Not Like Other Feminists

On the women leading the #MeToo backlash they warned us about—and the fears that drive them.

Katie Roiphe’s not here to make friends. (Illustration by me. Photo by Anna Schori for The New York Times)

Katie Roiphe’s essay “The Other Whisper Network” went viral weeks before it was published in Harper’s magazine. Rumor had it that she was planning on outing the then-anonymous creator of the controversial “Shitty Media Men List.” As a result, women across the Twitterverse — women who are intimately familiar with what happens in the digital crosshairs of MRAs with vendettas and downtime — retaliated.

Several women falsely claimed a la Spartacus to have created the list; another woman offered to pay writers to pull their pieces from the March issue of Harper’s. The firestorm ceased when Moira Donegan — the real creator of the List — preemptively outed herself in an essay for The Cut.

So when Roiphe’s piece dropped, it was with more of a whisper than a bang — not just because Donegan stole her thunder, but also because the essay is, quite frankly, a mess. Throughout the piece, she cherry-picks a number of Twitter posts and contextless quotes to illustrate the rabid “totalitarianism” of “Twitter feminists.” When the vitriol she’s looking for isn’t quite there, she takes it upon herself to extrapolate extremity from otherwise thoughtful arguments, like she does when referencing the following Rebecca Traister quote:

Lots of us are on some level as incensed about the guy who looked down our shirt at a company retreat as we are about Weinstein, even if we can acknowledge that there’s something nuts about that, a weird overreaction.

Roiphe analyzes this quote as such:

[Traister] seems, for a moment, to recognize the energy that is unnerving some of us, an anger not interested in making distinctions between Harvey Weinstein and the man looking down your shirt — an anger that is, as Traister herself puts it, “terrifyingly out of control.” But weirdly, she also seems to be fine with it, even roused.

But does Traister seem “fine with it?” Does she seem “roused?” We don’t really know, because there is no real reference to the piece from which Roiphe took the quote. Traister’s actual assessment is much more conflicted and self-reflective than Roiphe gives it credit for. And while I’d happily dismiss Roiphe and her brand of antifeminist feminism as an outlier, she isn’t alone in the trend of women concern trolling the #MeToo movement.

In all of these takes, young feminists are alternately portrayed as shrill, withering prudes and as ruthless authoritarians; at their mercy are the bumbling men who stumbled into their venomous clutches.

After babe published a poorly reported piece recounting a woman’s troubling sexual encounter with Aziz Ansari, Bari Weiss of The New York Times and Caitlin Flanagan of The Atlantic both penned essays defending Ansari and cautioning against the perceived hysteria sabotaging #MeToo. In Weiss’s essay, she warns that “[t]he insidious attempt by some women to criminalize awkward, gross and entitled sex takes women back to the days of smelling salts and fainting couches.” And Flanagan responded by lamenting today’s “weak” women and flippantly invoking intersectionality in a way that subverts the authenticity of her concern:

I thought it would take a little longer for the hit squad of privileged young white women to open fire on brown-skinned men. I had assumed that on the basis of intersectionality and all that, they’d stay laser focused on college-educated white men for another few months.

In all of these takes, young feminists are alternately portrayed as shrill, withering prudes and as ruthless authoritarians; at their mercy are the bumbling men who stumble into their venomous clutches. Never mind that, as far as I can tell, most men who’ve lost their jobs are guilty of at least enough impropriety for some consequence to be justified; and Ansari — who, according to Flanagan, was “destroyed” — hasn’t lost much more than the authority to give people dating advice.

Which leads me to wonder: Who and what are women like Weiss, Flanagan, and Roiphe trying to protect?

I’ve yet to hear of a mass firing of all men who’ve ever made eye contact with a femme colleague. As for the freedom of speech, Roiphe’s and Weiss’s complaints about not being to speak for fear of backlash sure ring hollow when they are, in fact, speaking. A lot. And the handwringing about due process is pretty rich considering how long the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Steve Wynn, Matt Lauer, Larry Nassar, etc., etc., etc., were able to get away with their crimes, and in many cases, have yet to face legal consequences for said crimes.

A facet of power is being granted the benefit of the doubt, the gift of empathy, and the presumption of innocence — or, at least, the presumption of benign ignorance.

