#MeToo Women’s March in Hollywood on November 12, 2017 (Mediapunch Inc / Alamy stock photo)

Taking the Measure of #MeToo

Two Views
This story is included in these collections


Gary Gutting

Harvey Weinstein is a moral monster. Listen to Lucia Evans, a college student who wanted to be an actress and met with Weinstein to discuss her career: “He forced me to perform oral sex on him.... I said, over and over, ‘I don’t want to do this, stop, don’t.’... I tried to get away, but maybe I didn’t try hard enough.... [Afterwards] it was always my fault for not stopping him.... I had an eating problem for years. I was disgusted with myself. It’s funny, all these unrelated things I did to hurt myself because of this one thing.... I ruined several really good relationships because of this. My schoolwork definitely suffered, and my roommates told me to go to a therapist because they thought I was going to kill myself.”

The New Yorker article in which these words appear provides similar accounts from twelve other women. It’s hard see how anyone with a spark of moral awareness could read them and fail to understand and share the #MeToo movement’s intense outrage against Weinstein and so many other men like him.

But we may well miss the true significance of the movement if we don’t reflect on the ethical basis of the outrage. A few more high-profile scapegoats, more executive positions and Academy awards for women, follow-up articles about Hollywood’s moral transformation, and the outrage will fizzle out. We need to use this moment of intense concern about sexual immorality to understand just what is so wrong about the behavior we decry.

Our outrage may seem anomalous, particularly in the Hollywood context, because the entertainment industry—along with advertising, the self-help industry, and “enlightened” intellectuals—is a primary source of the widely accepted idea that sex should be liberated from the seriousness of moral strictures and recognized as just another way that modern people can enjoy themselves. A cynic might suggest that there’s something odd about a woman complaining about being hit on when seeking a role as Bikini Girl #3 in the next teenage sexploitation movie.

I’m not that cynic, but I do think it’s worth reflecting on the tension between moral outrage over sexual harassment and the ethics of liberated sexuality. The core of the problem is that this ethics endorses the idea that sex should typically be just another way of having fun. (On this, see my earlier Commonweal piece, “Sex Is Not ‘Fun,’” September 23, 2016.) Of course, the liberation ethic allows that sex can also be an expression of deep human commitment. Casual sexual intimacy can be an early stage of an interaction that may (but need not and often will not) lead to love and genuine commitment. But the liberation ethic sees no problem with sex that begins and ends as just fun. It raises an objection only if the desired partner turns out not to be willing. The ethics of sexual liberation is based entirely on consent.

The problem is that mere lack of consent is typically no basis for moral outrage. We are irritated, but not outraged, by friends who insist on boring us with endless complaints. Nor do we go ballistic over employers who demand respectful agreement with their absurd pontifications and subject us to the harassment of unreasonable work rules. In such cases, we accept coercion as merely a venial offence. Why treat sexual intrusions differently? Many of us decidedly do not consent to those who force us to listen to their loud music or shove us aside to break into a line, but there are no social movements shaming and shunning people who turn up the volume or elbow their way in. There must be something beyond mere lack of consent that warrants our outrage at sexual harassment, something that explains why sexual offenses are much more serious than most other social intrusions. But for liberation ethics there is no moral boundary except a partner’s lack of consent.


Traditional sexual morality, for all its drawbacks, does offer a plausible reason for moral outrage against sexual harassment. Sex can readily lead to pregnancy and so to a child who needs the care of parents—parents who love one another and share that love with their child. From this viewpoint, sex is inappropriate if it isn’t based on the permanent loving commitment of marriage. Casual sex, sex-just-for-fun, is seriously immoral because it risks bringing into the world a child who requires an emotional and moral bond that the parents don’t have. A fortiori, sexual harassment—a boorish grab for casual sex—is seriously immoral.

Traditional sexual morality, for all its drawbacks, does offer a plausible reason for moral outrage against sexual harassment.

