When I was asked to write the piece originally, I was wary. I did not want to contribute to this conversation unless I felt like I was doing so in a responsible and productive way. To me, that meant having my own conversations with sociologists, an etiquette expert, males and females in my age group who I did and did not know personally. And what came out of all of that talking was this:
Generational Divide: Millennials React to Sexual Harassment Allegations Against the Older Generation
by Arielle Dollinger
Entertainment and journalism industry giants are falling like dominos, one after the other, with increasing speed and ease. Harvey Weinstein; Louis C.K.; Charlie Rose; Matt Lauer; Dustin Hoffman; Kevin Spacey; John Hockenberry; Al Franken; the laundry list lengthens every day. Politicians are following suit.
And for millennials, the cultural moment has become one of self-reflection. Talk of common courtesy and appropriateness — in the workplace and outside of it — is swirling around social spheres the way political talk does.
“We have new visibility on an old problem,” said Leigh Gilmore, distinguished visiting professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Wellesley College. And, “for millennial men, part of the message is, ‘Don’t be like that guy.”
Nearly one million people hashtagged “metoo” on Twitter in 48 hours, according to a CBS News report that cites Twitter. The hashtag thrust an evergreen issue to the forefront of conversation, manifesting itself finally in something tangible: Tweets and Facebook admissions in large volume, spanning news feeds no matter how far a user scrolled.
“The piece of the me too campaign that’s about workplace sexual harassment has opened up a broader conversation about sexual violence that women experience over their lifetimes,” Gilmore said.
Millenial men, in some ways, are at an advantage here, Gilmore said. Most have grown up around women in positions of authority, and they have heard of “affirmative consent.”
“They have not grown up in a culture in which they achieved default power over women, and they have the basis of forming more egalitarian relationships,” Gilmore said. “They have the tremendous benefit over that older generation who seems to be offering as an excuse that things used to be different in the old days.”
Sociologist Michael Kimmel has been doing three or four interviews a day on the subject of sexual harassment, he said on Thursday.
“There is a certain kind of anxiety that is spreading around workplaces all over the country, where men are saying that they feel like they’re walking on egg shells,” Kimmel said. “They don’t know if it’s okay to say, ‘Nice blouse;’ they don’t know if they’re allowed to hold the door open for women.”
But Kimmel said it’s not complicated.
“You know if what you’re doing is kind of skeevy,” Kimmel said. “If I say to you, ‘nice blouse,’ and I’m looking at it, you’re cool with that. And you also know that if I’m looking down it, you’re not cool with that.”
Men in my own social circle and beyond have told me they have been talking about this with their friends.
“Maybe this is a corrective moment where women realize that they’re not going to get silenced or shut down for reporting these things, and the system learns how to properly pursue these cases,” said one 25-year-old male friend of mine; but, he added, if all it takes is one unverified word to ruin a man’s career, that will be problematic.
Another said that, while he thinks it is unfair to punish someone based off of an accusation, he takes nothing lightly anymore.
“It’s no secret that these kinds of things have been going on forever,” he said. “What’s been worse is that it became an accepted part of life.”
Osatohamwen Okundaye, 24, who is working toward his masters in public health in epidemiology, said his friends joke now about being extra careful when talking to women in general for fear of any advance being misinterpreted.
It is important that men pay attention to the details of the sexual harassment claims in the news, Gilmore said. The phrase “sexual harassment” does not provide enough information for anyone to conceptualize exactly what is involved and why it is harmful. But not all guys are bad guys.
“We have negative stereotypes about men, that they’re bros, that they’re dudes, that they’re frat boys,” Gilmore said, “that they have some kind of aggressive sexuality that is a force that can’t be tamed.”
When it comes to workplace harassment, Kimmel said he sees a generational divide among both men and women: older women working in offices with flirty, handsy men will often say, ‘Oh, that's just how Ted is,’ according to Kimmel; but young women, “they’re completely outraged” by this sort of behavior.
“The older women are saying, ‘Oh, lighten up,’” the same way older men have thought calling their female coworkers “honey” and “sweetie” was okay, Kimmel said. “Men perceived it as okay to call you sweetie, to call you honey, to pat you on the shoulder in that kind of condescending, solicitous way.”
What was “normal workplace behavior” three decades ago is no longer normal. Kimmel’s teenaged son looks at Don Draper’s office on Mad Men, with its windowed offices and female secretarial pool corralled in the center for the gazing and the picking, as “an anachronistic joke."
The message remains complicated, though. Kimmel called hypocrisy on the youthful supporters of rappers whose lyrics are blatantly misogynistic.
“You can’t love Nelly and condemn sexual assault by Roger Ailes,” Kimmel said.
Allegations against Louis C.K. have caused particular confusion amongst the 20-something set.
“He was ruthlessly critical of himself and of men generally for the behavior that he was accused of indulging in,” said one 25-year-old male friend. “He was telling every guy who was listening to him, like, you know, ‘We are inherently shitty.’”
Meanwhile, “his jokes are no less funny, his insights are no less true than they were before,” the friend said.
Okundaye said the slew of media coverage of sexual harassment allegations is “waking a lot of people up” to the idea that societal construction of “sexual conquest” does not consider the agency of a woman.
“We see it in porn,” Okundaye said. “A lot of mainstream porn is very aggressively forward to women with the idea that them saying no means ‘Convince me.’”
