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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Martha Gill

#MeToo men want to be forgiven, but what of the careers of their casualties?

Closeup of Kevin Spacey's head, with his eyes closed and his mouth downturned
Kevin Spacey outside Southwark crown court in 2023, after being found not guilty on nine charges related to allegations of sexual offences. Photograph: Susannah Ireland/Reuters

Yes, they did something wrong. But the punishment is out of proportion. They have apologised, they have promised to change. Isn’t it time we forgave some of the men brought down by #MeToo?

It’s an important question – one that anyone interested in justice should ask. Lately, the rate of asking has picked up pace. In an interview with Piers Morgan last week, Kevin Spacey sobbed at the treatment he had suffered, even as he conceded that his accusers – one or two of them – had been telling the truth.

“There has been overreach by the media… but by your own admission, your behaviour was extremely inappropriate,” Morgan summarises, towards the end of the segment. “Sometimes it was non-consensual.”

“I am not going to behave that way [again],” replies Spacey, “and now we are at a place where: OK, what next? I am trying to seek a path to redemption.”

A similar remark appeared elsewhere last week – this time by a feminist writer in the New York Timesafter the death of Morgan Spurlock, another man cancelled by #MeToo after he admitted harassing a colleague. “I can’t shake the feeling that nearly seven years after MeToo,” she writes, “we still haven’t found a way for men who want to make amends to do so meaningfully.”

It is troubling to see people ostracised, brutally and without due process, and with seemingly no hope of salvation. No fairminded person wants to live in a world like this. But as we ask whether perfect justice has been served when it comes to #MeToo’s powerful men, we should consider if we are missing part of the narrative. We used to ostracise their victims.

We use different language to describe it, so may miss the symmetry. But it’s there. Blacklisted, forced out of jobs or even industries, publicly shamed: until quite recently it was survivors of sexual harassment who were most often “cancelled”. As Spacey weeps over jobs he has lost and former colleagues who no longer speak to him, we should remember that the very same fate hung over those he once propositioned – indeed it made the abuse possible in the first place. They feared he might ruin their careers.

Why do we struggle to forgive #MeToo’s perpetrators? We should ask the question. But first, perhaps, we should ask why for so long we struggled to forgive their victims.

The list of unforgiven victims – shunned for many years – is long. Actors Mira Sorvino, Ashley Judd, Annabella Sciorra and Sophie Dix were all “blacklisted” from Hollywood after they turned down Harvey Weinstein. Brendan Fraser’s career ended for several decades when he was groped by a former president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and complained. When a young Jane Seymour rejected the overtures of a Hollywood bigwig, she was told that, if she let it slip, “you’ll never work ever again anywhere on the planet”.

The pattern repeats at less starry altitudes. A 2017 Guardian report on harassment victims from across the arts remarks that it was “striking how many of their stories share the same ending. Either the alleged abuse, the victim’s refusal to stay quiet, or both, slams the door on critical job opportunities and puts a serious – sometimes terminal – dent in her career. In some cases the victim never works in her industry again.”

Like Spacey, and Spurlock, they were banished. Where was their “due process”? Where were their opportunities to “make amends”?

The further back in time we go, the worse it gets. An analysis of employment tribunal cases in 2001 found that more than 90% of staff who were victims of sexual harassment either lost their jobs or resigned. In her landmark work, Sexual Harassment of Working Women, published in 1979, Catherine MacKinnon documented women being routinely fired in retaliation for turning down a male superior. A “sexual relationship was essential to their working relationship”, underlings say they were told, “and without it women could not maintain their jobs”.

But perhaps we have not travelled so far from this time after all. I was struck by an article in the Times last week by Esther Walker, which remarked in passing that “when office romances end, it is the career of the woman, not the man, that is suddenly vulnerable”.

Why, when we fret over this new habit of banishing powerful men, do we fail to notice that a parallel habit is being ushered out: the blackballing of victims? Is it that we are accustomed to injustices piling upon the already unfortunate, but expect high-status people to be treated with perfect fairness?

In the ideal world, perhaps, no one would be ostracised. It’s a terrible sort of punishment, social blacklisting: too vague and diffuse to defend yourself against – indeed, attempts to defend yourself can make it worse. But we should note, too, that it appears in every society.

What varies seems to be this: unequal societies are inclined to banish low-status victims. (In Pakistan, for example, getting raped can make you a social outcast for life.) More equal societies, on the other hand, consider banishing their high-status tormentors instead. In their book Why Men?, the anthropologists Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale argue that hunter-gatherer tribes in some cases maintain social equality by ostracising boastful bullies.

The plight of men such as Spacey has been lent the dignity of an existential question: is redemption ever possible? But unfair punishment is a human habit – notable here only because it usually falls on other sorts of people. The defining battle of the #MeToo movement so far – Amber Heard v Johnny Depp – suggests we see a binary proposition: should we ostracise the accused, or the accuser? The world is not perfect. Perhaps we must pick our poison.

• Martha Gill is an Observer columnist

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 250 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at

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