Effective birth control and feminism severely challenged the traditional view. The first reduced the risk of pregnancy, and the second made abortion and single motherhood acceptable options. The door to sex-just-for-fun was opened, and, despite some significant obstacles—failures of birth control, the physical and emotional traumas of abortion, the difficulties of supporting and raising a child—many seem to have found sex-just-for-fun an acceptable, even desirable, part of life. So unless we go back to a traditional morality that many see as oppressive and sexist, we may seem unable to justify our outrage at sexual harassment.

But there is no need to accept traditional sexual morality wholesale. All we really need is its respect for women in view of their role in bearing and raising children. We can separate this respect from a male hegemony confining women to their maternal function. We can acknowledge the right of women to follow life plans that exclude motherhood, while recognizing that many women will at some point want to have children. The fact will remain that the risks and demands of pregnancy primarily fall on women, who will also most often assume a primary role in childcare. As a result, women may well have an interest in risking pregnancy only when they are assured of a permanent loving commitment from the man who may father their children. Given this, men have a serious moral obligation to respect a woman’s right to reject their advances. This makes sexual relations more serious than many other sorts of social interactions and justifies our exceptional outrage at sexual harassment.

We may still be uneasy with this justification because it seems to return to an anti-feminist patronizing of women as weaker vessels. But in fact we can develop the justification in terms of the classic distinction between two aspects of feminism. The struggle for women’s liberation has always had to balance the concerns of equality feminism and those of difference feminism. The first focuses on equal treatment of women; the second on fundamental differences between men and women. The two viewpoints need not be inconsistent, but one or the other will be more relevant in various situations. When we seek to formulate the moral basis for the intolerability of sexual harassment, we must look to difference feminism, recognizing not just the ethical standing that women have as human beings but also the values of personal commitment that are distinctively at stake for them in sexual encounters. This is the deeper truth of the current demand that we “listen to the women.” It’s not that women are always right when they report sexual misbehavior. Rather, the values of committed love that support a strong condemnation of sexual harassment derive from the special status of women as potential mothers. In this way, our case derives from a firm commitment to (difference) feminism.

What this case for moral outrage does undermine is the liberated ethics of sex-just-for-fun. A sexual ethics that requires consent but not commitment cannot see boorish sexual behavior as serious enough to merit outrage. It can ridicule and scorn a Harvey Weinstein, but it has no basis for denouncing him as a moral monster.

Gary Gutting is emeritus John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. His most recent book is Talking God: Philosophers on Belief (Norton).


Sarah Ruden

Lately I’ve been trying to make deeper and more precise sense of the #MeToo movement within the context of human rights. Every kind of human-rights provision, from security in the home to press freedom, has to meet a high standard. For those of us who are Jews and Christians, it has to reflect the biblical truth that the human person is precious, and that our treatment of each other needs to be our best imitation of God’s enduring and ineffable love for us.

What happens to me if I admit how complicated I find the issue of sexual behavior in the workplace?

Even in fully secularized legal systems, this ideal is enshrined in a logic that treats punishment as a last resort. We’re always supposed to ask whether it’s necessary. Is it a deterrent? Does it protect? No American court (I hope) would ever entertain a request for vengeance. Nor would any court abet efforts at “empowerment,” as one class of persons makes a bid for control of an industry or institution on the grounds that they would run it better. (Affirmative action has merely aimed at inclusion of groups excluded before.)

One thing that worries me about the #MeToo movement is that, despite its welcome and long-overdue efforts to vindicate the taregets of sexual misconduct and protect women from being preyed on by their bosses and colleagues in the future, the cause has some features of a purge, short-circuiting due process and seeking not only redress but sometimes also revenge. Ordinary norms of justice are suspended or just forgotten in the flood of long-suppressed indignation.

A purge thrives on emotional appeals, with language that serves a one-way dynamism. Words like “assault,” “misconduct,” “abuser,” “harassment,” “predator,” “victim,” “survivor” cover a range of behaviors from rape and child molestation to harassment and quid-pro-quo sexual favors, all the way over to what would have looked to many people, a few months ago, like horseplay. “Whom do you believe?” “Victim shamers!” “If you condone it, you’re as bad as they are.” I’m a woman, but it’s still scary. What happens to me if I admit how complicated I find the issue of sexual behavior in the workplace? I have #MeToo stories, but the lessons I’ve drawn from them aren’t exactly the same as the lessons I’m now told I should have drawn.


