The Men of the #MeToo Generation
Young men face an increasingly complicated and uncertain social landscape
In a change of pace, I want to share some findings from a series of in-depth interviews we conducted among 21 young adults on the subjects of dating, gender equality, and the #MeToo movement. This new research is part of a larger collaboration with Ipsos on dating and relationships. Our colleague at Ipsos, Mallory Newall, did a tremendous job conducting these interviews that covered some dicey terrain.
There is no single takeaway from this research, but one thing that emerged from these conversations is how far apart young men and women are on these issues. The #MeToo movement was meant to close the experience gap between men and women. Unfortunately, it seems as wide as ever.
The “Not Me” Men
Almost immediately after the #MeToo movement made sexual harassment and assault a national concern, pushback emerged in the shape of a slogan: “Not all men.” The response was designed to short-circuit the conservation, allowing men to exempt themselves from participation. The logic is seductively simple: “If I don’t behave inappropriately, why do I need to take part?”
For these men, #MeToo is not personally relevant. It is not an opportunity for self-examination or reflection. Two young men had the following to say:
That sounds like something I learned from the woman’s study class in college…I don’t know [if it has changed the way they think about dating] because that’s something that I did not find [a] connection to. —29-year-old man.
You know, I don't revolve my life around celebrities. I don't have anything to do with rape culture. And I barely paid any attention to it. So I guess with those 3 aspects, I had nothing to ponder, nothing to consider from my personal life, and it just seemed like a bit of buzz going on around celebrities. And awful things are happening in the world all the time. If I feel like if I did ponder, it would bring me down and so I just choose to not even pay attention. —28-year-old man.
The men arguing "not me” or “not all men” are right in one very limited sense—it’s a very small fraction of the adult male population responsible for most of the most egregious behavior. Of course, a small number of malevolent actors can profoundly impact the lives of many. Further, as women have consistently pointed out, there is often no way of distinguishing between the men who are a threat and those who are not.
Confusion, Caution, and Concern
What comes through in many of these conversations is men feeling some combination of confusion, caution, and concern. One thing that the #MeToo movement established is that many traditional standards of behavior between men and women needed to be discarded and replaced. But even as standards for consent have been updated—“no means no” has become “yes means yes”—confusion and unhappiness in dating seem even worse than before.
Washington Post columnist and author Christine Emba suggests in a recent column that part of the problem lies in using consent as the sole criteria. She writes, “The problem with all this is that consent is a legal criterion, not an ethical one. It doesn’t tell us how we should treat each other as an interaction continues. It doesn’t provide a good road map should something go off the rails."
Young men, for their part, have struggled to articulate what societal standards should be, much less follow them. Their tentative approach was effectively captured by a 23-year-old man: “In terms of, like actually dating. You definitely have to be careful in terms of you could say making a move or just like touching them without any type of consent. Whether that's even just like a, uh, holding their hand or kissing them.”
This feeling of disorientation and trepidation was evident in many of our conversations. A 27-year-old single woman said: “I think, from what I have seen from some relatives, my own sister, for example, I think men are a lot more hesitant to get into relationships with women because of the #MeToo movement.”
A 2018 survey by GQ Magazine turned up similar responses. The survey included this question: “How do you define the boundary between unwanted but harmless advances and harassment?” It’s an incredibly difficult question, and GQ found men really struggled to respond. The editors write, “There was this pervading sense of defeat in the answers. One guy said, ‘I feel that there is no line anymore, so you better just keep to yourself.’”
For some young men, #MeToo and uncertainty about standards of conduct have manifested in concerns about false accusations. Serious consequences can result if behavior skirts into a gray area or overtures are misinterpreted. A few of the young men we talked to believe that the #MeToo movement could lead to more men being unfairly accused of sexual misconduct. One said:
In some cases, you know there are people I know that are just friendly with everybody and that's just their personality. I'm not one of them, but I know these people and I can definitely see them walking unknowingly into situations where if they're overly friendly to the wrong person, that person might misconstrue something as a negative and that they could get in a lot of trouble because someone takes something the wrong way. —26-year-old man.
One 20-year-old woman we interviewed said that conversations among men she knows have grown wary and defensive. “I've heard some of these guys talk about how horrible it is, because it makes them have to be on their guard all the time, to not have to like, ‘Oh someone’s gonna wrongfully accuse me.’ Because I think they see the #MeToo movement a lot of the times from the perspective of the accused.”
That’s hardly a majority opinion. As a recent Pew study makes clear, most men do not believe false accusations are all that common. And some young women have little patience for it. One 26-year-old woman had this to say:
Honestly, I feel like a lot of that's because the things that they say are not polite or acceptable and they are just facing repercussions for that for the first time and it's making them very anxious. I find that most men who I've interacted with a lot and I trust the way that they interact with women, they are not worried about it. —26-year-old woman.
