When I was sexually assaulted at the 2016 Democratic National Convention by a fellow delegate, I was astounded by the degree to which high-ranking officials collectively shrugged. None of them were interested in limiting the man’s involvement in the delegation and one official told me I should have grabbed my attacker by the balls and squeezed. I’d been active in the Democratic Party for years, but speaking out about the incident to the press, organizing to push then-District Attorney Seth Williams to prosecute the attack, and demanding the state and national Democratic Party implement a sexual misconduct policy turned me into a pariah. High-level party officials spread rumors about my mental fitness, suggesting I’d exaggerated the indignity for attention. Others suggested that the convention should be treated like a big party. After all, sexual assaults happen all the time at bars and parties, so the message I received was: Don’t be a drama queen. Kick him in the balls and move on.
Given my experience, I wasn’t surprised when #MeToobin began trending on Twitter in October after New Yorker staff writer Jeffrey Toobin exposed himself to colleagues in a Zoom meeting when he began masturbating on-camera. Toobin, who is a CNN legal analyst as well as one of the New Yorker’s most high-profile journalists, attempted to clarify that he wasn’t intentionally masturbating in the Zoom call—saying that he thought he had “muted the Zoom video” and wasn’t visible to other attendees. Framing it as an accidental embarrassment, of course, implied that the exposure itself was the problem—that it was otherwise acceptable to masturbate during a work meeting. Once it became clear that Toobin’s job was in jeopardy (the magazine later fired him), a host of men began using the hashtag #MeToobin to wail their disapproval on Twitter while simultaneously mocking #MeToo itself. “A new movement has begun on Twitter. #MeToobin, because honestly who hasn’t been caught masturbating on Zoom?” tweeted one male-presenting account. “#MeToobin for those of us who let it all hang out during online meetings,” announced another.
Toobin was already embarrassed, others (including some prominent leftists) lectured. Wouldn’t it be more reasonable and empathetic to just shrug and move on? “Nobody—NOBODY—deserves the level of humiliation that Jeffrey Toobin is being subjected to,” chided progressive writer Anne Lamott. “When Occam’s Razor suggests someone humiliated himself through a combo of technological error, pandemic circumstances, bad judgment, and bad luck, it seems like we should react with empathy, politeness, and forgiveness, as we would want to be treated, rather than punitive mockery,” agreed the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf. Others, like The Intercept’s D.C. bureau chief Ryan Grim and New York Times “Catholic left” opinion writer Elizabeth Bruenig, portrayed Toobin as a martyr for labor rights, implicitly suggesting that his nonexistent “right” to masturbate on work calls trumped his coworkers’ rights to earn a living without nonconsensual exposure to his autoerotic proclivities
A chorus of women and allies on Twitter pushed back against the Toobin defenders, but the #MeToobin hashtag itself was met more with an eye roll than outrage. The muted response to this appropriation and trivialization of #MeToo hints at just how far the mainstream version of the #MeToo movement, driven in part by famous women in Hollywood, fell short of actually making such behavior unacceptable. Famous white women actors might have succeeded in taking down a few high-profile sex offenders, but the internet rebelled at the idea that women in one of the country’s most prestigious media outlets shouldn’t be forced to work with men who treat staff meetings as a chance for an impromptu masturbation session. The Toobin controversy made it abundantly clear that despite #MeToo and other efforts to chip away at toxic masculine sexual entitlement in and around the spaces where we work, a wide swath of people still shrug at or even delight in the spectacle of a man turning the workplace into an environment for sexual gratification without consent.
Whether or not Toobin intended to expose himself to his coworkers, he made a deliberate choice to engage in sexual behavior during a formal interaction with his colleagues. Even if we assume Toobin is telling the truth about the exposure being accidental (an assumption that’s frankly overly generous, given Toobin’s relevant history), he still made a deliberate choice both to sexualize a work meeting without the knowledge or consent of colleagues, and to engage in behavior that meant a technical error, glitch, or mistake on his part could (and obviously did) create a hostile workplace for those coworkers. Bad actors who engage in sexual misconduct depend on our collective ability to shrug, say assume good intentions, use those assumptions to minimize impact, and then move on. However, the popularity of #MeToo created a situation that jeopardized this collective shrugging at high-profile sexual misconduct offenses. As activists became increasingly successful in holding celebrities like Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK, and R. Kelly accountable for sexual misconduct allegations, the notion that such behavior should have consequences began to have a real-life impact.
In Pennsylvania, for example, AccountForPA, our sexual misconduct accountability activist collective, was able to effectively organize in support of survivors reporting sexual misconduct by State Senator Daylin Leach and Philadelphia Sheriff Jewell Williams. Williams lost his bid for re-election as a result. Leach also lost his long-held seat in a defeat widely thought to be a rebuke of his decision to sue two sexual misconduct accountability activists (full disclosure: I’m one of them) and his accuser for defamation. In response to our outrage at the inaction of the state party in response to such allegations, the governor called for and received the resignation of the chair of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, the same chair who had engaged in whisper campaigns about me when I reported my own experience of sexual assault in 2016. In very real and meaningful ways, #MeToo created an environment where privileged men could no longer count on the collective shrug to protect them. For white men who considered #MeToo a threat to their privilege, status, and ability to “joke” and harass women whenever and wherever they wanted, apologism for the accused and diatribes against “cancel culture” have been ongoing strategies to restore the status quo.
