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opinion

Flannery Dean is a freelance writer.

The #MeToo movement has triggered so many dizzyingly surreal reactions that I wouldn’t be surprised if the reading population currently suffers from vertigo.

The strangeness began almost immediately, with much public worrying about its disruptive nature. “Has #MeToo gone too far?” was the chat-show conversation starter for a while, with many asking: “Can you still flirt at work?” Rather than, say, “Why do we tacitly accept gender violence and abuse?”

Listening to these kind of reactions often feels like reading the transcripts of a sexual-assault trial. Every couple of seconds you find yourself shouting, “How the hell is that pertinent?”

I experienced similar feelings as many outlets began contemplating how comedian Louis C.K. and former Today Show host Matt Lauer might make comebacks. Their re-entry into public life sometimes seems to be one of the more urgent concerns post-#MeToo, as Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman pointed out.

“What Should We Do With These Men?” asked an April 27 op-ed by Katie J.M. Baker, a BuzzFeed contributor with a background in sexual-assault reporting. “For the first time in history it seems men are facing consequences for predatory behaviour .... If we want it to lead to real, lasting and widespread cultural change – we need to talk. About what we do with the bad men.”

Talk of historic consequences for those who harm women and girls briefly made me wonder if I’d fallen asleep only to wake into the light of an equal society, where victims receive the benefit of the doubt and juries don’t fall for tired rape myths.

The desire to out the reclamation of bad men at the centre of our interest may just be practical. There are a lot of them. But let’s temper the rhetoric and admit the “bad men” are okay.

I saw media photos of Louis C.K. walking in New York with a friend a few weeks ago, not tethered to a stake on a Macedonian hill top. He hasn’t been exiled from civil society, he’s been demoted culturally. Like Mr. Lauer, he’s no longer invulnerable to consequence; he’s suddenly human. Just like women.

That status downgrade may be his salvation – and ours. Sexual predation is a present and enduring reality, but it thrives in inequitable societies.

I’ve spent the last few years working on sexual-assault stories. I, too, hoped to find an answer to the question of what we do with bad men. The only approaches that seem to potentially reduce incidences of abuse are cultural: bystander training that teaches people how to intervene when they see something amiss and certain educational programs that teach children about consent and healthy relationships, to name a few.

These interventions don’t turn bad guys into good – they change the culture around them and thereby reduce opportunities for predation.

That the fate of powerful white men who abuse their status is central to progress seems … odd. Are we really worried about Mr. Lauer or anxious about the shift in cultural power his downfall represents? Who will fill the vacuum all those awful rich white guys leave behind?

Reactions to the Toronto van attack on April 23 have gone further, with some implicitly opting to enshrine the droit du seigneur of not just powerful white men, but just plain awful men.

After Alek Minassian allegedly used a van to kill 10 people, and all in the name of retributive misogyny, I saw many online wonder if “incels” like Mr. Minassian – i.e., men who are “involuntarily celibate” and who channel their anger about it toward women, had a right to sex.

Inspired by those debates and others that consider the “right to sex,” New York Times columnist Ross Douthat penned an op-ed that asked: should sex robots or sex workers (a.k.a. real, live women) be dispatched to please incels?

To Mr. Douthat, who weirdly seems to find the very idea he’s presenting repulsive, the reality of that happening, though “creepy or misogynistic,” is “pretty much inevitable.”

His conclusion stands out as the most defeated acceptance of misogynistic violence and abuse since the #MeToo reaction cycle started. It is shocking the rhetorical messes we’ll get in to defend the spectrum of male desire – healthy, perverse and despicable.

That #MeToo urges us to break that compact not with force, but with empathy for the victims, is the movement’s most urgent moral consideration. We’d be wiser and healthier to resist our habit of inverting it.