Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN and The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
One of the most telling comments about the perils facing Judge Brett Kavanaugh came from someone described as “a lawyer close to the White House,” who told Politico that if Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination is defeated by an allegation of sexual assault, which the judge denies, “then you, me, every man certainly should be worried.” The statement shows why the success of the #MeToo movement, despite being infinitely too late, is also an astonishing achievement.
That’s why the events surrounding the Kavanaugh nomination are a subject of intense interest for men and women across the globe.
The emergence of #MeToo, a demand that sexual harassers, abusers and assaulters no longer be tolerated, has bulldozed across three massive obstacles. It required women to overcome the embarrassment and possible repercussions of revealing they have been sexually victimized. It tackled the most powerful attackers – including film and media tycoons. And it challenged norms about how much control men should have over women’s bodies, careers and lives.
But how difficult is it to break through sexual taboos and take on powerful people and mighty institutions? Just ask the victims of sexual assault by Catholic priests, whose muffled cries went unheard for so many decades.
The prologue to #MeToo was the tape of then-candidate Donald Trump boasting of assaulting women (though he denies ever acting on his words). That the admission was followed by Trump’s victory made women bristle not only with indignation but, more importantly, with determination to bring change. When Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s crimes became public, the floodgates opened.
At the time, I wrote that the moment was a turning point. The history of women (and decent men) working to stop abuse was as old as time. But the difference in the Sisyphean struggle is that this time we could see it was not a one-off story – and it knew no partisan, racial or ethnic lines.
And yet, there was the inevitable backlash. In France, 100 prominent women, including the actress Catherine Deneuve, wrote an open letter attacking #MeToo, and its French version “#BalanceTonPorc”(“squeal on your pig”), calling it a puritanical witch hunt threatening sexual freedom.
The tolerant attitudes toward abuse of women remain a daunting obstacle. In December, a French humorist who had hosted a TV show for 17 years lost his job after joking, “Guys, what do you tell a woman who has two black eyes? Nothing! You’ve already told her twice.” Hilarious.
The joke calls to mind the yearbook entry by Mark Judge, Kavanaugh’s friend present during the alleged assault – his quoting from a Noel Coward play, “Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs.” A joke, presumably. (Judge’s lawyer has said he has “no memory of the alleged incident.”)
During the 2018 World Cup in Russia, female reporters endured constant harassment. They told their story. Some of the men who thought grabbing women on live television was all in good fun later apologized.
Attitudes are tough to change. Traveling in Asia late last year, I asked women about #MeToo. Many had not heard about it and sounded pessimistic about the prospects that change would reach their lands.
But it has. In China, the country’s most powerful Buddhist monk, the Venerable Xuecheng, head of the Communist Party-run Buddhist Association of China, stands accused of sexual advances against Buddhist nuns, along with financial misconduct. (The most egregious sexual offenses and violence against women very often occur alongside other crimes.) The authorities have stripped him of his titles and position. The monk has denied the allegations, and his backers say he was punished too harshly.
In India, where women have fought their own horrifying epidemic of rape, murder and all manner of sexual assaults, change is also in the air. Bollywood actresses are speaking out about the demands they have faced and the punishments for refusing to give in to powerful men. And in the southern state of Kerala, Catholic nuns are also saying #MeToo, protesting against sexual abuse by a bishop, and the failure of the church and the police to respond. The bishop has stepped down temporarily, but he denies the accusations.
And the backlash against #MeToo in France has faded; Deneuve’s complaints have now been largely swept aside. Not long after the open letter, the French government announced fines against street harassment, and revealed stunning figures on the epidemic of rape and attempted rape faced by French women, saying 62,000 women were victims of rape or attempted rape in France in 2016, and one woman there dies every three days from domestic violence.
Throughout Europe, #MeToo is reshaping society. In the Netherlands, thousands of women have spoken out. The hashtag there is #ZegHet (“tell it”). In Italy’s macho culture, there’s stubborn resistance to change. The hashtag #QuellaVoltaChe, roughly, “that time when,” has also triggered a backlash.
Get our free weekly newsletter
In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under pressure to fire his US ambassador for reportedly failing to pass on information he had received regarding Netanyahu’s spokesman, David Keyes, who allegedly had a history of sexually harassing women. Keyes has taken a leave from his job, but denies the allegations. Ambassador Ron Dermer, who was warned of Keyes inappropriate behavior by a New York Times columnist, remains in place. Dermer has confirmed he received this warning but did not consider the allegations criminal and therefore did not report them.
The magnitude of the challenge is hard to overstate. These are all high-profile cases against powerful people, with influential defenders, accused of behavior that large parts of the population still consider acceptable. Accusers are often demonized and humiliated, while the accused are defended or treated as martyrs.
Times are changing. But there are many people who feel they have far too much to lose. They think every man should be worried. However, it’s only the ones who have crossed the line who should fret.