The thing is, most men don’t need our protection; they are already protected by the very structures that enable them to exploit their power in the first place. And when I say power, I don’t just mean the celebrity and wealth that allows famous men to “do anything” they want; I mean the power provided by the social, cultural, and institutional patriarchy that defers to the psyches and desires of men. And while Bari Weiss doesn’t think someone like Aziz Anzari has power over a 23-year-old freelance photographer (in this piece she claimed “he had no actual power over the woman — professionally or otherwise”), interpersonal power matters.

A facet of that power is being granted the benefit of the doubt, the gift of empathy, and the presumption of innocence—or, at least, the presumption of benign ignorance. Although women who report harassment and assault are beginning to be taken seriously, the default reaction is to, as A.O. Scott puts it, “change the subject from the actual suffering of women to the imaginary discomfort of men.” Megan Garber of The Atlantic addresses a similar phenomenon by detailing the ways in which the (usually marginalized) victim of a primary offense is perceived as the aggressor once consequences are levied against the offender. And that’s only if the victim’s charges are taken seriously in the first place, which doesn’t happen nearly enough to warrant the handwringing over “the excesses of #MeToo.

Even those who worry about #MeToo going too far recognize there is work to be done in terms of sexual justice. But what struck me about Weiss’s, Flanagan’s, and Roiphe’s commentaries is the disproportionate pressure they put on women to do that work. In her op-ed “Aziz Ansari Is Guilty. Of Not Being A Mindreader,” Weiss acknowledges that we should “try to change our broken sexual culture,” but that it has to start with women being “more verbal”—not that men should be more receptive to women’s verbal and nonverbal communication, a task Weiss calls “mind reading” but could also be considered “exhibiting emotional intelligence.” Similarly, Flanagan suggests young women learn “how to call a cab” and not that men learn how to take a hint.

Therein lies the frustrating and ever-present double standard that women be the adults in any given situation. While men are given space to fumble their way through their transgressions, women are expected to be evermore composed, unyielding, and in control.

That these prominent women put the onus on other women to keep would-be assaulters and harassers at bay seems connected to a fear they all express: losing the progress we’ve made in the fight for women’s liberation. As Roiphe puts it, we “may be snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.” But what exactly have we won? Sure, women are less likely than ever to be judged for having sex lives outside of marriage. But the expectation that men’s pleasure comes first is still pervasive, and it renders a lot of sex painful, conflicted, or flat out unsatisfying for the women they have sex with.

Another fear these women express is one that plagues any marginalized group: the fear that if one of them messes up, they’ll bring the group down with them. For black people, that fear manifests in the way we quietly hope that the perpetrator of a widely publicized crime isn’t also black; that just gives racists more fuel to believe all black people are inherently criminal. The same goes for women who dread the day another Rolling Stone incident comes along and threatens to undermine any progress #MeToo has made.

But isn’t that deeply unfair? If the same rules applied to men—especially cishet white men—there would be far less handwringing about their current position under cultural microscope. For the rest of us, that’s just life.

While the debate among women about sexual propriety is probably healthy—necessary, even—we don’t need any help from our own to muddy the conversation with whataboutisms, weird logic, and hypothetical hyperbole. We have Andrew Sullivan for that. That said, it’s not lost on me that I’ve written nearly 1,500 words criticizing women for criticizing women. Maybe it’s because I look to women writers and thinkers to help make sense of this fraught moment. Or maybe I look to them for commiseration—to read their pieces and say, “me too.” My hope isn’t so much that their opinions or conclusions will align with my own, but that they’ll at least understand.

Maybe that’s part of the problem. Countless women have shared their intellectual takes and analyses as well as their heart wrenching, deeply personal stories. And while there should always be space for these stories to be told, the current discourse around sexual assault is saturated to the point where most of the discussion is among women, about women, and for women—not because they intend for their audience to be women, but because men so often don’t think women’s experiences are of their concern. It feels like trying to clean a dirty window from the inside: We can only see (and scrutinize, and disparage) our own reflections. Without the help from the other side in the form of meaningful, thoughtful, and sometimes uncomfortable participation from men, we will continue struggling to see each other.