Natalie Edmonds and I met while working as summer interns for CBS News in 2013. (I worked in the same newsroom as Charlie Rose, but saw him only in passing and never heard whispers or rumors of allegations against him. I returned to the network in 2015 as a full-time freelance broadcast associate and did not interact with Rose.)
Edmonds, who now works as a development officer for the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, said she thinks most men do not even mean to make women uncomfortable.
“It’s pulling like, pigtails on the playground, and that’s how like, you know a boy likes you,” Edmonds said. “So many more cases where I think it’s just people who don’t understand and were never told.”
A friend of Edmonds’ who dates both men and women told Edmonds recently that she has noticed she’s been dating women more often lately, simply because it’s more difficult for her to find a man she likes, trusts, and who takes her seriously.
“She’s like, ‘yeah, it’s just easier to date girls because we’re on the same page,’” Edmonds said.
Mia Brett, 30, of Port Jefferson, Long Island, was raised by “second wave feminists.” Brett herself is co-founder of American Women’s Party, an advocacy group for women’s rights in the Democratic party.
Brett described the onslaught of sexual harassment and assault stories coming to light as a double-edged sword that has brought with it “a lot of emotional labor.”
“We have to talk about it all the time now, and we have to continually read stories about it,” said Brett. “I’m hearing a lot of exhaustion from a lot of my female friends.”
She added, “It’s not like our daily lives are changing, it’s not like we’re experiencing less street harassment because people are talking about this.”
The first time Brett was groped without her consent, she was 15 years old. She remembers boys trying to undo her bra straps at school, and the lingering hands of men in authority on her shoulders.
“It’s great that we’re talking about all of this now,” she said; but there is still “a real misunderstanding” of the extent to which women’s bodies are not treated as their own.
“Men have a monopoly on violence,” said a 25-year-old male friend of mine. “Men are like, you know, the wild animal that you got when it was a baby and you’ve raised it and it hasn’t bit you yet but it always could because of what it is.”
The same friend recalled an experience he had hitchhiking in Europe when he was 19. An older man put his hand on his leg, ostensibly to emphasize a point, and left it there.
“There was a point during that ride when I was afraid,” he said, noting that he had not previously connected that experience with the current cultural climate but will keep that in mind going forward.
I imagine that experience allowed him insight into the potentially predatory nature of some male-female interactions.
“I think the main problem is that a lot of guys don't have any clue what it feels like to be on the receiving end of certain behavior,” he said. “What they’re definitely taking away from all this is to be super cautious, if anything.”
As the reports piles up, some men are wondering if in five years they won’t be allowed to give hugs.
“I hear guys sarcastically talking about sexual harassment, like, ‘everything is harassment now,’” he said. “I think a lot of guys are just rolling their eyes now, like ‘come on.’”
According to Kimmel, some men worry about sex becoming less sexy.
“Here’s the fear: oh my God, everyone’s gonna be having to ask for permission, and sign contracts, it’s completely so unsexy,” Kimmel said. “And I think, ‘boy, do you have it backwards, dude.’ When women get to say, ‘Here’s what I want,’ it's gonna be a lot sexier.”
As an example of changing social standards, etiquette expert Daniel Post Senning points to chivalry. The details change often: “whether a woman stands up when she shakes hands, or remains seated; whether you lay your coat down in a mud puddle or whether you say to yourself, ‘No we're just going to both be common sense people and walk around that;” whether a man precedes a woman into an elevator or out of a revolving door.
In the first edition of Emily Post’s “Etiquette,” in 1922, there was a chapter on chaperones — people who would accompany young women on dates — and how women should treat them, said Post Senning, the great-great grandson of the late author Emily Post. A few editions down, that chapter was nixed.
What does not change, Post Senning said, is the point of it all.
“There has always been a premium on considerate, respectful, honest behavior,” he said. “From an etiquette perspective, your ability to take no for an answer I think is important, as is your ability to decline well.”
As a journalist, I write about mostly terrible things. Plane crashes, car accidents, bank robberies; embezzlement, political corruption, deaths of people young and old. It is very easy for me to keep myself out of the story, because I am not the one who matters there.
I do not publicly share my political leanings, and I did not hashtag “metoo,” despite the truth of it. But as I tried to write this piece without any trace of myself, I realized it would not be honest that way. This story is just as much about me as it is about anyone else.
Early for a Friday night dinner reservation at The Smith in NoMad, I stopped into a Manhattan Starbucks a few doors down. Long story very short, a bearded man asked me out and I said no. He said, “I respect your decision, obviously,” and proceeded to try to convince me to change my mind.
He said he understood, that he was “not trying to push” me, as he expressed his confusion at my rejection of his offer and encouraged me to question my own judgment.
I have been stalked, cat-called, touched without my consent and against my protests. One night at a bar on Long Island, a stranger grabbed my wrist as I walked past him, as if that was all he needed to do to have me.
While out on assignments, I have stood pretending not to hear as male photographers whispered not so quietly about the way that I look. As if ignoring a playground bully, I have ignored them, choosing professionalism over confrontation not out of fear but out of exasperation: ‘I’m working, I do not have time for this right now.’
In 2012, during my junior year of college, I invited a male acquaintance to my on-campus apartment to hang out. I had something to do in the common area, so I let him in and pointed him toward my bedroom at the back of the suite.
When I got to my room, I found him sitting on the floor, back against the window, flipping through my excessively dog-earred and annotated copy of Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise.”
“Why are you sitting on the floor?” I asked, amused.
“I couldn’t just sit on your bed,” he said. “You hadn’t invited me to.”
That exchange should not impress me; but it did, and it does.