I spent the years between 1994 and 2005 living in Cape Town, South Africa. There I was forced to face something that’s almost never acknowledged in the United States, with our relatively happy developments in human rights, at least in the last several generations. What I had to face is that, with a few stunningly inspiring exceptions, the oppressed want more than equality and strict justice. When an oppressed group is finally “empowered” and has chances to mistreat others the way they themselves were mistreated, the default impulse is to get their own back with usurious interest. Religious institutions preach that the impulse to deliver comeuppance and take plunder, while universal (we’re not a nice species by nature), should not be acted on, because we’re meant for something better. But that principle of forbearance, which has been embodied even in secular law, must compete against another principle. Call it the revolutionary principle: some groups are morally better than others—they actually got that way through having been mistreated—so what they are entitled to is whatever they wish to have.

I look on, mesmerized, as the comeuppance is delivered and the plunder taken. News is booming during the national panic inspired by Trump; harassment denunciations can clear out renowned anchors who, a little while ago, seemed to be an eternal blockage to youthful ambition. Bill O’Reilly is gone, along with Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose. Print journalism has also been affected. All the way down at the obscure level of freelance reviews and essays, I feel a little slackness in the ordinarily tight competition for good assignments, a loosening as five or six tiers above me start to move upward.

Sometimes the plans for a general clearance are stated unabashedly, into microphones. The fresh-faced congressman Seth Moulton, in calling on Nancy Pelosi to resign for her alleged tolerance of harassment over the years, has openly cited the need for the oldsters to move out of the way for the sake of younger House leadership. But why not? The most senior member of the House, the civil-rights hero John Conyers, was the first pushed out of Congress, for sexual harassment claims settled irregularly years ago.

One problem with the #MeToo movement is the illusion that nothing valuable will have been lost when all those accused of sexual misconduct—and all their enablers—have been cleared out. We seem to feel a special satisfaction if to “Good riddance!” we can add, “He was always overrated anyway.” The worst policy decision in post-apartheid South Africa, with its general program of rebuilding through reconciliation, was the purge of the admittedly iniquitous public-school system. The wronged and excluded did get the jobs that were freed up, but in vast stretches of the country now, no teacher knows what she is doing. It won’t be that bad here, of course. We have immense reserves of professional expertise in this country. In journalism and entertainment, there is a surfeit of talent. 

Still, we’re fooling ourselves if we believe that the skill and experience of all those accused of sexual assault won’t be missed; to varying extents, that skill and that expertise are societal goods, and they are now being placed out of society’s reach, often without any of the official processes by which the public usually sanctions such decisions. But if we’re looking at what benefits or hurts large groups, it’s important to distinguish societal goods from corporate profits, a plain and powerful motivator of the #MeToo movement. If a business, especially a media company, does not immediately condemn and punish an alleged perpetrator, it can lose money in a frenzy of public outrage.


Ancient Greek and Roman law is basically commercial; the great edifice of Roman law is founded on the idea of property. Modern Western legal rights derive—sometimes pretty tenuously, circuitously, or awkwardly—from ancient rules of ownership and exchange. For example, after slavery is outlawed, when no other person can own your body, you as an individual own it, or sort of. 

Some of the awkwardness, but also much enrichment, comes from Judaism and Christianity, which have sought to lift human beings up from the category of property, and to mediate even such fraught and complex issues as sex  through consideration of people’s inner lives and connectedness in the community. Thought and energy poured into this high-wire act, while pagan regimes concentrated on trade and conquest, threatened to annihilate Jews and Christians both, but then ceded to a new reality: the society that thought deeply about itself as a collection of full human beings turned out to be stronger than societies that didn’t.

In the era when the admittedly harsh Old Testament law on sex was finding its final form, the Greek legal system maintained something even harsher: that women’s sexual activity was basically property. Even “free” citizen wives and daughters had such a weak standing as persons that it did not necessarily matter, when they had illicit sex, whether they were raped, seduced, or were the aggressors themselves. What was always critical was whether their male relatives were defrauded or robbed of exclusive rights to the female bodies.

