On Tuesday night in Alabama, national progressive politics took the smallest of steps forward when Democratic candidate Doug Jones narrowly defeated Republican and alleged child sex predator Roy Moore in a special election to become the state’s junior U.S. Senator.
While the race was closer than predicted early on, it’s not hard to pinpoint the exact moment when momentum shifted in Jones’s direction — it was November 9, when the Washington Post reported that Moore allegedly molested a 14-year-old girl when he was in this thirties. Subsequent reporting revealed that at least five women now accuse Moore of sexual misconduct, and that he had a reputation for preying on teenagers.
The allegations against Moore would have been disturbing in a vacuum, but their resonance this fall was amplified by the cultural conversation they were thrust into, just over a month after the #MeToo movement took flight following explosive New York Times and New Yorker reports about sexual harassment and rape allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. In the weeks since, millions of women and men have shared personal stories of sexual assault and harassment on social media and elsewhere, and thanks to their bravery, and the diligent work of inspired journalists and scrambling human resources departments, men such as legendary television host Charlie Rose (walking around naked in front of unsuspecting female employees, etc.), award-winning comedian Louis C.K. (getting naked and masturbating in front of unsuspecting, less powerful female colleagues, etc.), and Kevin Spacey (molesting teenage boys, etc.), have begun to finally face the consequences of their actions.
Yes, a year after the nation failed to elect the first female president and sent an alleged sexual predator to the White House instead, things are changing. Silence Breakers are the Person of the Year, “feminism” is the word of the year, and “believe women” has gone from a radical rallying cry on the fringes to a mainstream message of solidarity. Moore’s defeat in a state that Trump won by 28 points made it official. The Washington Post called it a “watershed moment for the national movement around the issue of sexual abuse,” Newsweek called it the “Revenge of #MeToo,” and, in an incredibly powerful column, AL.com‘s John Archibald said that this victory meant so much to women in Alabama because it was a signal “they could finally be believed.”
This all sounds great. And it is. But the superlatives and triumphant narratives are also dangerous. Because “believe women” isn’t an all-encompassing solution; it’s merely a step. And, unfortunately, because the mere act of believing women has been such a Sisyphean task for years, society as a whole has no clue what to do next. And, if you look at the #MeToo movement as a whole — particularly at the 49 percent of Alabama voters and 63 percent of white women who voted for an alleged pedophile — it’s clear that any victory formation is incredibly premature.
There are still plenty of people who don’t care about believing women, or who would rather willfully misconstrue what the message means. In the days leading up to Moore’s victory, his surrogates were holding up the most infamous cases of false rape accusations — Duke Lacrosse and Rolling Stone’s botched UVA story — as red herrings, incontrovertible evidence that no women should be believed. Others, such as fellow accused sexual predator Donald Trump, were turning it into a he-said, she-said affair, willfully ignoring all the other facts at play. Those at the bottom of the barrel, like the Project Veritas folks, are trying to exploit the movement for their gain by paying people to lie about being raped and having abortions in the hopes of undermining real victims.
But these are the types of roadbumps that those who are long-time inhabitants of the #MeToo movement are familiar with. It’s everything else that’s going to provide the biggest logjam.
It’s people like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who said he believed Moore’s accusers but was still considering accepting him into the Senate if he won. It’s women like Kate Winslet defending Woody Allen, high-powered agent Adam Venit only getting a 30-day suspension and a minor demotion after Terry Crews accused him of sexual harassment. It’s the people who conflate sexual harassment and pedophilia, and those who refuse to believe that because the former is definitely not as severe as the latter, it doesn’t warrant any punishment. It’s the fact that we seem to be faced with two completely disparate standards of morality between Democrats and Republicans, and the fact that “sexual misconduct” has been talked about in such hushed tones for so many centuries that we don’t have the vocabulary to accurately describe it. It’s knowing that we must take into account the fact that there are different degrees of sexual misconduct, while also recognizing it’s part of the same power dynamic that has kept women and gender minorities afraid, silenced, and oppressed forever. It’s having no clue what accountability will look like, and yet being certain of the redemption narratives that will be forced upon us no matter what. It’s the fact that all of this is gut-wrenching to talk about, and yet this is only the beginning; these conversations aren’t going to get any easier.
It turns out, “believe women” might be the easiest part of this whole equation. We’re still writing the playbook on what comes next.
None of this is easy. Most women and gender minorities have known forever what the rest of the country is only now learning: a big reason why the #MeToo hashtag was so widespread is because this is a messy, heartbreaking, nuanced, and often shameful topic, one that only becomes more complicated the more you stare at it. (Of course, “treat women and gender minorities and anyone you want to have sex with like human beings worthy of respect and their own autonomy” is the actual solution, but that might as well be written in a foreign language at this point in our national discourse.)
It was also so widespread because there are so many perpetrators out there.
For the most part, good and evil aren’t absolutes. They’re manipulative, malleable, and transient traits. Your friend who came and picked you up one day when your car died an hour outside of the city can be the same guy who won’t take no for an answer from the woman he picked up at a bar. The professor who taught you everything you know and wrote you a glowing recommendation letter for your first job can be the same professor who preys on his graduate assistants. And, conversely, the co-worker who grabbed you inappropriately at the work holiday party, again, can be someone’s loving, attentive father.
We’ve already begun to see the backlash to the movement. People are being overly cautious because it feels so fragile, and the New York Times is already opining about the limits of believing women. Just weeks after it began, there’s fear mongering that the #MeToo movement might have gone too far.
Doug Jones’s win was a big moment, and it deserves to be celebrated. But it shouldn’t be considered the culmination of anything. Practice makes perfect, and when it comes to believing women, the dress rehearsal has only just begun.