Last year​ , I spoke to a young female doctor who has on occasion been sexually assaulted or insulted by men under her care. What are they thinking? One answer is that they think she is a nurse and that they are, by long-standing comic tradition, entitled to molest nurses. Another is that they can’t bear to be so vulnerable: it is more important to them to make a woman uneasy than it is to get better. A third is that they suffer from a compulsive disorder of some kind. It doesn’t make much sense to molest your doctor. The #MeToo movement isn’t just a challenge to male entitlement: it may also pose a general question about male sanity.

Not all men, perhaps. In 2006 Jean-Claude Arnault, a prominent figure in Swedish cultural circles, ran his hand over the Crown Princess of Sweden’s bottom at an official function. A female aide quoted in the Svenska Dagbladet said she leaned forward to push his hand away and looked surprised. ‘I guess she had never been groped.’ Clearly, not all men feel up crown princesses at formal occasions; in that way Arnault was a freak. And though the incident sounds a bit Carry On Up the Palace, Arnault was later jailed for the rape of one of his 18 female accusers.

What was he thinking? Looking and then touching, without barrier or boundary, has always been unlicensed, no matter the social context or the attempt to turn it into a joke. You were never allowed to manhandle the nurse: it was the transgression that made it seem funny. Women have been accused of losing their sense of humour in this regard, but it is hard to laugh when the joke’s on you (‘Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,’ to quote Dr Christine Blasey Ford). The need to cross the line into another person’s sexual space, to say the line isn’t there, or doesn’t matter, or that the line wants to be crossed, unleashes every kind of confusion. When women of the #MeToo movement asserted that they had nothing to do with male desiring, the confusion went everywhere, but was most evident online.

The Arnault scandal was blamed for the postponement of the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature. Was the Nobel cancelled because he is a rapist, or because the world believed that he is a rapist, or because of his corrupt behaviour (he was said to have leaked information in the days before the announcement of the prize, leading to shifts in the betting odds)? He wasn’t even on the Nobel committee: that honour went to his wife, the poet Katarina Frostenson, who was the source of the leak.

In May, a Harvard law professor lost his position as residential dean because he had joined Harvey Weinstein’s legal team. The protests that led to his decision to step down were a sign of how much contempt young women have for the process of the law, which they see as an abusive mechanism. It was also a reminder that the voices of young women have shaped the recent cultural shift. Their tone is not so much aggrieved as made transcendent by a very modern ability to name the crime.

‘You don’t know me, but you have been inside me, and that is why we are here today.’ In June 2016 this victim statement, made by a woman who was raped, while unconscious, by a college athlete in Stanford, was read online eight million times. In September, the judge who sentenced the perpetrator to just six months in jail was asked to stand down from his job as a girls’ tennis coach. In a statement, the judge said he did so to ‘protect the players from the potentially intrusive media attention’, but to be fair to the media, his presence might also have put the players off their game. Arguments about due process, which form part of the response to the #MeToo movement, often conflate the difference between justice and consequences. The world is not a court of law.

After the New York Times broke the Harvey Weinstein story in October 2017, the #MeToo Twitter hashtag was used 1.7 million times in ten days. Some of the victims were men, and many of the supporters were men. It is difficult to remember a time when this information was new, perhaps it never was, but there was a day, two years ago, when it was all said together: people who were mocked by their assailants, assaulted by men they trusted, intimately touched by men in authority, manipulated into repeating the act, blamed and disbelieved, sometimes by the perpetrator, but also by their own mothers, by the police, by their friends, told they were taking it too seriously, told they were lying, told they were sluts, told they wanted it, told they were lucky to get it. The thread also, though very rarely, contained the names of their accused.

A year later, the New York Times made a list of 201 men and three women working in publishing, the media and politics who had lost jobs, awards, contracts or reputations as a result of the #MeToo movement. Three-quarters of the men who were sacked faced multiple allegations (those facing single allegations were often politicians). In a very few cases it was hard to say what they had done. Anyone who goes on social media will have odd memories from that time. Stories of Weinstein in a hotel suite, saying: ‘You don’t like me because I’m fat.’ Weinstein saying: ‘Don’t ruin your friendship with me for five minutes.’ The cunnilingus he gave to unwilling women (did he think that made it all right?). The details were so specific, and so previously unimaginable. Like much of the material that had been accumulating online, it was a strange mixture of horrible and bizarre: Jian Ghomeshi allegedly turning his teddy bear to the wall, saying, ‘Big Ears Teddy shouldn’t see this,’ before choking women with his belt and dragging them around the room. Louis C.K., so liberal and funny, shaming himself, or shaming his female colleagues, or doing – what exactly? You had to Google it and hope it didn’t wreck your search engine. ‘Why does a man want to masturbate in front of women?’ Because he hates them, apparently. It didn’t seem enough. Perhaps he thought they might like it, too? In fact, he did it in front of talented female comics, and afterwards they didn’t say they felt soiled or estranged: they said they felt as though this event, and the secret knowledge that came with it, had endangered their careers. C.K. did the dirty thing and made it their problem.