Unfortunately, the broader failures of the popular white co-option of the #MeToo movement could’ve been predicted, given that the hashtag was originally created by organizer and activist Tarana Burke to help end sexual violence against women from underprivileged communities, especially Black girls and women. The Hollywoodization of #MeToo, however, very quickly stripped away Burke’s emphasis on the experience of low-income Black girls and women. In her efforts to publicize Weinstein’s crimes, actor Alyssa Milano introduced the phrase as a way of naming sexual misconduct as an experience universal to women. Although Milano made an effort to course correct after #MeToo achieved virality, the work of appropriation had already been done. #MeToo became a pink icon-bearing Twitter hashtag used to aggregate women’s experiences of sexual assault without any of the original racial framing and nuance.
In subsequent coverage of the phenomenon, Burke’s status as founder and originator of #MeToo was consistently ignored, overlooked, or undermined. As Shannon Lee wrote in a 2018 article for Forbes, publications like the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times sometimes downplayed Burke’s role in the movement to center the work of white women and sometimes to center themselves. “Ever since Burke was identified as the creator of the Me Too Movement, there has been a deliberate effort to diminish her work and efforts of the Black women anti-rape activists that came before her,” Lee wrote. Because white-appropriated #MeToo refused to name and challenge intersectional oppression, it was never well-positioned to challenge the deeper structural violence that sexual misconduct reinforces and deepens. The movement was never able to name in a deep and resonant way the fact that sexual misconduct in the workplace creates an unsafe environment for women, especially when economic precarity diminishes their ability to leave. Sexual misconduct accountability work, like any justice work, can only be effective when it recognizes compounded injustices at the intersections of issues.
When we fail to center anti-oppression in our work, we set the stage for our own failures. White-appropriated #MeToo delivered a message of universal experience without recognizing that the voices of survivors least heard, like those of women in the workplace and women of color, were often those of the women most brutally and serially impacted by sexual misconduct. This sort of intersectional context isn’t just morally necessary; it’s strategic. In the case of Toobin, this sort of framing would have preempted those who disingenuously presented the perpetrator’s potential dismissal as a labor rights injustice. Had the popular #MeToo movement stayed true to Burke’s vision and centered the experience of economically and racially marginalized women, the labor justice aspect of sexual misconduct accountability would already be well-established. Had this movement effectively named how sexual misconduct in the workplace disproportionately impacts women of color in low-wage industries and how economic necessity disproportionately compels women to remain in harassment-tolerant environments, it would be much more difficult for Toobin apologists to disguise their sympathies for the man as workers’ rights concerns.
A wide swath of people still shrug at or even delight in the spectacle of a man turning the workplace into an environment for sexual gratification without consent.
Brett Kavanaugh’s 2018 confirmation hearings provided a firsthand glimpse into the hypocrisy and selective accountability white-appropriated #MeToo enabled. It’s difficult to write about that political moment without feeling a pang of rage at the spectacle of Democratic politicians and operatives from Pennsylvania who became overnight survivor advocates during the Kavanaugh hearings, then went right back to ignoring allegations of sexual misconduct made locally by low-income women (for example, Leach’s accuser) and Black women, like those who accused Williams. It was incredibly necessary to rally behind Christine Blasey Ford, but white-appropriated #MeToo has been a movement for conditional justice that hinges on a combination of sympathetic white victimhood and Democratic party establishment rubber-stamping. When Ford, a thin, highly educated, and class-privileged white professor, alleged that a conservative man assaulted her, it became a #MeToo moment that the Democratic party rallied around.
When a much less class-privileged, much less camera-ready Tara Reade made an accusation that hurt the Democratic frontrunner, the #BelieveWomen mantra went out the window. The reality was—and is—that sexual misconduct accountability is still very much a privileged exception to a general rule. White actors rich in economic and cultural capital might be able to exact some measure of justice on occasion, but white-appropriated #MeToo never effectively spoke to how insidiously sexual misconduct gets paired with other forms of oppression to create unsafe and nearly inescapable circumstances for women with more limited privilege. For most women, especially the most marginalized women, simply saying “me too” is not and has never been enough.
You can’t understand why the norms Toobin’s defenders worked to uphold are so vile unless you understand how much more violence they impose on women trapped by other oppressions in workplaces that subscribe to those norms. Without that depth of analysis and without that naming of where the pain is deepest, it’s impossible to effectively demand outrage. And in a movement that has systematically deprioritized those closest to the pain, there is simply not enough solidarity to effectively counter the solidarity of white male woundedness over attacked privilege. Until we learn to organize movements that center rather than push aside those closest to the pain we name, we will never succeed in ending rape culture.