The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The anti-Roy Moore #MeAt14 campaign has a serious problem

Roy Moore speaks at a rally. (Brynn Anderson/Associated Press)

Women on the Internet want you to know what they looked like when they were 14 — and not because it’s pretty.

Lizz Winstead, a co-creator of “The Daily Show,” took to Twitter on Saturday to share a photo of herself captioned, “This is me at 14. I was on the gymnastics team and sang in the choir. I was not dating a 32 year old man.” She invited her followers to share their own photos, and share they did. By the weekend’s end, thousands had rustled up sepia-toned snapshots of their teenage selves repurposed to criticize Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore for his alleged abuse of an underage girl.

Others were ready to criticize the #MeAt14, too. The tweets were a shady way, some said, for women to sexualize themselves (in the words of one commentator) “in the guise of sisterly morale-boosting.” I don’t think that’s true. Sure, some hashtags may promote a false modesty that really lets users show off, but that doesn’t seem to describe the majority of #MeAt14 posts. Many women boast mouths full of metal; Winstead shows off a full set of baby teeth. Their younger selves played clarinet, made friendship bracelets and loved “Lord of the Rings” and their dogs. The idea isn’t to project sensuality. It’s to project purity.

Republican lawmakers are split on whether Roy Moore, the embattled Alabama Republican, should continue his run for Senate given allegations against him. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

To me, that’s the deeper issue with how the #MeAt14 campaign is constructed.

“I wasn’t dating 32-year-old men.” That refrain, or some variation on it, runs throughout the collection of #MeAt14 tweets, from Winstead’s to those still pouring in today. “I wasn’t interested in” old men, or men at all, say others. There’s something squirm-inducing about this language. Subtly or not, it signals a certain virtuousness. I was innocent. I was wearing wire-framed glasses and perusing stories about horses. I never would have done this.

The whole idea behind the viral campaign is that 14-year-olds cannot consent. And if that’s true, the agency lies with the abuser and the abuser alone. “I wasn’t being preyed upon by a 32-year-old man,” other tweeters have offered. That’s more apt, but it’s still not enough.

The writer Mikki Kendall puts it well: The #MeAt14 campaign “drowns out the voices of the girls who had been sexually abused by that age.” The superficial trappings of girlhood don’t shield a teen from harassment or assault. By the same token, a teenager’s desire to grow up doesn’t mean it’s okay when an older man takes advantage. Prizing an imagined virginity above all else shames those who couldn’t stay uncorrupted because some other man out there was corrupt. And it suggests being female and 14 is something it’s not.

The #MeAt14 posts that do come from women who had already experienced sexual harassment or assault at that age (despite the general tenor of the campaign, they do exist) tell us the truth. It’s not simply that Roy Moore was aberrantly attracted to women far below his age, when the average eighth-grader is removed from the realm of sex and sexuality. It’s that Roy Moore isn’t so much of an aberration as we’d like to think, and braces or band practice or picture-books full of ponies can’t keep anyone safe.