Last year, on October 5, the New York Times broke the story of Harvey Weinstein — a man whose name has now become shorthand for sexual-assault allegations, toxic power dynamics, and gross behaviour in general. Shortly after, The New Yorker published an in-depth account of the allegations against the then-Hollywood mogul. And shortly after that, the #MeToo movement, first launched by Tarana Burke more than a decade ago, finally went viral. It has not stopped.
A year ago, I was hopeful that society would still be talking openly about sexual misconduct and rape today. I wanted these urgent issues to take over the news cycle and stay there. It was 2017: post-Ghomeshi, post-Cosby (the first time), post-so many other men. We were already long overdue for a collective reckoning with how sexual assault and harassment had shaped our workplaces, our homes, our society. But by then, I’d seen countless women’s voices dismissed countless times before. That’s often the whole point of sexual misconduct: to make us small and silent.
Well, we’re too loud and too angry to be stopped now. It’s been a bumpy ride, though, and continues to be — as these past few months have demonstrated. At the end of September, Bill Cosby was finally sentenced to prison, something that many observers saw as a #MeToo milestone. Though allegations against Cosby had surfaced long before the movement started (Andrea Constand first reported her rape in 2005), “America’s dad” was one of the first high-profile men to face criminal consequences for his actions.
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But we barely had time to finish cheering before Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate committee hearing began. The hearing, which was practically a distillation of the male backlash against #MeToo, may well be the movement’s biggest setback — and that’s not just because there’s no sense yet as to whether the U.S. Supreme Court nominee will be held accountable for his alleged 1982 sexual assault against then-classmate Christine Blasey Ford.
Whatever happens to Kavanaugh, public discourse about his hearing has revealed that society still clings to old myths: that women who don’t immediately report their rapes must be lying; that vengeful women often lie about rape to ruin men’s lives; that women often lie about rape, period. And another one: that it’s men who lose, and lose big, when women come forward. Men and women across the country watched Ford’s testimony live, but I think it felt different for women. It felt like it could have been us.
I could imagine all too well what it must have been like to be Ford that day, to recount a traumatizing experience to a room full of outraged men. I and many women I know could imagine how she felt when she said, in her opening statement, “I am terrified.” We barely had to imagine it: we felt it, too. We winced when South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham described Kavanaugh’s experience as “hell” — when he said, at one point, “I hope you’re on the Supreme Court. That’s exactly where you should be.” And we recoiled again when Texas senator John Cornyn called the hearing an “embarrassing scandal,” and assured Kavanaugh, “You’re right to be angry.”
Kavanaugh’s own opening statement was full of outrage, indignation, and tears. He declared, “This has destroyed my family and my good name, a good name built up through decades of very hard work and public service at the highest levels of public government.” That statement may well be true — but it also neatly encapsulates the idea that men still can’t quite believe that status no longer silences, that professional success does not permit abusive behaviour. It’s a notion that seems unlikely to go away any time soon.
Male anger could prove as much a hindrance to the #MeToo movement as female anger has been a driver of it. Donald Trump himself used Kavanaugh’s hearing (which he said inflicted “trauma” on the judge), to remind us that women can’t be trusted. “I’ve had numerous accusations about me,” he told reporters at a recent news conference. “I mean, they made false statements about me, knowing they were false.” It would be easy to dismiss Trump’s cartoonish anger — if only he weren’t the President of the United States, a man who has millions of followers listening to him, even idolizing him.
As we enter the second year of #MeToo, we must figure out how to harness our anger. As the backlash grows, we must ensure that we use this cultural moment not just to rage, but also to effect real structural change — to make the reporting process easier and more effective, to put more funding into sexual-assault centres, and to make mental-health services more accessible. Let’s craft real, tough workplace-harassment policies.
Kavanaugh has told us that we will “never get [him] to quit.” Perhaps not. But we can sure as hell change the system so that it’s harder for abusive men to keep going.
Lauren McKeon is the digital editor of The Walrus. She's the author of F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism, published by Goose Lane Editions.