Chris Hopson | Harvard University
One of the best things the #MeToo movement has done is spark national conversation on a number of important social questions. How do people in positions of power abuse that power? What, holds, or should hold, people in positions of power accountable? How are men socialized to view and treat women? I believe that a society that seriously engages with these questions, then offers answers and implements solutions, is a much healthier society than one that doesn’t. Indeed, the US has already benefited in myriad ways from #MeToo-inspired conversations: not only have sexual predators been removed from positions of authority and denied public office, but a fundamental truth about American society (which has been known by a lot of people, especially women, for a long time) has been brought into clear focus: misogyny is deeply embedded in American culture and institutions. Reckoning with this tragic social fact, and working to fix it, is extremely important, and will improve the lives of everyone in the US. But I want to focus on another social fact that the #MeToo movement has made clear: many men in positions of power have a serious maturity problem. This not only threatens the safety and wellbeing of those who interact with these men, but is also has implications for the sociopolitical direction of our country. I believe we, as a society, must reflect on what levels of maturity we are are demanding, or not demanding, from boys as they grow into adults.
Charlie Rose, the longtime CBS news anchor and talk show host, walked around naked or in an open bathrobe in front of female coworkers. Matt Lauer, the former NBC news anchor, took off his pants in front of female coworkers, and there is a video of him proudly standing in NBC studios in his underwear as female colleagues walk by (to which one of them responded: “Again, Matt, really?”). Louis C.K. stripped naked and began masturbating in front of female colleagues. Brett Kavanaugh took out his penis and thrust it at a law school classmate, then laughed. These are just some of the things that these men have done and been accused of doing. All of these actions are morally odious, ethically unacceptable, and in some cases illegal. And they’re also very immature. Walking around naked, or taking off one’s pants without being asked to, are behaviors we usually associate with small children. And society as a whole expects that a certain point, people will outgrow these behaviors. But these #MeToo moments reveal that a lot of men are not outgrowing these behaviors.
I want to be clear that I am not making a “boys will be boys” argument. Sexual harassment is sexual harassment, regardless of how old the perpetrator is. And in the most prominent #MeToo case in the media right now, the allegations against the newest Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, I hope most people would agree that by the time one is high school-aged, and certainly law school-aged, one should have learned that exposing oneself without being asked to is not funny, normal, or acceptable. All I am saying is that we’re seeing men like Rose, Lauer, C.K., and Kavanaugh behave in ways that we might expect of boys not much more than five years old. I see no reason to suspect that Rose, Lauer, C.K. or Kavanaugh followed different developmental trajectories than most men. In other words, a lot of men are probably like this. A lot of grown men probably think it’s funny to expose oneself without being asked to, or to walk around naked in front of people who didn’t invite you to do so. And as the current President of the United States has shown us, immature behavior need not always be sexual or misogynistic in nature. For years, Trump would routinely send a New York journalist (whose magazine once made a joke about the length of his fingers) pictures of his hand in which he would circle his fingers and write, “See, not so short”. He tweeted that his nuclear button is “bigger & more powerful” than Kim Jong-un’s. When asked by Anderson Cooper about a tweet he sent out about then-opponent Ted Cruz’s wife, Trump said, “He started it.”
What should we make of all this? The most obvious answer is that, to whatever extent possible, we should ensure that men in positions of power are behaving in ways that we would expect an adult to behave, and hold them accountable if they’re not. But I think we should also ask ourselves more difficult questions. How and why is it that men like Rose, Lauer, C.K., Kavanaugh, and Trump got to positions of such power in the first place? What standards are we holding men too, and what standards are we holding women to? Let us imagine that Hillary Clinton had a long history of being hypersensitive to any insinuation that she had small hands, and bragged about the size of her hands on the debate stage and related it to the size of her genitalia. Would she have come close to being elected president? Let’s imagine that Elena Kagan, the most recent woman confirmed to the Supreme Court, had been accused by former male classmates of exposing her genitalia and thrusting it at them without their consent, all while laughing. Would she be sitting on the Court right now? Let’s imagine that any number of high-profile female actors, comedians, news anchors or talk show hosts had histories of walking around their studios without pants on, or in open bathrobes, or stripping naked and masturbating in front of male colleagues without their consent. Would their behavior have been tolerated for decades? Would they have made it all the way to the top? Something tells me that the answer to all of these questions is no. Why have men, for so long, been given a pass, not just for predatory behavior, but for acting like five-year-olds? And when will we stop giving them that pass?