Why women need more than #MeToo

Ella Whelan: This young online movement has turned into a religion

When I tell people I don’t agree with the #MeToo movement they often wince. What kind of a woman would be so against a movement which claims to speak on behalf of women worldwide? What kind of a witch would want to criticise, at a time when people are talking about their personal experiences of sexual harassment?

It’s true, I have become a bit of a pariah when it comes to #MeToo, but only because this young online movement has, in my eyes, turned into a religion. Asking questions, raising concerns and offering alternatives to #MeToo is seen as blasphemous. But that hasn’t changed the fact that there are some very real problems with this new approach to sexual harassment claims, and these problems aren’t going to go away.

Supporters of the #MeToo movement argue that it has given women a voice - that before last year we were silent and blind to the injustices of men’s bad behaviour. Yes, that’s right, it took a tweet from an eye-wateringly well-paid actress (Alyssa Milano) to enable women to stand up for their freedom. #MeToo presupposes that without the aid of celebrity cheerleaders, women would be helpless.

The kitchen sink

It forgets that, for decades before social media, women have been fighting and struggling against injustice all on their own. How did we break free from the kitchen sink without #MeToo?

I find it hard to imagine that the mild irritations I and other women occasionally experience when some fool leers at us out of a moving car are comparable with the systematic sexism of 40 years ago

How did we demand equal treatment to men without #MeToo? How did we end up in 2018, where women in the West enjoy more freedom than our mothers and grandmothers could ever have dreamed of, without #MeToo?

Call me, if you like, unsympathetic, but I find it hard to imagine that the mild irritations I and other women occasionally experience when some fool leers at us out of a moving car are comparable with the systematic sexism of 40 years ago.

Within its ever expanding definition of “sexual harassment”, #MeToo threatens to treat all “bad behaviour” as traumatic, abusive and dangerous.

Take the recent push to make “misogyny” a hate crime in the UK, which would mean outlawing wolf-whistling. No one is asking women to put up with any kind of unwanted behaviour, but is it really sensible to blur the lines around what we consider to be harassment?

An old acquaintance of mine from university put up a post shortly after the first boom of #MeToo on social media lambasting a postman who complimented her freshly painted toes without consent. It is hard to take such statements seriously. I’d pay to have my feet flattered. Much of the #MeToo griping has been centred around a similar recasting of normal interaction between the sexes as harmful or wrong.

Labelled a traitor

I know what I’m writing might be shocking to some feminists. I’m even willing to take the kind of slander I get when I open my mouth about #MeToo, and be labelled a traitor to the sisterhood, a tool of the patriarchy and a brainwashed-by-misogyny contrarian.

Why? Because I think women still have too much to gain - and too much to lose - in our ongoing battle for freedom. Because #MeToo, above all things, tells women to be afraid.

Its scaremongering claims that all streets, pubs, workplaces and campuses are hotbeds of harassment will lead to women going out less. Its positioning of all men as repressed rapists and all women as damsels in distress gives young women, particularly, enough fear about sex to rival the promises of hellfire and brimstone that other reactionaries promised in the past.

Its denigration of the principle of innocent until proven guilty (which has played out in the #IBelieveHer response to the recent case in Belfast) positions women as objects unto which crimes happen – rather than active agents in society with the capability to tell the truth or tell lies.

Get serious

If us women want to get serious about knocking down the few barriers that still stand between us and freedom, we have to think twice about #MeToo. For all that it has supposedly given women a voice, it has also positioned us as perpetual victims, liable to collapse the minute a lad breathes near us.

Rather than fight for justice its hampered justice. Rather than empower women it threatens to strip us of our ability to stand up for ourselves. And rather than argue for more and better and freer sex lives for women, it’s bringing back in some very restrictive views about the dangers of sexual interaction.

Whatever happened to that old cliche about strong independent women? No one wants to engage in the ugly business of victim blaming, but it almost seems like we’ve lost sight of the benefits of being a take-no-prisoners kind of feminist. Perhaps it’s time to reassess what a strong women’s politics might look like, because this new victim feminism is just #NotMe.

Ella Whelan is the author of What Women Want. She will be speaking about #MeToo at the Festival of Politics in Dublin this Saturday