A recent accusation by writer E. Jean Carroll that Donald Trump sexually assaulted her more than 20 years ago has emerged as the latest example of our cultural confusion over how to handle such allegations, especially when they are made about a public figure. It’s also a signal that the #MeToo movement remains a morally muddled enterprise. Even the New York Times, which broke the Harvey Weinstein story and has followed up with further investigative reporting about other accusations of assault, felt the urge to apologize for not making the Trump allegations front-page news, despite their inability to corroborate Carroll’s story.
The trickle-down effects of #MeToo continued to be felt, often in bizarre ways. Harvey Weinstein is still embroiled in legal proceedings related to multiple charges of assault and harassment, and a former member of his legal team, Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr., became the subject of a student-led campaign to oust him from his teaching position at Harvard Law School and his role as faculty dean of Winthrop House on campus. He kept his faculty position but the school refused to renew his appointment as dean, citing students’ claim that they felt “unsafe” because of the work he had done to defend Weinstein. As Sullivan argued in an opinion piece in the New York Times, “Unchecked emotion has replaced thoughtful reasoning on campus. Feelings are no longer subjected to evidence, analysis or empirical defense. Angry demands, rather than rigorous arguments, now appear to guide university policy.”
These are also the things that have, unfortunately, too often continued to guide the #MeToo movement. Consider one of the most egregiously misleading #MeToo charges: those made against comedian Aziz Ansari. In 2018, Ansari was accused of sexual assault in an article that appeared on the website Babe.net (the website, which trafficked in poorly written think pieces about subjects such as walks of shame, described itself as a place for women “who don’t give a f**k” and is now, mercifully, defunct).
Ansari’s accuser, who refused to identify herself, described a date she had with the comedian as an assault, even though by her own admission she eagerly agreed to go back to his apartment and engaged in consensual sexual activity with him. Her conflation of Ansari’s somewhat caddish behavior with rape was an act of deliberate character assassination and the fact that so many #MeToo supporters enthusiastically demanded Ansari’s head on a platter merely because one person made a questionable claim about him undermined the movement. As Bari Weiss argued at the time, the only thing Ansari was guilty of was not being a mind-reader.
Flash forward to the present day, when Ansari’s fellow comedian and friend Mindy Kaling posted a picture of her ticket to a recent Ansari stand-up performance on Instagram with the compliment, “Funniest shit ever.” She was mobbed by angry commenters who claimed she was unfairly “rehabbing” a rapist (Ansari has only recently begun performing again). As one person posted, “Super disappointed that you’d flaunt your support of this man over your support of victims. What’s next, you gonna go hang out and bullet journal with Kavanaugh?” Another said she was unfollowing Kaling’s account because “as a survivor, this is disappointing.”
To her credit, Kaling defended Ansari; as the Boston Globe reported, she said, “I am a champion of women. I am also a champion of my friend and do not believe they are mutually exclusive. I don’t know your experience, but I respect however you react—sorry to see you go.” Harvard University administrators could learn something from Kaling’s willingness to defend her principles.
As the Sullivan and Ansari cases suggest, there is still a lot of confusion about the presumption of innocence when it comes to sexual assault allegations—in Sullivan’s case, even participating in the constitutionally protected right to offer the accused a legal defense was enough to earn him pariah status (and hateful graffiti about him sprayed on buildings on Harvard’s campus).
But #MeToo’s force has been unevenly applied to politicians. Remember Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, who has also been accused of assault? He’s still in office and hasn’t faced any repercussions. In fact, as he recently told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, he is “very hopeful about the future” and says, “We’ve gotten a lot of encouragement about future political steps. I’m thinking very seriously about 2021.”
He went so far as to imply that the sexual assault allegations leveled against him by two women have made him more popular, not less. “Many people a year ago would not have recognized me, now they really do,” Fairfax told reporters. “People come up to me at gas stations, they say, ‘Hey, we recognize you. We love you. We know what they are saying about you is false.’” His accusers’ efforts to testify under oath before the Virginia General Assembly about their claims continue to be blocked by Democrats in the state.
It’s not just Democrats; there is plenty of hypocrisy to go around when it comes to pursuing sexual assault claims against public figures. Any claim of sexual assault should be taken seriously, whether it’s made about a private citizen or the president of the United States (something Trump’s defenders, who were happy to believe Juanita Broaddrick’s claim that she was raped by Bill Clinton but now think “She’s not my type” is an appropriate response by Trump to Carroll’s, would do well to remember). Due process and the presumption of innocence should not be sacrificed on the altar of ideological commitments, whether those commitments are to politicians like Fairfax or Trump, or to a galvanizing social movement like #MeToo.