If you were to listen to survivors of sexual assault and harassment, here’s what you’d hear: They want an apology. They want reassurance that what happened to them was wrong. They want to express solidarity with other people who have been similarly injured. They want perpetrators’ reputations to reflect the private harm they’ve done. And survivors want accountability: They want to know the rest of us are paying attention to their words.
Many critics of the #MeToo movement are not listening to what survivors say they want. They are conflating the response to the movement with the desires of the survivors at its center. Actress Catherine Deneuve laments that we live in “a time when mere accusations on social media lead to punishment, resignation, and sometimes, indeed often, trial by media.” Novelist Margaret Atwood has compared the flood of stories to “the structure of the Salem witchcraft trials, in which you were guilty because accused.”
Those at the forefront of the #MeToo backlash worry that the movement encompasses too many different types of experiences. They would reserve this moment of reckoning for only the men who have perpetrated crimes that could be proven in court, even as they recognize that the law often fails survivors.
In some cases, survivors are indeed calling for their abusers to be fired or jailed. “We need to make sure something like this never happens again,” wrote Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles this week in an Instagram post that revealed she was one of at least 140 U.S. gymnasts who say they were sexually abused by their team doctor, Larry Nassar.
Many survivors, however, just want to be heard. #MeToo stories are exposing a variety of transgressions, from men contradicting their public reputations, to men violating company policies, to men violating the law. Not all of the offenses are the same, and the women coming forward recognize that fact.
The recent #MeToo story that has critics particularly riled is that of comedian Aziz Ansari. Recently, a young woman using the pseudonym “Grace” went public with the details of a bad hookup with him — one that did not feel consensual to her. She said she was disappointed to see Ansari lauded at the Golden Globes, an event where most in attendance claimed to care deeply about consent. Grace said it was "absolutely cringeworthy that he was wearing the Time’s Up pin."
She did not say, "Jail him!" or, "He should never work in this town again." Personally, I don't believe Ansari should be exiled from his industry right now, either. But we must keep listening to women like Grace, because many stories only seem inconsequential until similar accounts start pouring out. There was a time when all the public knew about Bill Cosby’s private proclivities was one or two “bad date” stories. As more women came forward, it seemed those incidents were part of a pattern of systematic abuse.
Ansari has become the leading example for how #MeToo has gone too far. But plenty of men accused of misconduct barely missed a beat — Woody Allen leaps to mind. It is Ansari’s reaction to Grace’s story, moreover, that will determine its effect on his career. Ansari co-wrote a book called “Modern Romance,” and many of the plotlines in his Netflix show are about relationships. If he wants to continue telling stories about the complexities of sex and dating, he should engage openly with criticism of his private conduct with women.
He is fortunate to have at least one great example of how to react productively. Last week, TV showrunner Dan Harmon offered a lengthy apology to Megan Ganz, a writer who had worked for him. Harmon admitted to hitting on her and then treating her cruelly in the office after she rebuffed his advances. Ganz, who accepted Harmon’s apology, said that her choice to speak up was never about "vengeance.” She tweeted that she felt relieved “just hearing him say these things actually happened.”
Women coming forward in this moment are not the ones squeezing the nuance out of their stories. That's happening in the public narrative. When critics imply that the only valid #MeToo stories are those that would hold up in court, they are not only ignoring survivors’ varied motivations for speaking up, but they are also condemning most survivors to suffer in silence.
There are as many ways to deal with abuse as there are types of abuse. Women should be able to speak about the unwelcome things that men have done to them — and employers and audiences should be free to adjust their estimation of those men accordingly — even when the behavior in question is immoral but not illegal. This is what survivors are asking for. And we should all be listening.
Ann Friedman is a contributing writer to Opinion.