The End of Men’s ‘Freedom to Bother’

The End of Men’s ‘Freedom to Bother’

The End of Men’s ‘Freedom to Bother’

We’re on the verge of a new normal in the workplace. That’s a good thing.


Have we reached peak #MeToo? I can’t stand to read one more word about Aziz Ansari sticking his fingers down “Grace’s” throat and whether she made her distaste so loud you could hear it across the street. So I will simply note a few things and move on. One, never trust a male feminist. Two, in the intergenerational clash that has simmered since #MeToo began, I am trying to be on the young women’s side, since one day the rest of us will be dead, but some aren’t making it easy. Stassa Edwards at Jezebel calls Katie Roiphe a second-wave feminist. Earth to Stassa: Roiphe is 49 and thus was minus-5 years old when Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique; also, she has made a career of mocking and attacking the women’s movement, which is not a very feminist thing to do. In fact, most of the pundits who have attacked #MeToo are not second-wave, or feminist at all (exception: Margaret Atwood). They are just women writers of a certain age. Is “second-wave” now a synonym for “ugly old harridan with a job”? After Ashleigh Banfield of HLN said that Grace was setting back #MeToo by applying the term sexual assault to what was just a “bad date,” Babe writer Katie Way, the author of the original Ansari piece, called Banfield a “burgundy-lipstick bad-highlights second-wave feminist has-been.” (Banfield is 50.) Well, even when I was in my 20s, I thought the ’60s-era slogan “Don’t trust anyone over 30” was stupid, and this is stupid too. Those second-wavers, now mostly in their 70s and 80s, were brilliant women who invented the very concepts—sexual harassment, acquaintance rape, the right to say no, believing the women—that underlie #MeToo. I chalk it up to the perpetual tragedy of female youth, which is to mistake men’s delight in your beauty, vitality, and charm for interest in your brains, talent, and ambition. That misapprehension, born anew with each college graduation, is one reason it’s been so easy for young women—ever better educated, better prepared, and more committed—to believe the barriers that had held their elders back would open wide for them. It looks like the rules have changed, but in truth they’re at the hopeful beginning of the same scenario. Soon enough, they too will be burgundy-lipsticked has-beens.

But I digress. What I want to talk about is the automatic siding with men who lose their jobs for sexual harassment. I understand it: When The New York Times broke the first story about conductor James Levine grooming and molesting a teenage boy, I rationalized it as the kind of innocently age-inappropriate romance so lusciously depicted in the much-admired film Call Me by Your Name. It took the revelations of multiple victims and their damaged lives to make me see the light. Why did I want to take his side? I had loved Levine the musician, the genius behind the Metropolitan Opera, so devoted to his art that he conducted sitting down when back problems made it impossible for him to stand. I didn’t want to believe what apparently “everybody knew.” So I get it when people want to believe that public figures they’ve loved for years—like public-radio hosts Leonard Lopate, Jonathan Schwartz, and Garrison Keillor—are good guys being railroaded by neurotic banshees who fall to pieces when a man compliments them on their outfit or, in the case of Al Franken, gives them a friendly pat on the behind. I admired those men, and I worry about that too.

It is at this point that the phrase “due process” usually enters the discussion. “Where was the due process?” admirers complain. Others warn against a “rush to judgment” and a “guilt assigned without proof.” I have news: They got more due process than the vast majority of people who lose their jobs. In the cases of Lopate and Schwartz, both of whom were admittedly hustled out of the office in a needlessly dramatic way, there were warnings and lawyers and investigations, all detailed in an article on the WNYC website. Keillor’s case was murkier: For nearly two months, the only version of the story we’d heard was Keillor’s, in which he claimed that the offending incident involved patting a woman’s back—“I meant to pat her back after she told me about her unhappiness and her shirt was open and my hand went up it about six inches,” he said. Meanwhile, Minnesota Public Radio was acknowledging only allegations of “inappropriate behavior” and “a formal complaint.” But as this column went to press, MPR president Jon McTaggart acknowledged in a letter to listeners that there had been two formal complaints, one made by a woman who alleged unwanted sexual touching and sexual messages directed at her, and another made by someone who claimed to know about the behavior. What had seemed like overkill now sounds more justified. Perhaps it was overkill that MPR has removed the archives of A Prairie Home Companion from its website, like Stalin having his enemies erased from group photos. But was Keillor “convicted without a trial,” as one fan wrote to the station? The workplace is not a courtroom. Unless you’re a tenured professor, belong to a strong union, or live in Montana, which has outlawed at-will employment, you work at your employer’s pleasure. You can be fired, or your contract not renewed, for pretty much any reason at all. Women are let go for ambiguous reasons, too. Moira Donegan, creator of the “Shitty Media Men” list, no longer works at the New Republic, for reasons that neither that outlet nor Donegan has made clear. MSNBC parted ways with two of its most visible women-of-color hosts, Melissa Harris-Perry and Tamron Hall, and more recently ended my Nation colleague Joan Walsh’s contract.

It would be better if there were more transparency, which is why some sexual-harassment attorneys argue that we need to greatly restrict or even ban the use of nondisclosure agreements. These not only permit perpetrators to repeat their misdeeds in new jobs, like pedophile priests sent to a new parish, but they enjoin a secrecy that allows people to believe nothing important happened.

Sometimes that may be true. We’re in a time of changing norms and values—at least, I hope we are. Yesterday, men had “a freedom to bother,” as Catherine Deneuve put it. A boss could pester and embarrass the young women in the office, and that was just Bob being Bob. Today, that right is being challenged. That’s a good thing, even if some employers overreact. As the sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote on Twitter: “You will not concoct a norm that increases the freedom of women to work and live with less risk of sexual assault that does not tarnish some ‘good’ men.” That won’t make their admirers feel any better, but it’s nonetheless true. What can I tell you? Social change is hard.

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