Now, the problem was being handed back to him. There were a lot of troubled men in the public eye, and no one blinked. A few of the accused apologised, or tried to, but as the story grew the apologies became horribly redundant. It was clear that, for many of these men, their understanding of what they had done and its effects was tragically limited, and though that seemed doubly enraging, it’s axiomatic. A degree of self-delusion may be essential in sexual acts that are so disproportionate, and a lack of empathy for the victim is key to every kind and style of sexual assault. Also, of course, some of the men weren’t sorry: it was too hard to be sorry when it seemed as though the entire world was shouting at them, just for a bit of indecent exposure. Louis C.K. got back on stage a year later and complained he had lost ‘$35 million in an hour’.

The journalist John Hockenberry was fired from New York Public Radio when old allegations of workplace bullying were suddenly deemed sufficient. This happened just before an article about his sexual behaviour was published. He is one of the few men who have attempted to write about not just what happened to him but also what he did. Sorry, I just checked. He did not, in fact, write about what he did. He just posed some questions about the nature of society and of love. In the article, published by Harper’s, Hockenberry wondered if he had been ‘caught in the overcorrection of this revolution’ and echoed much contemporary male anxiety when he wrote, ‘society at large chooses, for whatever reason, not to distinguish between the charge and act of rape and some improper, failed and awkward attempts at courtship.’ (‘He rolled right up to me at my desk, grabbed my face, and started kissing me,’ one producer reported.) In fact, no one accused him of rape, he wasn’t sacked for sexual offences, and no one was trying to put him in jail. Hockenberry, who seemed to feel as if he’d been accused of rape, wrote that this has been hard on his children, he had become a pariah. ‘Only one of my accusers reached out or responded to my heartfelt queries.’ This elicited a response from one of his former producers: ‘Why would we reach out? Are victims now expected to comfort the people who abused them? What world is this?’

Hockenberry’s self-pity is complicated by the fact that he has been confined to a wheelchair since the age of 19 and is impotent. His account didn’t have much purchase on this side of the Atlantic – maybe no one knew who he was. ‘Quite by surprise,’ he wrote, ‘and maybe the biggest shock of all, in this past year I have become a huge fan of the radical feminist author Andrea Dworkin.’ He then joined a revived conversation about the act of penetration and whether it is always, and in itself, rapine. It seemed a terrible depression about sex had set in. It was hard, as a mother, not to agree with Hockenberry when he said: ‘Instead of the traditional romances, I see the narratives of porn and victimisation.’ Young women have so much to contend with now, especially online; no wonder they feel victimised. Then you realise the only victim in Hockenberry’s article is himself.

After numerous allegations of misbehaviour lost Kevin Spacey his job on House of Cards, he made a video as Frank Underwood, the scheming fictional president he played in the series, and this video was so creepy as to make him seem deranged. ‘You trusted me,’ he said, addressing the camera in silky menace mode. ‘Even though you knew you shouldn’t. So we’re not done, no matter what anyone says. And besides, I know what you want. You want me back.’ He acted as though the audience was in an abusive relationship with the character. It was our desire for his badness that made us deserve his badness. It was our fault. This was textbook behaviour from a book you never wanted to read. And though the #MeToo crisis raised questions about our dizzy attraction to fame, you could also ask how the famous view those on the other side of the lens.

‘And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything … Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.’ In the spring of 2018 it began to seem as though fame itself was the problem – this famous man is a hypocrite, that famous man is a misogynist, we have been in thrall to the wrong people. When the comedian Aziz Ansari went on a date that left a woman confused and unhappy, she did an interview with about his pushy, porny sexual style. The thing that provoked her disclosure was seeing him on TV at the Golden Globes. ‘It was actually painful to watch him win and accept an award,’ she said, ‘and absolutely cringeworthy that he was wearing the Time’s Up pin.’ She didn’t say what would have happened had he failed to win the prize. Her account of the date was an excruciating glimpse into contemporary sexual manners; it was not, however, about consent. Or not quite. Suddenly, it seemed a frightening time to be famous and male. In April, Junot Díaz wrote a piece about being raped at the age of eight, which was published some weeks before allegations were made against him: that he kissed a woman forcibly in a university hallway, that he shouted ‘rape’ at another woman over dinner, that he was particularly nasty to Latina writers (he is from the Dominican Republic) and so shame-bound he is unable to clean his own kitchen. This case was seen as a turning point in the #MeToo tide, when, after five months of investigation initiated by the Pulitzer board, of which he is a member, Díaz was not fired.

