Will There Be a Backlash to #MeToo?

Will There Be a Backlash to #MeToo?

People listen to speakers at a #MeToo rally outside Trump International Hotel on Dec. 9, 2017, in New York City.

SourceStephanie Keith/Getty

Why you should care

Because the ramifications of #MeToo haven’t yet played themselves out. 

When feminist Gloria Steinem says she knows the person to interview about sexual harassment, you listen. Some say the #MeToo movement started with Harvey Weinstein’s accusers, while others point to Bill Cosby’s accusers or the campus sexual assault movement. Throughout the scandals and resulting uproar, Jennifer Freyd has studied sexual harassment and trauma. We spoke with the professor of psychology at University of Oregon, Stanford visiting scholar and author with Pamela Birrell of Blind to Betrayal to discuss the future of the #MeToo movement.

Some terms, like sexual harassment and white privilege, have only been part of the wider public lexicon for 30-odd years. What terms do you think, or hope, the #MeToo movement will popularize?

I hope “institutional betrayal,” “betrayal trauma” and “betrayal blindness” and “DARVO” are ones people will use. Betrayal trauma is something I started to develop in the early 1990s. I was trying to capture the particular bind that people get into when they’re mistreated by someone they depend upon or trust. I’d hypothesized — and research has largely supported — that if people are mistreated by people they trust, there’s a conflict between feeling the need to take action and the need to stay in a relationship with someone they’re dependent on. This leads to some amount of unawareness of the betrayal in order to protect the necessary relationship. I call this betrayal blindness. Betrayal, our research and others’ has shown, is really damaging to the body and mind. Institutional betrayal extends this concept from a one-on-one relationship to something where a person is depending on the institution mistreating them.

There are too many men getting accused, and men will be afraid to go to work.

How can we properly punish perpetrators of sexual harassment?

There are 10 steps institutions can take to reduce institutional betrayal and promote institutional courage, the opposite. One is to incentivize whistleblowing. People can get rewarded. There could be a committee to reward them with a salary. It’s not a crazy idea. Some industries like technology pay people to find bugs, and they get paid really well.

DARVO, which stands for Deny, Attack and Reverse Victim and Offender, is often used to describe the accused’s reactions. But many people might say denial is what an innocent person would do too. So what’s the basis of this term?

Denial by itself doesn’t tell you anything much. But here’s a whole pattern of [perpetrators] attacking the victim, calling them crazy or a liar and then saying, “I’m the victim, you’re ruining my reputation.” It’s that pattern that raises a red flag of someone’s responsibility. DARVO itself is harmful. It causes the victim to blame herself, and women are more likely to get DARVOed. Thing is, an innocent person doesn’t need to attack the accuser and would be more interested in promoting evidence of their innocence.

Who are the thinkers on sexual harassment that people should read to understand it better?

Louise Fitzgerald. She recently recorded a podcast about her work that goes back decades. She was among the first to see how to systematically measure sexual harassment. Then there’s Catharine MacKinnon, who has done brilliant legal work on sexual harassment and understands how to pursue it legally. There’s also a trauma researcher named Judith Herman who’s been so important to our understanding of what makes it damaging. She wrote a book called Trauma and Recovery that’s not about sexual harassment per se but captures the impact of repeated mistreatment well.

Do you expect a backlash to the #MeToo movement?

I do expect a significant backlash. Some elements are already present, with people saying the pendulum has swung too far. There are too many men getting accused, and men will be afraid to go to work. I imagine it’ll get worse, and I expect a lot more DARVO, accusing the women of being the offenders. We should be prepared for that and call it out when it happens.

I’m hoping we’ve passed some tipping point, and I kind of think we have. It seems there was attention on military sexual trauma in 2010 and college sexual assault in 2013. The Obama administration in 2014 made it a priority and now this. That’s a lot to happen in rapid succession.

Is this an American problem? How does the U.S. stack up?

The research is more limited. We’ve done some betrayal trauma studies in places like Japan. We see the same kind of patterns with betrayal trauma. But we haven’t studied institutional betrayal globally yet. Institutional betrayal is often associated with political climate, how things are structured.

Are there any technologies that make you hopeful that we can try to curb this social problem?

Yes, Callisto [an online reporting platform] is a great example. It doesn’t answer all the problems, but it certainly is an incredible resource.


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