This is the burden of the Greek forensic speech that’s most informative about this area of the law, “On the Murder of Eratosthenes.” The defendant has admittedly killed his wife’s sexual partner. What happens now—to the defendant? He claims to be entitled to the killing, because the man he killed intruded on his rights. The argument makes nothing of the wife’s responsibility in the mess; whether she was tricked, forced, or willing is not at issue, and there can be no dispute about the consequences for her. She has already been expunged from society, probably confined in her parents’ house, a lifelong throwaway. Her agency is not important enough to classify, because in Athenian eyes sex with a man who was not her husband has, quite objectively, changed her from a useful to a useless object, like a broken jar.

The Apostle Paul is often condemned for harshness concerning sex, but in fact he was deeply committed to leaving room around each person’s sexual nature.

But the Jewish law was, characteristically, interested in women’s motivations and self-determination. They could be victims or they could be agents. Their value didn’t consist wholly in their female bodies and instincts; they were people. In the story of David’s kingship, Tamara’s helpless suffering in the aftermath of an unpunished, publicly humiliating rape was a highly consequential issue in itself. As to the written law, if women tried to resist a rape they were supposed to be held blameless, so that their future would not be forfeit to someone else’s crime.

The Apostle Paul is often condemned for harshness concerning sex, but in fact he was deeply committed to leaving room around each person’s sexual nature, allowing for self-direction that suited one’s knowledge of one’s own capacities while respecting the integrity of others. Celibacy was invented as a right, not an imposition. The rule of marital faithfulness was affirmed for both men and women as a provision for peace and order in the community—not as a property right.

Modern U.S. culture is a feckless inheritor of these ideals. It doesn’t (as a rule) forcibly exploit women for labor, sex, and breeding, but the media aid an array of commercial-type abuses. Here’s one minor example from my own experience. The year I first faced interviews for academic jobs, standard skirt heights had just gone up to mid-thigh, and female PhD candidates at Harvard were directed to a Boston boutique, where we were to drop $800 each for a tight wool and silk “business suit.” Heels were also required, despite the risk that women who had never worn them before might sprawl onto the floor of the interview room.

But that was a festival of respect compared with the female dress code for “visible” jobs now. Why should an ambitious girl staring at a TV screen not think, “Yikes! I have to tone my upper arms, maybe save for implants,” instead of, “Yikes! I have to study up on the history of the Middle East.” What’s for sale, and at what price, is simply on display. And what qualifies a woman to be an anchor is obviously not what qualifies a man. This is infamously true at Fox News, but it is also true nearly everywhere else. The commerce in bodies goes back and forth endlessly, fostering a feral, sterile defensiveness and aggression.


A useful thought exercise, to make the discussion less emotional and yet link it to long-accepted human rights, might be to set sex aside from the stories pouring in. If something else were at issue, say, tenant protections or general bodily integrity or the ownership of some irreplaceable object, would the acts be felonies or misdemeanors? Criminal or civil matters, or not actionable at all? 

This is naturally a wobbly argumentative structure; what makes the problem so urgent and yet so difficult is the particularly intimate nature of sex, and at the same time its special power to violate and damage. But maybe just the effort to get beyond the stilted, passionate language now prevailing will have some benefit.

Roy Moore allegedly shoved one girl out of his car and left her lying bruised on the pavement, because she resisted him; subtract anything erotic in the encounter, and it would still be assault. Harvey Weinstein apparently committed conspiracy and obstruction of justice when he invoked a powerful network to keep his victims silent and without redress. His cornering of women in the first place appears conspiratorial, a well-tended pipeline of young actresses to be left alone with a menacing sexual thug. He did deals to get at bodies he particularly wanted and keep them under his control, almost like a human trafficker.

What is classic sexual harassment but a form of extortion? Make me happy or lose your job, or get a dangerous or dead-end assignment, or forget about the promotion you’ve earned. If a job and all its normal rewards and opportunities is something you’re entitled to, you shouldn’t have to buy it with something else you’re entitled to—your physical autonomy—any more than the restaurant owner should have to hand over part of his takings to the mob to keep his premises intact.

