really, really need to have more socially acceptable ways to talk about our feelings that don’t involve alcohol. It’s not enough to say that hitting women, or unwanted sexual advances, are inappropriate. We need to look at the feelings and beliefs that lead to that behaviour and give people healthy outlets for those that don’t result in sexual assault, and hold accountable those individuals that have. It shouldn’t be up to women to take this further than they already have in New Zealand- they’ve been brave, they’ve shared their stories and come to court often enough. The change has to come from us men.
If you want to get involved in fighting this kind of violence or want more information, Women’s Refuge is an excellent starting place for activism, but for those of us who identify as men, probably the first thing we’ll need to accept is that there will be uncomfortable revelations as part of the journey of ending this type of behaviour, and being able to push through that discomfort, and look at allegations from a starting point of giving women the benefit of the doubt, is absolutely the first step we need to take.
If you’re unsure about what is reasonable conduct towards women, there are some excellent resources on the web that will give people confidence about things that are definitely unacceptable. Be aware that frequently people don’t complain about unwanted behaviour directly to the person doing it, because they have learned much earlier in life that doing so often leads to reprisals, so you can’t always expect someone to tell you themselves that your behaviour made them uncomfortable, in fact feedback will usually either be written or passed on by a third party warning you, and you should take those warnings seriously.
Believing women doesn’t mean turning off our skepticism about allegations, it means that we don’t do things like assuming women are making allegations for fame, (something that’s literally never eventuated) that we don’t engage in behaviour that assumes that allegations are false until proven in court. It means we look at factors like plausibility, corroboration of accusers’ stories at the time, and the number of accusers and whether the allegations form a coherent pattern that’s consistent with the facts. You’re all adults, I believe you’re capable of simultaneously giving credibility to someone’s story until it’s proven to be wrong while also not jumping off half-cocked assuming that someone is guilty until you’ve heard their side. The reason so many of these cases have been piled on so effectively is because the other side has been full of absolute rubbish- Harvey had a non-defense defense, as did Hoffman, and Spacey actually invented the first bad way to come out as gay.
While there is absolutely an extrajudicial pile-on going on, this is because factors like non-disclosure agreements in settling sexual assault allegations, systemic failure in the jury trial system, unfair statutes of limitation, and other obstacles are preventing allegations from being determined seriously in a legal setting. If these obstacles aren’t taken down, trial by media will have to continue for high-profile sexual abusers and harassers, because it is the only way to end this sort of behaviour. If the justice system is effectively reformed to make these sorts of trials easier to bring while still giving fairness to the accused, then maybe we can start moving cases back there, but people need to realize that a lot of survivors of this behaviour have no confidence in the justice system right now. That confidence needs to be restored before we ask them to go to the justice system as a first resort.
Not everyone who experienced this kind of behaviour can come forward publicly. Some of the aggressive allies you see of these survivors will in fact be survivors themselves, and others not. This is actually why there’s a woman out of the frame in Time’s cover: she’s supposed to represent those who can’t come forward. Not everyone who can’t come forward is scared- as I alluded to earlier, there are NDAs, family situations, and employment situations that make being public about this sort of thing a practical impossibility. We should still support such people as best we can and according to their wishes. That means not outing them against their will at the very least.
1 Trump has, of course, been awarded second place this year, which is likely more to do with his influence on the political conversation than any actual achievement. Time also failed to make any substantive mention of the myriad allegations of sexual assault against President Trump, an omission that is an absolutely stunning lapse in light of its People of the Year.