Any article about the #MeToo movement is bound to provoke a response, and, indeed, an essay I recently wrote for The Washington Post Magazine on the subject received more than 1,000 comments. Writing as both a woman and the mother of a son, I posed the question: Can we find a system of justice — a middle path between the #MeToo extremists and those who minimize the very real problem of sexual assault — that’s fair to our daughters and our sons?
Some commenters were supportive, thanking me for proposing a nuanced take on the topic. Others were harshly critical of my views, calling me “confused and shortsighted” and the like. “Most women who are raped never get justice, even when they try to cooperate with the justice system,” wrote one critic. “As the scales balance, more men will be wrongly punished.” In this commenter’s view, that would be an acceptable price to pay in order to protect more women.
Another commenter — Kenny Herbert, a 58-year-old office manager in New York — leveled a somewhat different criticism at my argument. “The problem isn’t ‘millions of men ... are afraid to say or do the wrong thing,’ because the decent and respectful man has little to fear. Raise your son to be an empathetic, caring man, and he will be okay,” he wrote. “The problem is millions of neanderthals are mad that we are holding them accountable for their actions, so they are creating the false equivalence that ALL men are potential targets of (relatively rare) false accusations.”
I called Herbert, who has a son and two daughters. As is so often the case with this subject, we agreed on the broad strokes but then tried to parse out our differences of opinion.
“There is fear out there [among men], and it’s real,” said Herbert. But he thinks that abusive men are fomenting that fear to obscure their behavior. “There are many men — my son, myself, and others included — who are part of the #MeToo movement, who want all of this crap outed, who want this to be addressed and for women to be heard.”
To Herbert, it seems pretty clear: Good men have nothing to worry about. To me, that seems simplistic, like saying that good women have nothing to be afraid of. Or that bad things don’t happen to good people.
The divorced father started dating two years ago. “I waited three dates to just ask, ‘Would you mind if I give you a good-night kiss?’ Then ask for the next until we’re both ready,” he said. “There’s no pressure. I don’t have a catchall solution for college-age kids, but we have to just keep drilling home the point that no means no.”
But then what? What if two people have an encounter — sexual, or perhaps just a conversation at work — and come away with two very different versions of what occurred? What does justice look like then?
Herbert starts by believing the women. I start by believing both women and men, then trying to gather whatever facts are available to determine the truth, so far as possible. We both believe that justice requires more than an accusation; it requires a real effort to investigate the charges.
Another thing we agreed on: There are no easy answers, even for good men trying to do the right thing. Our conversation ended with a story from Herbert’s college days. Walking to his car from a night class one evening, he was a few yards behind a female student who turned around to look at him several times before suddenly taking off at a run. “I actually thought for a moment that there was someone behind me, and I turned around quickly,” he recalled. “And of course, there’s no one there, and it’s me. That has stuck with me for 40 years — that just being me is a potential threat to any female at any time. And I don’t want to be that way. But I also want to acknowledge and realize that if I am that way, I want to do everything I can to not exacerbate that.”
As his story makes clear, sometimes women and men just see the world entirely differently. My hope is that we can figure out how to reconcile those two views in a way that’s fair to both.
Roxanne Roberts is a Washington Post staff writer.