All this suggests something that may startle anyone wondering what reforms could be sweeping enough to make women feel safe and comfortable in the workplace. We already have a robust array of felony charges to bring against people who violate the sanctity of the person, and that is how we ought to understand many of the sexual offenses that have come to light. Rigorously applying standards we’re already used to might take care of many of the problems. For the police to caution a boss might work in many cases.

The power of bosses is indeed distorting and daunting, particularly in a society with a widening economic divide and a flimsy and sagging safety net. But something else needs saying here. The situation is made worse not just by real intimidation, real fear, and rational self-preservation. If you give someone something to which he’s not entitled, to secure something to which you’re not entitled, and which might fairly go to someone else, that’s called bribery, and the giver and the receiver are both (though not necessarily equally) guilty. But some of the #MeToo denunciations are in essence complaints by disappointed bribe-givers. The New York Times of December 7 reports on one boss-dooming scandal: 

One of the women who complained to the Paris Review lawyers, a writer whose work Mr. Stein published in the review, told the Times he had initiated a sexual relationship with her a few years ago, and had sex with her in the magazine’s office, while he was her editor. While she said that the relationship with the editor was consensual, she said that it had ended badly, and afterward, when the magazine rejected three submissions she made, she thought the outcome was tied to the souring of their romance.

If there’s a purge dynamic in the #MeToo movement, that dynamic will inevitably weaken when the “conversation” threatens to becomes an infinite regress of unenforceable entitlements. I have submitted poems to the Paris Review but never had one accepted. Was that because I didn’t have sex with the editor? Am I entitled to justice, and if so, how exactly do I pursue it? And if I can pursue it, what about the girl who might have missed the part of Cordelia in King Lear forty years ago in the Black Swamp Players in Ohio, because I was the one who flirted with the director and let him give me a lift from the theater to my family’s house on his motorcycle once?

If women are crime victims, then we need to testify—not from an electronic distance, but in a trusted forum where the accused can confront us in public. The plea-bargain imperative that prevails now is no good: it urges horse-trading and equivocation in important cases, and encourages trivial complaints because it can “resolve” them so easily. Sealed civil settlements are also out of control, and very destructive; in harassment cases settled with non-disclosure agreements, one woman typically rents to a man the chance to torment others.

And in criminal matters, traditional statutes of limitation exist for good reasons besides preventing old cases from swamping the courts. Evidence naturally weakens and warps over time; the credibility of due process is at stake. Finally, women will face a terrible backlash if they insist on a standard of “Women don’t lie!” and try to place themselves above the law and not on a par with men.

Women need the courtroom to vindicate a new area of rights. We are, after all, major beneficiaries of the purely transactional society’s demise; we’re no longer objects over which people stab each other, or for whose wrongful loss of value they merely have to fork over. Our value can’t be diminished, because, like all human value, it’s spiritual rather than just material. But neither can this value be vindicated except through the kind of courage that states, “I will do what is necessary, within the law, to see that I am the last woman you terrorize.” It’s going to cost us—in time and effort, in embarrassment, in fear, sometimes in a lasting loss of well-being. But if it doesn’t merit sacrifice, we can’t insist that it’s important.

All this doesn’t mean we should shrug off the misconduct that falls short of crimes. In fact, the same basic standard—react, cry out, defend yourself, assert your dignity and the dignity of other women at the same time—is useful in dealing informally but effectively with whatever isn’t worth making a legal case of. My Quaker friend Sadie, even in the culture of forty years ago, wasn’t intimidated, didn’t blame herself, didn’t calculate based on her materially weaker position and relative lack of authority, but simply said out loud during a dinner party, “What is your hand doing on my knee?” We have to stick up for ourselves forthrightly, whatever the consequences. 

Sarah Ruden has published several books, including, most recently, The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible and a new translation of Augustine’s Confessions.


Published in the March 9, 2018 issue: 

Gary Gutting, a frequent contributor to Commonweal, was John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. His most recent book was Talking God: Philosophers on Belief (Norton).

Also by this author
Is Ours the Best World Ever?
This story is included in these collections:

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads