It started with Harvey Weinstein and then one by one, stalwarts of the entertainment and media industries fell like dominoes. They are the alleged serial sexual harassers and assaulters who inspired the #MeToo movement, which gave women and men a platform upon which they could openly discuss their own stories and experiences of sexual misconduct in the workplace.
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The stories came in droves. In a tweet posted on Oct. 15, 2017, actress Alyssa Milano called for all women who had experienced sexual harassment and abuse to post #MeToo to social media to show how pervasive it is. By the end of the day, the hashtag had been used on Twitter 200,000 times and on Facebook 4.7 million times. (Milano also later acknowledged that Me Too had its origins in a grassroots movement started by activist Tarana Burke in 1996).
The collective voice grew louder with more and more high-profile women joining in the chorus: Ashley Judd, Mira Sorvino, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Lawrence, Uma Thurman. It seemed every woman (and some men) had a story to tell of a powerful man wielding his influence to try to get what he wanted out of a perceived subordinate — namely, sex.
There’s no question that what these men allegedly did was (and is) wrong, but amid the accusations and cries for justice is a community of men who don’t want to be lumped in with the predatory riffraff, yet they feel there’s no way to extricate themselves from the collective.
In a survey conducted by Chatelaine of 1,000 men across Canada, 25 per cent of respondents said they felt “nothing” when the topic of sexual harassment came up. But of the remaining 75 per cent, 42 per cent feel “sad” and 32 per cent feel “angry.”
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Yet, while the average Canadian male takes a clear stand against sexual misconduct, he also seems to feel that there’s no place for him as a “good guy” in today’s cultural climate.
Mike, one of the men interviewed by Chatelaine, said he was reluctant to even engage in a conversation about #MeToo for fear of coming across as a misogynist.
“We can’t as a society sacrifice the presumption of innocence of accused men,” he said.
According to Janice Fiamengo, an English professor at the University of Ottawa and outspoken supporter of men’s issues, this is a feeling that has plagued men for the last 20 or more years.
“Most men I know believe that the general cultural climate today is negative toward them,” she tells Global News.
“It’s not just since #MeToo; for years, they’ve been hearing that everything they [say] and do in regards to women can be an assault or sexual harassment. They’re terrified and they feel resentful.”
Fiamengo, who says she knows “a number of men” who’ve lost their jobs due to wrongful workplace sexual harassment accusations, says that men today don’t only feel persecuted on a social level, but have also lost confidence in a court system that inherently believes women are victims and men are perpetrators.
“Feminist legal activists have weakened men’s ability to defend themselves against allegations. In the mid-1980s they made changes to the sexual assault laws lifting the statute of limitations,” she says. “A man could be accused of something that happened 20 or 25 years ago.”
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The statistics, however, indicate that this might not be a bad thing, especially since the rates of self-reported sexual assault hadn’t waned in this country over a decade-long period.
According to the results of Statistics Canada’s General Social Survey, 635,000 incidents of sexual assault were reported in 2014, which was virtually unchanged from 2004. In 87 per cent of the incidents, women were the victims. Rates of all other types of crimes had decreased in the same 10-year period.
“Women feel powerless in situations where we discuss sexual violence and we’re just kind of dismissed. ‘Oh, it doesn’t happen. Oh, he didn’t mean it. Oh, he was drunk. He thought you were consenting,’” says Holly Johnson, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa who focuses on violence against women. “All these things are continuing.”
And despite the fact that some men feel there’s a cultural impetus to punish them for having “gotten away with bad treatment of women for a long time,” according to Fiamengo, the fact that only five per cent of sexual assaults were reported in 2014 indicates that the punishments are in fact few and far between.
“There’s a movement to blame women for all the problems of men, primarily white men, and it precedes #MeToo,” Barbara MacQuarrie, community director of the Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children at Western University, tells Global News.
“This has acted as a magnifying glass on women’s experiences, and it seems as though men are rushing to prove that they’re more victimized than women.”
She says a lot of this has to do with global forces that are creating economic changes. The high participation of women in the North American workforce has led to subtle changes in dynamics, and while many (both men and women) see it as a positive, some men feel they’re losing their unquestioned place of privilege in the world.
Fiamengo, however, says the imbalance lies in men’s ability to shrug things off, while women tend to “make a federal case” of things.
READ MORE: ‘Me too’ backlash has women worried about losing career opportunities
“It’s unimaginable that a man would make an allegation against a woman who may have squeezed his bum 20 years ago. They shrug it off,” she says.
She maintains that men wouldn’t file a complaint because they don’t want a culture of people constantly accusing one another. In addition, she believes the odds of vindication are stacked against them.
“If you look at cases of statutory rape in which female teachers have had sexual relationships with boys, even when they’re found guilty, they aren’t given any jail time because our cultural attitude is that he got lucky and probably wanted it,” she says. “For years, studies didn’t even believe that men could be raped.”
(A quick Google search revealed that one teacher in Quebec charged with sexual exploitation and assault in 2014 was sentenced to 20 months in jail; another in Calgary was sentenced to two years and another in Timmins, Ont., was sentenced to seven months. In the U.S., authorities have been actively cracking down on female teachers who sexually abuse students since 2015.)
While it’s true that women in cases of sexual assault are more often than not the victims, MacQuarrie points out that male victims don’t need to conceal their experiences. In fact, many women’s organizations are more than willing to help them establish support systems.
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“We see lots of examples of men who are starting their own organizations to create support and resources, and they are finding ways to connect with women who have been doing this work longer,” she says.
“There’s a commitment to not completely blame another gender for their problems. And certainly, feminism has always been really clear about wanting to address the systems where abuse thrives to create conditions where everyone can live more healthy, whole lives.”
For her part, Fiamengo says she doesn’t know any men who condone “real” sexual harassment, which she characterizes as constantly making advances, off-colour jokes or provocative comments when a woman has clearly stated that they make her uncomfortable.
“I think 98 per cent of men would be on board with that. What they’re not on board with is not being given a second chance, and being publicly humiliated or fired. We need a climate of serious investigation into women’s complaints because sometimes they do lie and are overly sensitive.”
The jury’s out, however, on who’s the more sensitive party in this argument.
— With files from Leslie Young