Where’s the Balance in #MeToo?

Patrick Brown leaving Queen's Park

I think the #MeToo movement is a net positive—I think it’s good that women are feeling more comfortable about speaking out about sexual assaults by people in positions of power. I want people to feel like they can talk about abuse, and that when they do, to know that they will be taken seriously, with consequences to the abusers.

But at the same time, I’m wary of witch hunts. The challenge is that an allegation seems like it’s enough to destroy careers, and it seems to be difficult to find a balance between justice and mob rule. Thus, I’m confused about how, over the long term, #MeToo should all shake out.

Guilty because accused

I’d say that it’s almost certainly true that, overall, the media and the people are on the side of women who speak out on this topic, so I won’t speak too much about that except to say that we should take all allegations of sexual assaults seriously.

But the more interesting side to look at now is whether it’s fair and reasonable that mere allegations should ruin people’s careers? Margaret Atwood penned a good essay on this subject talking about how problematic a “guilty because accused” attitude is.

I think Atwood raises valid points, to the extent that I’m uncomfortable with Justin Trudeau’s argument that it is “essential” that women be believed when they raise allegations. To me, that seems dangerously close to the “guilty because accused” line.

The other side

To me, it’s reasonable to say that most women who accuse people of sexual assault are truthfully expressing their view of the situation. But there are two big problems with taking that stance and continuing on to the natural conclusion of “therefore the accused is guilty”.

First, perspectives of the same event can be different, and there’s no reason why one individual’s perspective should be given more weight than another. Being uncomfortable with a sexual advance doesn’t imply that the sexual advance was necessarily inappropriate in any way.

A large percentage of romance movies have an attractive man persistently stalk and harass a woman until she falls in love with him, while many thrillers have an ugly man stalk and harass a woman until she’s eventually forced to kill him. The main difference between these two types of movies seems to be the lighting, the music, and the attractiveness of the man (i.e. differing perspectives). One could argue that in both situations the man is in the wrong, but society don’t actually seem to believe this because it comes up again and again in the most beloved romances.

The second issue is false accusations. I think the vast majority of accusations are true (and, in particular, accurately portray the woman’s perspective), but I don’t believe that all accusations are true. And ruining someone’s career over a false accusation is really bad. I don’t think it’s reasonable toss the falsely accused in a “collateral damage” bucket to be ignored simply because most accusations are true. To do so would be akin to saying school children being murdered every few days by the rare psycho is acceptable collateral damage in return for gun rights.

More than an academic argument

And I think that this argument is more than just a theoretical argument. I certainly have a very negative impression of Jian Ghomeshi, and he lost his career and several years of his life to sexual harassment charges, yet he was acquitted of all charges. What it just that he lost his career? I’m not sure.

Patrick Brown is even more extreme. Within five hours of sexual assault allegations, he was made to resign as leader of the Ontario Conservative Party. Yet the worst accusation—that he was propositioning a minor—has turned out to be false. The less serious accusation was that he invited an intern to his bedroom, but took her home when she said she didn’t want to do anything. Then, he occasionally made sexual comments to her afterward. To me, the only problem there is the alleged sexual comments afterward. Mostly, it sounds like Brown was guilty of being an awkward guy who made women feel uncomfortable.

But in this case, the accusations were enough for Brown to lose his position as the future Premier of Ontario (according to polls). There was no court, no hearing. Just a career instantly cut short.

So where’s the balance?

Maybe it’s unavoidable that people who chose jobs where they’re in the public eye can be brought down in hours by an unproved allegation. If I could arrange the world in any way I liked, I would still have no idea how to create a system that both allowed the concerns of women to be taken seriously without destroying the lives and careers of the accused based only on allegations. Even so, a swing toward “guilty because accused” doesn’t sit well with me.

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5 thoughts on “Where’s the Balance in #MeToo?

  1. I concur with your thoughts on this topic. It reminds me of an earlier issue where a Canadian Senator
    tried to make the point that not all indigenous students were damaged by the residential school experience. She was blacklisted by her fellow senators. Among humans, mob rule often erupts.

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  2. Yeah, I find it really hard to figure out where the balance should lie, more so than almost any issue. Maybe there is no right answer and we just need to accept that we’re in a situation where either men get away with sexual harassment, or some men lose their careers unfairly. But I find that choice unpalatable.

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  3. I agree that finding balance is key, not just for people who are in the public eye or manage to ‘go public’. The majority of harassed or abused women do not have that chance and the fact is that for many people it is a painful subject, a shameful thing to admit to even an intimate friend. The legal system is uneven to say the least. Statistics show there is no balance there, at least not in the overall scheme of things.
    My hope is that Me too, provides a ‘way in’and that eventually structural changes or rules can be put in place to protect all women, and it follows, most men as well. I think a small proportion of men, particularly those in a position of power, get away with abusing women because women cannot or dare not speak up. We know it’s not all men but we let them get away with it and in the overall scheme of things, i.e. economic equality, this is to the advantage to all men.

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    1. Here’s the first article I’ve found on sexual assault statistics in Canada. To me, most of the statistics don’t look that unreasonable (in contrast to your “no balance” assertion).

      The police dismissing 20% of cases as unfounded is high, but not ridiculously so. What’s more, I suspect that a reasonable number of the “unfounded” cases are likely “lack of evidence” cases misclassified. I also wonder what the police do with cases where both the male and female are drunk when they have sex (and therefore neither party can consent). I imagine this scenario would most commonly be classified as “male sexually assaulting female”. If the system were fair, it would actually be a case of “male sexually assaulting female and female sexually assaulting male”. But I’ve never heard of such a case and there’s something unpalatable about ruining two people’s lives when neither one was of sound judgement. So I suspect a bunch of cases where this scenario happens might end up being classified as “unfounded”.

      The fact that only 43% of sexual assaults reported to the police resulted in a criminal charge is disturbingly low until it becomes apparent that in most of the cases where the charge wasn’t filed, they didn’t actually have a suspect. It’s hard to lay charges without a suspect. In sexual assaults with an identified accused, 75% of the time charges were laid. To, me, that number seems reasonable.

      75% of physical assault charges made it to court versus 50% of sexual assault charges. This number also seems reasonable to me considering that physical assault is far less likely to involve issues related consent. Thus, the evidence is likely to be more clear cut.

      Sexual assault complains made the day of the assault are 50% likely to go to court, while more than a year later the chance falls to 20%. This stat, too, makes sense to me since it’s much easier to collect evidence right after the crime.

      To me, the most worrisome statistic is the poorly-supported number that only 4% or 5% of sexual assaults are actually reported. I have a couple thoughts on that. My best reference for that percentage is self-reporting surveys, and that makes the number less believable. For instance, I suspect there’s likely a divergence of views between individuals (particularly men vs. women) of what represents sexual assault and that the time frame might not be accurately reported. (For instance, I suspect that the majority of people who were sexually assaulted 15 months ago will answer “yes” to a survey asking, “Have you been sexually assaulted in the last year.”)

      Second, I think this statistic is one of the things #MeToo is hoping to address. To the extent that #MeToo results in sexual assaults being reported and charges being laid, I see that as a great thing.

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