One of my college friends recently posted a meme on Facebook that read:
Every mother of boys should be TERRIFIED that at ANY time ANY girl can fabricate ANY story, with no proof, & RUIN her boy’s life.
And she shared her own comment on it: “Regardless of where you stand on the Kavanaugh issue, this is the reality many of us are coming to understand.” As it happens, she’s the mother of three young boys. Accordingly, she must be “TERRIFIED” that inheritors of the #MeToo movement will one day vindictively “fabricate” a story (“ANY story”) and “RUIN” life for one or more of her sons.
The background picture suggested by this meme is that the norms the #MeToo movement seeks to put in place will come at a severe cost to men. The implicit thought behind this picture—be it disingenuous or not—is easy to grasp: if society’s default is to believe women who claim they were sexually assaulted, that will open men up to rampant false accusations, which women (thinly veiled subtext: women like Christine Blasey Ford) will exploit for malicious purposes. There is even a #ProtectOurBoys movement dedicated to boosting that thought. In short, on this picture, because of #MeToo, men in the 21st century will be as susceptible to false accusations of sexual assault as Black men were in America for most of the 20th century.
That thought gets a lot of things wrong. First, it overestimates the likely rates of false accusations, which are at present very low. Second, it overestimates the gullibility of those in the future who would hear the “fabricated” accusations. Would people really believe “ANY” story from “ANY” girl at “ANY” time? According to that, people would believe incoherent accusations that go contrary to widely known facts. But most people aren’t that gullible. In the worst case, one might err on the side of believing a plausible accusation that hasn’t been proven, which is a far cry from the hysterical picture painted by the meme in question.
Those two points have been widely rehearsed in public discussion, so I don’t want to expand on them here.
Rather, I want to question the zero-sum logic of the thought behind the meme itself. That logic says that any move in the direction of trusting the accusers/victims inevitably increases the possibility and likelihood of false accusations that do actual damage. And I want to address that zero-sum logic, because I think it is tacitly accepted not only by opponents of the changes #MeToo would bring about—but also by defenders. For the opponents, like my friend, that logic is a reason to reject #MeToo. For defenders, it is a cost worth bearing, given the much greater moral benefits that would come from a culture of trusting victims.
The point I want to advance here, however, is that the zero-sum logic is questionable and likely wrong. The norms and changes that the #MeToo movement seeks to put in place would likely leave us with social habits that make men less likely to be susceptible to false accusations. If so, then my friend should be happy that her boys will come of age in a post-#MeToo era.
One of the key points of #metoo and related movements is that sex requires consent and good communication generally. Boys will now grow up hearing this. Contrast that with the message I got in high school and college in the 1990s. I recall being in a nightclub in 1999 when I heard an older male advise me: “Don’t ask. Just grab her and kiss her!” I’m guessing his approach to sex was not that different: don’t talk first. But such a lack of verbal communication eventuates in sexual situations in which there hasn’t been a decisive moment of consent. And not only are such situations likelier to actually be moments of sexual assault; they are also situations that are more susceptible to malicious characterization than are situations in which consent has been explicitly given or denied. If there has been a decisive moment of consent, then a false accusation would have no plausibility. If there has not been a decisive moment of consent, then a male following post-#MeToo norms would not attempt a sex act. Either way, the greater clarity of consent that will be normal in the post-#MeToo era will help stop males from doing things that even could be falsely construed.
My general reasoning here is that reducing the prevalence of ambiguous situations—those in which the male doesn’t definitively know how willing a potential partner is—will not only reduce incidence of actual assault but also the possibility of false accusation. If we are concerned with false accusations (as my friend was), then we should want as much clarity as possible, since lies are less likely to thrive in contexts where communication has been clear.
And the point about reducing ambiguity generalizes beyond the bedroom. A big part of what #MeToo tries to do is improve professional life for women, which includes combating sexual harassment in the workplace. That involves having stricter standards of professional communication: avoid sexual jokes, flirtation, etc. unless all parties are clearly comfortable with it, and even then proceed with caution and be prepared to back off. But a male following that norm is less likely to say or do something that could be wrongly construed as harassment. So that means that the norm that #MeToo supports for the workplace will reduce the kind of ambiguous situation that even could provide fodder for a false accusation. So this norm, in point of fact, helps men: follow the norm and be less susceptible to false accusation. (And again, keep in mind that I’m not saying false accusations are all that likely in the first place; I’m saying that following #MeToo norms will make males even less susceptible to them, however likely they may be.)
There are several other ways I think #MeToo norms are helpful to men (and women in positions of power, for that matter) beyond the potential for false accusation. Better awareness of the impact of power relations on the ability to give consent, for example, will help keep supervisors from crossing into territory where they think they’ve been given consent but haven’t been (the number of cases that that point describes is staggering).
So the general theme is clear: #MeToo norms will help males avoid being actual aggressors, help them avoid ambiguous situations that would leave them susceptible being falsely perceived as such, and help them avoid mistaking power relations for consent. All of that is good for men. So instead of besmirching the #MeToo movement, anxious mothers of young boys should embrace it.