Virtually every woman I know posted a status update to Facebook this weekend of a time she was sexually assaulted or harassed, following Alyssa Milano’s lead and appending the hashtag #MeToo. As public rituals on social-media go, it’s notable for being short on sanctimony and long on bravery. And its bravery compels the decency of an honest response.
Once, more than 10 years ago, when I was an on-call server for a high-end catering company in New York, I worked an 800-person event during which everything went wrong. Service was late, the client was furious, and the atmosphere was such that the wait staff absorbed all the blame — from the tables where we interrupted a presentation to drop off plates, and from the chefs in the kitchen. This company had a number of managers, many of them lovely, a few of them horrible. One had always seemed to dislike me, so I had a gut feeling she would single me out of 50 people to deliver a reprimand. She did. It wasn’t fair, and it made me so angry that I did something I’d never done before — or since — just to get her off my back.
I stared at her breasts until she stopped yelling at me, adjusted the cardigan she was wearing, and walked away.
The incident has stuck with me, and it’s one I’ve shared with almost no one. As workplace sexual harassment goes, it’s arguably on the minor side — especially compared with the details of the now-settled 2016 lawsuit that alleged all manner of brazen conduct at S.F. restaurant Coqueta — but in a way, that’s the more important point. The more minor something is, the more commonplace it almost certainly is, too, and the difference here is one of degree and not kind. More than a decade on, I doubt that manager remembers the episode. But I do. All day, every day, women — all women — face situations in which male friends, co-workers, lovers, and strangers can simply play a card of their own choosing in a game the women never consent to play. I possessed the power that every man has over every woman, and I used it to spare myself two minutes of aggravation.
I share it here — and not merely on my personal Facebook page — because it’s important to reciprocate the #MeToo campaign with complementary honesty. Gay men have a tendency to think of ourselves as soaring 35,000 feet above male-female sexual harassment, like a jet going over bad weather. That’s self-absolving, pat, and incorrect. Men who commiserate with women over straight-male conduct and who consider themselves allies can still do bad things, so the faux-shocked, “Who, moi?” excuse shouldn’t cut it. And there was one time when I did something pretty gross. #ItWasMe.
For every sin of commission, there are probably many sins of omission, too. As the Harvey Weinstein episode unfolds, the most jarring point may not be that a powerful Hollywood mogul is also a serial abuser who got away with it for decades even though many of his victims were wealthy and powerful in their own right. It might be an offhand remark Matt Damon made in response to the revelation he helped quash a potential Weinstein exposé in 2004. “We vouch for each other, all the time,” the actor said last week. It’s a breezy admission of how men keep on winning because we keep rigging the rules, confident there’s nothing we need to unlearn.
Looked at in that light, I’m troubled. I’m bothered by the thought that, in spite of my protesting at the Women’s March and giving to Planned Parenthood and treating people with respect — hopefully, anyway — there are almost certainly other “minor” incidents from my past I’ve completely forgotten. You can try to plumb the depths of your own complicity in systemic oppression, but the human memory keeps its own counsel. Still: I’ve never groped anyone, sure, but what behaviors have I observed other men engage in yet said nothing about?
Examining your conscience is a good start, but it can’t be the final analysis. Neither is believing women when they say #MeToo (although that’s important, too). However sincere, these private virtues amount to invisible abstractions, and that can easily become self-congratulatory and minimizing.
So I choose to be public. Only by doing demonstrable good in our interpersonal lives, and openly, will men ever dismantle what we build — because even the world’s most enlightened man can still resort to bad behavior at will, and you don’t have to grab anyone by anything to be an asshole and a creep.