Still, there’s no doubt that there are heightened feelings of anxiety around dating.
A World of Difference Between Men and Women
For young women, the #MeToo movement has meant something entirely different. Many of the young women we interviewed said #MeToo was a formative experience for them.
A 21-year-old woman said the timing of the #MeToo movement was critical in shaping the ways she thought about dating and men’s behavior: “I think I’m at an interesting age where the #MeToo movement was going on during some very formative years. Like I said, I'm only 21, so #MeToo was very high school for me, so I think luckily I had that all over social media to kind of shape the way I look at dating and men.”
Another young woman, age 20, said that the experience of coming of age during #MeToo was educative: “I think I'm more aware of [things that like maybe men would do that didn't used to be considered like pushy or bad]. I’m more capable of saying something to it or pushing back on it.”
Young women report far more favorable views about #MeToo than their male peers. The Pew poll reveals stark gender and generational divisions in views of the movement. Young people in general are more supportive of #MeToo, but young women are exceptional: “Women younger than 30 particularly stand out: 72% say they support the movement, compared with 52% of men of the same age. No other age group comes close to matching the level of support of women under 30.”
For young women, the experience of #MeToo may have also created a sense of solidarity with other women, changing how they think about their experiences as women living, working, and dating in American society. A survey we conducted last fall revealed that most young women perceive their lives and experiences to be connected to other women, a concept known as linked fate. The report found: “Two-thirds (67 percent) of young women (age 18–29) believe that in most ways or in every way, what happens to women in the US will have a bearing on them as well. Only 36 percent of senior women (age 65 or older) believe their lives are connected to the lives of women in general.”
The #MeToo movement was an opportunity for women to be heard and to share their experiences and their pain, often for the first time. Men are being asked to listen, and they should. Young men should not opt out of difficult conversations. But every conversation requires listening and sharing. To move forward, young men need to do more of both.
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I'm not sure what the people boosting #MeToo as a way of looking at the world expect the outcome to be. Like, is teaching women to fear men going to make them happier? Is it going to decrease the rate of sexual violence? I know the answer to the first is "no," because stressing people out is antithetical to making them happy.
The second...well, one of the things that is *not* being taught if you're propagandizing fear is how to socialize with others in a way that will result in healthy sexual relationships for anyone involved. I have news for your readers: Men are not defective women, and treating society as if "curing" men's sexual impulses is either healthy or desirable is not going to get you the results you think it is.
I don't know Adam, but I feel pretty bad for him, and for any man who thinks that being "nice" will make him or any woman he interacts with happy. It certainly won't get you laid, and it won't lead a woman to want to be in a relationship with you, or respect you if somehow you do end up in a relationship with her. We're bigger than women and more aggressive than women, and no amount of punitive resocialization will change that. But big and aggressive =! rapists. The conflation of naturally male characteristics with brutality is wrong and does no one any favors.
There are a few social solutions I *do* believe work to reduce rape, though. Not treating men like they're de facto dangerous is one; it's a little like not acting, as a man, like you need to reassure women you're "safe." Safetyist alarmism is the source of the problem that's being discussed, not an epidemic of rape; the goal is to have a high-trust society, and most men don't rape in the first place (because we're not, for the most part, monsters), so instead of focusing on establishing a culture of fear, perhaps dial it back and focus on not engaging in the kind of behavior that *does* attract genuine predators, who again, are few in number.
Femininity is another. Feminine women, believe it or not, do not present as prey. Fearful women and incautious women do. Femininity is in no small part about composure and confidence that the men around you will protect you, and strangely enough, that expectation is more disarming to predators than aggression. Predators are definitionally experienced in the *reality* of sexual violence, and they know that aggression that cannot possibly be backed up, as in the case of a prospective victim significantly smaller and weaker, is a sign of fear or panic as opposed to confidence. The strength of women is in their ability to inspire protectiveness in men, and femininity is the trigger for that.
A lot of attention has been paid to male psychopathy and narcissistic behavior that manifests as violence or blatant criminality, and supposedly this is something all men should educate themselves about because being men supposedly entails toxic masculinity. I'm guessing the lower enthusiasm among men for discussing these topics stems from (1) being talked *at* instead of talked *to* and (2) the complete absence of any similar discussion about female psychopathy or narcissism, which tends not to manifest through overt violence but which is every bit as harmful as male psychopathy/narcissism, and perhaps even more so, since the men who have experienced female psychopathy/narcissism have their complaints dismissed in ways that never happen when it's females talking about male psychopathy/narcissism.
Incidentally, there is a solution to toxic masculinity; it's not feminism, it's tonic masculinity: https://open.substack.com/pub/luctalks/p/what-is-tonic-masculinity?utm_source=direct&r=sow8t&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web