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October 17, 2017

What #MeToo taught me I was doing wrong about sexual harassment

Robert Niles
By Robert Niles

Reading Facebook and Twitter for the past day has been heartbreaking. With each post tagged #MeToo, I ache more and again, watching so many women (and men) I know identify themselves as victims of sexual harassment or assault.

#MeToo reverberates because I have tried so intently during my life never to be the person who would lead someone to have to post #MeToo. If you know me IRL, you probably have witnessed my social reticence. Reading individuals always has been tough for me, so I have tried to protect myself by erring on the side of caution in relationships.

With women when I was young and single, that meant that if I was not 100 percent certain that you were interested in me, I wouldn't have dreamed of even suggesting anything remotely physical. As a manager when I was older, I tried to treat my crew the way I would want to be treated. I never wanted to be the creep. Still, I cringe when I think back about how I consistently gazed down when talking with people instead of looking them in the eye. I am sure that many women considered that creepy, but I didn't look men in the eye, either.

But I don't write any of this to absolve or acquit me. I write this to accuse me, instead.

#MeToo tells me that nothing I did — or did not do — likely spared a single woman around me from having to endure sexual harassment or sexual assault at some moment in her life. Even if I tried to never be the harasser, harassment still happened to almost everyone I knew.

I thought that if I behaved, I had done my part and didn't have to worry about sexual harassment. I was wrong.

I join those who believe that harassment and assault are rarely about sex. They almost always are about power. And if one person cedes power — in any arena — someone else inevitably takes it for himself. So what if I didn't harass anyone? Someone else just did, instead. Someone else would take the power that I refused for myself.

And that's why #MeToo bothered me so much at first. It's not just because of the expressions of real torment that so many people have had to endure in their lives. That pain cuts me, yes. But it also hurt me to think that this noble attempt to expose the grotesque scope of this problem wouldn't do a thing to stop it. The abusers didn't care about their victims then. Why should they start caring now?

Shaming people won't stop assault and harassment. Everyone who does this crap knows damned well that he shouldn't be doing it. But the predators continue, anyway, because they think they will get away with it. And they almost always are correct.

So people stopped Harvey Weinstein. Great. But I guarantee you that on the day that the Academy expelled Harvey Weinstein, dozens of young men sexually harassed or assaulted someone for the first time and got away with it. The Whac-a-Mole strategy never will end sexual harassment and assault. Every victim of Harvey Weinstein told a variation of the same story: He was a powerful movie producer who could stall or end their careers. So even if they could walk away, they could not stop him from attacking others.

The only way that people get the protection they need against the powerful is to find a way to stand together and change that balance of power. With every story I read about Harvey Weinstein, I wondered where SAG/AFTRA was. The actors' union could have provided a counter-balance to Harvey Weinstein and those like him. Rich men might be able to by off politicians, bully police, or charm the courts, but an aggressive union can shut down even a rich man's business with a strike over workplace safety.

Sure, it would be great if the bullies and predators of the world simply stopped abusing others. But history shows us that people very rarely give up power voluntarily. If we want to stop abuse, it will not come from asking those who commit these crimes to leave the rest of us alone. It will come from our standing together... and taking back the power that they use to abuse us.

Women can find allies in men here. Many of us are as sickened by this as you are. Abusive bosses don't limit themselves to sex as a weapon against those they seek to exploit. Those who abuse power for sex almost always abuse their power for money, status, and control, as well. If we men want to free ourselves from that exploitation, we must join women in standing up against sexual harassment and abuse, too. Stopping the abuse of power liberates us all — regardless of gender.

I thought that simply not harassing people was the enough. That was naive. Not one of Harvey Weinstein's victims could stop him. Even Harvey Weinstein, or any other predator, locking himself in solitary confinement won't stop this. As long as anyone has the power to abuse and get away with it, abuse will continue.

Here is the awful realization that #MeToo has forced me to confront — that individual will accomplishes nothing in the face of greater power. But that applies to everyone — including the powerful. If we want justice, we have to find a way to organize to shut down the businesses, the campaigns, and the careers of the powerful, so that we can create our own, greater power to take back control. This isn't simply about outing predators, one by one — though I hope that continues. It's about creating unions, political parties, and law enforcement offices that look out for us, instead of for them.

It's about being willing to walk off a job and onto a picket line to support victims of harassment in your company or production. It's about getting behind a primary challenger to candidates who refuse to treat the people around them with dignity, instead of getting cowed by the fear of your party's candidate losing in the general. And it's about packing local council meetings to demand the jobs of cops and prosecutors who won't pursue credible claims of abuse. Only when people stop getting away with this will it end. Only when the powerful learn that the price for harassment is the loss of their power will they choose to behave.

This is not a job for victims of sexual harassment and abuse to do on their own. They owe us nothing. We owe them. I owe them. I am sorry for not seeing that until now. #MeToo won't shame the predators into stopping. But it can rally the rest us to unite against them.

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© Robert Niles. Read more in the column archive.