Not Every Act of Sexual Misconduct Is a Case of #MeToo | Opinion

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any man in possession of left-wing politics and smug feminist sensibilities must be in want of a MeTooing.

In a media landscape fueled by outrage, nothing drives clicks quite like yet another story of a male feminist who's been revealed as a knuckle-dragging lecher behind the scenes. The more baldfaced his sanctimony, the more fiery his rhetoric, the more prominent his self-proclaimed identity as a Woman Respecter, the more inevitable it seems that he'll be eventually outed as one of the bad ones.

Aziz Ansari, Jack Smith IV, Sam Kriss, Louis C.K.: All of these men were brought down not just by whatever they'd actually done, but by their penchant for feminist posturing, in which they positioned themselves as enlightened by comparison to all the other members of their sex.

As such, it's no surprise that CNN anchor Chris Cuomo was next on the chopping block. Here was a man who claimed to care deeply about respecting women; who believed that the 30-year-old sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh were fatally destructive to the judge's credibility; who distanced himself from his own brother, Governor Andrew Cuomo, after an investigation determined a long and disturbing pattern of sexual harassment.

chris cuomo

And yet, the allegations of misconduct against Chris Cuomo, made in the form of a New York Times Op-Ed by his former boss, aren't just another example of a feminist man being hoisted by his own petard. They also demonstrate how our zeal for the #MeToo movement as a vehicle for redressing sexual grievances has rendered us basically incapable of talking about them in any other way.

Unlike the decade-long litany of allegations against his brother, Chris Cuomo's #MeToo moment hangs on a single incident, alleged in a single New York Times Op-Ed. Written by Shelley Ross, a woman who had been Cuomo's producer at Primetime Live, the essay described an instance of gross boorish behavior at a colleague's going away party in 2005, just after Ross had ceased to be Cuomo's boss.

"When Mr. Cuomo entered the Upper West Side bar, he walked toward me and greeted me with a strong bear hug while lowering one hand to firmly grab and squeeze the cheek of my buttock," Ross writes. "'I can do this now that you're no longer my boss,' he said to me with a kind of cocky arrogance."

Cuomo's buttock-squeezing happened in full view of Ross's husband, who was sitting behind her on an ottoman. The two left immediately, and Cuomo emailed her within an hour to apologize for what he'd done. "now that I think of it... i am ashamed..." reads the subject line of the email he sent that night.

To Ross, the apology read "as an attempt to provide himself with legal and moral coverage to evade accountability." In fact, accountability is what Ross claimed to be seeking in the Op-Ed, insisting she has "no grudge against Mr. Cuomo." So why bring up a 16-year-old offense that Cuomo immediately apologized for and apparently never repeated now?

And there's the rub: Ross can't admit that she's still pissed off at Chris Cuomo for grabbing her ass without consent—even though it's exactly the kind of thing a reasonable person might hold a grudge about. (I was similarly groped by a stranger on the New York City subway back in 2004, and the passage of time has done nothing to lessen my anger at the man who did it—or, for that matter, at the male friend who shushed me and told me to "stop making a scene" when I shouted at the guy who'd assaulted me.) The only way for Ross to have her injury and anger taken seriously is to cram it into today's trendy #MeToo framework, to surround it with big talk about accountability and workplace toxicity and the systematic enabling of bad male behavior.

And this is the larger problem with the #MeToo movement as the be-all end-all framework for addressing past infractions of a sexual nature: Not every infuriating or unacceptable behavior constitutes an abuse of power. But MeToo can only conceive of these behaviors through that lens, and in so doing, minimizes far worse and greater abuses—the kinds engaged in by Andrew Cuomo, for example, when he allegedly sexually harassed his female employees for years.

If Ross's anger is only justified if what happened to her was workplace harassment, there's no outlet for righteous fury over what it actually was—a man grabbing a woman without permission.

"I never thought that Mr. Cuomo's behavior was sexual in nature," Ross writes. "Whether he understood it at the time or not, his form of sexual harassment was a hostile act meant to diminish and belittle his female former boss in front of the staff."

This may or may not be true (arguably, the only person who can possibly know what Chris Cuomo "meant" by his behavior is Chris Cuomo), but the truth is beside the point; when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and when "sexual harassment" is the only type of bad behavior anyone wants to take seriously, then being taken seriously requires nothing less than a claim of sexual harassment.

We did this to ourselves. Somewhere in between the first presidential term of Bill Clinton and the series finale of "Sex and the City," it became oddly taboo on the Left to criticize more minor types of sexual misconduct. Ordinary crudeness like Chris Cuomo's ass-grabbing was something you were supposed to laugh off, for no other reason than that complaining about it risked making you look like a judgmental prude. Contrary to popular belief, in 2021, that taboo still persists—unless you can find a way to fit ordinary crudeness under the #MeToo umbrella, thus rendering it suddenly worthy of not just discussion but sanction.

Much has already been written about the dangers of #MeToo overreach, in which minor offenses become calamities while the actual calamities are trivialized by mission creep. But overlooked in this conversation is the whole wide world of sexually-tinged bad acts which don't rise anywhere near to the level of requiring an official response, but which we nevertheless would prefer did not happen.

Chris Cuomo's alleged ass-grabbing is miles away from the sort of pervasive hostility and abuse of power that the #MeToo movement was formulated to address, but that doesn't make it okay. Unwanted ass-squeezing is a bad thing to do! Doing it in front of the squeezee's spouse? Also bad! Worse, even! And in a just world, we'd be able to say that Chris Cuomo did something gauche, gross, and unacceptable—while acknowledging that, unlike his big brother's behavior, gross and unacceptable is all that it is.

Kat Rosenfield is a culture writer and novelist. Her next book, No One Will Miss Her, will be published by William Morrow in October 2021.

The views in this article are the writer's own.