But many of the men on the New York Times list were not in the public eye, and most of them faced multiple accusations. The women they harassed rarely acted alone. They grouped together. They weren’t complaining about men who were less powerful than them, although such men also harass. They were outing men who were their bosses and superiors. They reported feeling afraid, sometimes for years – a fear that would soon be justified by the online death threats some received. Some said they had complained and were told to stay quiet. Despite this, their long silence now seems strange, as though some other taboo, about sex and authority, was at play. In the conversations I had with friends over Christmas 2017, as the litanies spilled out and the men looked uneasy, no one was talking about the guy on the bus or the boys on the corner. They spoke instead about men in power, especially at work, the feeling that what was violated was not their body, but their gift. The men fired in America were men who sexualised their dominance. They used sex to spoil women’s ambition and soil their talent. You might even say they were using sex to get ahead.

So it’s not actually about fame. It’s not even about sex. As huggy Joe Biden said to students in Vanderbilt in the spring of 2018, it is about power. It depends, however, on what you mean by ‘sex’. Many of the anti-heroes of the autumn of 2017 were hypersexual, they engaged in criminal behaviour, and tended to repeat the same lines or scenarios over and over again (‘I’m just going to take a shower’; ‘Big Ears Teddy shouldn’t see this’; ‘Do you mind if I masturbate?’) and though many men may understand these gestures – as a kind of nightmare – they don’t need to make them. There is a difference between fantasy, urge and engagement that the perpetrators could not, or did not, want to control. And if they were powerful, no one stopped them.

If you look at the monsters of #MeToo, it is easy to think that power, in some dark fairytale, requires the sexual sacrifice of women, and that these sacrifices should be not exactly public, but known. It’s possible that the people around these men were in thrall to their monstrosity, that it trapped them in some paralysing or exciting posture with regard to their authority. We don’t speak of men’s attraction to power as being problematic – they want to compete! – but when women are attracted to power they are styled as being complicit in their own exploitation. It is sometimes said that women are naturally submissive, that they are attracted to being hurt, or (differently again) attracted to being raped. ‘If you’re having rape fantasies, there’s nothing “wrong” with you, you’re not a “bad feminist”,’ Bustle magazine says, helpfully, adding that women in powerful positions at work like to relax by getting themselves dominated in bed. Describing her non-consensual encounter with Donald Trump in a department store fitting room, E. Jean Carroll refused even to use the word ‘rape’. ‘I think most people think of rape as being sexy.’

Even writing about sexual violence is a kind of complicity. You must have the fantasy in order to refuse it, because once a thing is named or imagined, it exists – if only as aversion. In the place where such ideas manifest, refusal carries no meaning (‘I know what you want’). You are trapped by the existence of the idea. Men seem to have more fantasies, and more often, than women, and sado-masochistic fantasies cluster male and are experienced more intensely. In one study, 53 per cent of men said they fantasised about being dominated – a figure you don’t hear bandied about much, as an explanation, a hidden invitation or an excuse.

You can argue about what men really want or what women really want, but the conversation about desire is just a decoy. We talk about rape as though it were an issue between two people, in private, and as if those people were roughly equivalent. This insistence on privacy ignores the fact that everyone knew Harvey Weinstein was a rapist and hundreds of people nodded, smiled and were complicit. There was very little about it that was private. One in eight Hollywood movies features a rape, and maybe that’s the way they like it. Maybe America is in an abusive relationship with authority, its voters infantilised, not just by Trump’s badness but also by the goodness of Obama (I was). It is nice to have someone to look up to.

In the real world, where real sex happens, young men mock and assault women in order to prove themselves. They do it to bond together and free themselves of that bonding’s homoerotic power. Some of these men continue in this mode for the rest of their lives. Getting drunk doesn’t help. (‘Yes, we drank beer. I liked beer. Still like beer. We drank beer’ – Brett Kavanaugh.) Rape is rarely described as a group activity, though that is sometimes the way it plays out. And when women are bewildered by the silence of good men who witness abusive situations, it’s worth remembering that apparently good men sometimes join in.

