‘What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open,’ wrote the American poet and activist Muriel Rukeyser in 1968. It took just short of half a century, but 2017 was the year in which #MeToo made this prophecy a reality. The phrase was coined in 2006 by the black American activist Tarana Burke, who was inspired to use it after finding herself without words when a 13-year-old girl confided in her that she had been sexually assaulted, later wishing she had just said ‘Me too’. But it spread virally – like some mass cyberspace inoculation against isolation – just a few weeks ago, when the actress Alyssa Milano encouraged women who had suffered sexual abuse to tweet it in the wake of the first Harvey Weinstein revelations. Since then millions have done so.
How did we get to this place of horror, but also of hope? It’s not unfair to say that while the majority of heterosexual men find most women somewhat attractive, the majority of heterosexual women find most men somewhat unattractive. That men generally have higher sex drives than women can be proved by looking at the difference between gay male couples and lesbian couples – a faithful gay male couple is a rarity, while a faithful lesbian couple is the norm. Of course, female desire is equally real but it is not equally random. Yes, the tweenager screaming over Harry Styles doesn’t dream of simply playing Jenga with him – Twister, more like. But that tweenager will not the next day follow middle-aged men down the street in search of sex, which middle-aged men do sometimes to schoolgirls. I was 12 years old and in my school uniform when I was first asked ‘How much?’ by a middle-aged man, and after that it happened on a weekly basis until, as a 15-year-old runaway, I was molested good and proper. And I was one of the lucky ones – I have numerous friends who experienced far worse.
We’ve always like to think that excess male desire, which can be an ugly and embarrassing thing – was it Socrates or Russell Brand who said that having a penis was like ‘being chained to a madman’? – rarely expresses itself in forcing itself upon respectable women. Instead, for our peace of mind, we’ve performed endless moral contortions to accommodate it being mopped up through pornography and prostitution – mercy monetarised by women with stronger stomachs than ours. But now it turns out that women attempting to do the most respectable thing in the world – earn their own lawful living – are also likely to bear the brunt of the madman’s unhinged urges. A sex worker can turn a punter down and walk away if she doesn’t like the look of him; is it as easy for an actress do the same to a man who could wreck her career?
Of course, the famous names who suffered get the most publicity, and it’s predictable that they would also cause the most scepticism; it’s only a short while since ‘actress’ was another word for prostitute and in the case of female film stars the parallels with the sex trade are obvious – highest paid when young and beautiful, cast aside when ageing. Having grown up hearing the casting couch joked about as if it were as wholesome and jolly as Santa’s sledge, and seen at first hand the legions of Hollywood liberals protect and lionise the child rapist Roman Polanski, it’s understandable that Harvey Weinstein and his diminutive madman sidekick couldn’t really grasp what they were doing wrong. The same can’t be said of those who attacked the half of British women who have been sexually harassed at a place of work, according to a recent BBC survey.
Sex-pests can never be too old – George Bush, 93 and in a wheelchair, apologising to a woman 30 years younger for groping her, his wife in the room with them. They can never be aware enough to know they’re out of their league – a local radio DJ in Denver allegedly groping Taylor Swift, already a star. They can never be too right-on – see the leagues of comrades now being accused of everything from groping in House of Commons lifts to threatening rape to female anti-Corbynites on social media. They can certainly never be too ugly, one thing they all have in common. Are they remotely aware of how repulsive they are, all these beasts mauling all these beauties, or do they all have Magic Mirrors at home which reflect back at them Sidney Poitier in his prime?
Men are often accused of dividing women into two types – the virgin/whore complex, as Freud had it. And maybe women, because we live with men, work with men and love men, have to divide men into two types, to preserve our sanity – the Monsters and The Good Guys. Except that, to his wife and daughters, and to the feminist organisations he donated to, and to Barack Obama whose teenage daughter worked as his intern, Harvey Weinstein was once a Good Guy.
#MeToo is a relay of shame; every victim of assault who stands up and names what happened passes on the shame to an assaulter who will have to remember that he was so undesirable that he felt it necessary to force himself on someone who didn’t want him. And that he is even more profoundly undesirable now, older and weaker, and that his victim may well come looking for him, no longer scared, with the long arm of the law ready to break his world, this time, apart. Robbing him of sleep, waiting for the knock on the door and the police car in the street. He won’t be asking ‘How much?’ now, the wag, unless it’s asking his lawyer the sort of jail stretch he’s looking at.
Feel the fear – and pass it on: this is the message of #MeToo, the gift that keeps on giving sexual abusers their just deserts. And not a moment too soon, albeit nearly half a century after Muriel Rukeyser foresaw it.