I know​ two people who were raped when they were teenagers. One was raped by her teacher when she was 14, the other one was ritually raped by members of a sports team. They both have the same first name, oddly enough. I can’t write it down. I can’t even say where these things happened, because to reveal anything about these women would be to hurt them further. And that in itself is a pretty strange fact about truth and the mechanisms of truth – it doesn’t always set you free. Over the years, the changing public narrative about underage sex has helped the woman raped by her teacher to redescribe the event, and to refuse its power. We have, as a society, given victims our understanding, and this allows them to understand that they were not at fault. But, above the age of consent, that understanding is withdrawn. I have only a few scraps of information about the gang rape, but I do know it was planned. The woman was brought to the place and left there by a man I also knew a little. He didn’t rape her himself, at least I don’t think so. I met his sister briefly, decades later. She came up to me and said: ‘You know my brother.’ She was delighted to make the connection. I looked at her as she talked on, and a part of me is looking at her still.

After that encounter, I looked up the brother online. I discovered things about his family, some of them sad. I remembered a comment, made many years ago, about him becoming religious. The men who were there that night are living ordinary lives, at a guess. They have attitudes about their daughters’ fashion sense, their sons’ ambitions; they are nice or not nice to their wives, who sleep with them regularly or not so much. Who knows? They did untold damage to another person. They all knew it was wrong. I would like to think they can’t look each other in the eye, though I am more inclined to the idea that they play golf together.

In March 2018, three prominent Ulster rugby players were found not guilty of rape, assault and exposure after a nine-week trial in Belfast. Two of the men, Stuart Olding and Paddy Jackson, had had sex with a young woman at a party. Another man walked in naked to ask if he might join them. ‘Any chance of a threesome?’ he texted from downstairs. When a female party guest put her head round the door, she saw the woman giving oral sex to Olding while Jackson penetrated her with his fingers. The woman at the door was asked by Jackson if she wanted to join in. When questioned in court, Jackson said he used his fingers on the woman’s ‘downstairs region’ but did not try to force his hand inside her, as he was accused, because ‘that’s disgusting.’ When he saw blood on the sheet, he assumed it was her period, he said, but didn’t mention it because ‘that would be embarrassing.’ Afterwards, a fourth man took the woman home. He messaged his friends to say: ‘Mate no joke she was in hysterics, wasn’t going to end well.’ The next day, when these men were more or less sober, the glee continued. ‘Any sluts get fucked?’ a friend asked on WhatsApp, and Olding messaged, ‘There was a bit of spit roasting going on last night, fellas’ to which Jackson added: ‘There was a lot of spit roast last night.’ The day after, and despite the fact that he didn’t actually get the chance to join in, the man who walked in naked continued to boast on WhatsApp: ‘Pumped a girl with Jacko on Monday. Roasted her. Another on Tuesday.’

The woman spent nine days in the witness box being cross-examined. When the men were acquitted, thousands of people, most of them young, attended rallies in Belfast, Dublin, Galway and Cork. The carried posters that said, ‘I believe her,’ and chanted, ‘Sue me Paddy,’ in response to Jackson’s lawyer, who threatened to sue people if they defamed his client on social media. Jackson and Olding lost their places on the Irish rugby team and moved to clubs in France. The case resulted in a review of the law and procedures around rape trials in Ireland, both North and South.

The #MeToo movement thrived on American libel laws. In France, the instigator of the hashtag #toncochon recently lost a defamation case for €20,000 to the man she called her ‘pig’. When I first looked up the term ‘Irish Weinstein’, Google suggested a name under ‘related search’, but that function has been withdrawn. It was the name of a man I was warned to avoid thirty years ago. There was another story, about a sportsman who could not be named in his home town, though the story was published in the New York Times. There were some accusations against a theatre impresario, whom I always found funny and challenging when he was badgering me in public, then oddly flat and unfunny when there was no one around. This is something I see with bullies as they get older. The shift into creepy mode happens so simply, you can almost hear a click. They are either ‘on’, or utterly cold. It is worth going online to watch the Kevin Spacey video, just to see what it looks like now. ‘I know what you want. You want me back.’ We don’t. The magnetism that made the bad man sexy has disappeared. You can see it emptying out in front of you. His power is gone, and with it, I hope, our frisson of abjection. The video has been viewed more than 11 million times.

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