Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Before #MeToo—and After

What becomes of women who won’t be defined as victims?

by
Justine el-Khazen
July 08, 2024

Rene Burri/Magnum

Rene Burri/Magnum

On a night in early September of 1999, I found myself unable to sleep. I did what I always did back then when I couldn’t sleep: padded to the kitchen in the dark, got a beer out of the fridge, and brought it to the living room where I turned the TV on, volume low. No lights, no sound, nothing that would violate the cocoon of sleep in which I was supposed to have been enveloped.

I was curled up on the couch, the beer nearly empty, when I heard a strange sound. It was so faint I couldn’t have said what it was exactly. The sound of someone somewhere doing something quietly. But it wasn’t muffled by the walls or ceiling. I could hear it echoing along the hall that led from my bedroom to the kitchen.

I stood up with the intention of walking to investigate, and had an epiphany: I needed to leave—now—which I did, in my flannel pj’s with neither shoes nor contact lenses. When I opened the door of my building, I assumed there would be people walking by, a rescuer, but the streets were empty, not so much as a car passing by. Then, a man appeared at the end of my block. I should say “person.” My vision is bad enough that, unaided, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a man and a woman, let alone the height or race or weight of the person I was seeing. Once he’d moved fully into the circle of light cast by a street lamp, he stopped. I couldn’t have said whether he was looking at me or away from me. Either way, he lingered there a minute, then walked on. I didn’t call out or ask for help. I just watched him walk away, certain for reasons I couldn’t explain that he was the one who had just been inside my apartment.

I rode my bike, shoeless, to a landscape architecture party to find my roommate. I berated her: “You said you’d be home by midnight!” She, drunkenly: “What are you, my mom?” A fair point, I realized, chastened. She came home with me anyway.

While on line for coffee before class the next morning, I asked a mutual friend if I’d been out of line. Was I acting like my roommate’s mom? Yes, she said. She told me to apologize, so later that day, my roommate and I got deli sandwiches for dinner, and I said I was sorry. Then she left for work in the children’s section of Barnes & Noble, and I settled onto our ratty couch to study, only I couldn’t focus, and before long, I heard our next door neighbor yelling at our landlord. She was demanding he put bars on her windows.

“He’s been here,” she screamed.

The hair on my arms puckered up. I knew that whomever she was talking about had been in my apartment the night before, so when she was done with the landlord, I rang her bell.

She let me in and explained that a string of now infamous rapes, and one murder, had occurred in the area. Had I not heard of the Center City rapist? He had broken into her apartment in the middle of the night earlier that summer, but a neighbor’s dog began to bark, waking her up and chasing him away. The FBI had set up a stakeout of her apartment, but he never came back.

I went home and pretended to read, absorbing nothing. Night fell. I didn’t bother to turn on the lights. I just sat there immobile on the couch until it occurred to me to call my parents and tell them the story. I was by this point camped out on the couch, which was near the front door and out of range of the phone on the wall in the kitchen. Instead, I reached for our cordless, which I clutched to my ear as I explained the strange sound, my sudden flight from the apartment, the racially ambiguous passerby who appeared to have been staring at me from under a street lamp. Then, the line went dead. I assumed it was just that the cordless had run out of batteries. I mulled venturing deeper into the apartment to place it in its cradle, but somehow that seemed like a bad idea, so I left, this time for Barnes & Noble.

As it turned out, though I hadn’t heard of the Center City rapist, everyone else had. He was big news, in Philly and beyond. He’d assaulted one woman, raped four and then gone on to murder a Wharton graduate student, Shannon Schieber. The case was a mystery: Either Schieber knew her attacker, or some sort of ultra stealth cat burglar had shimmied up to her balcony and slipped through the door, which was left standing open by the assailant, so there was no knowing if it was locked prior to the attack. Occam’s razor pointed to the first theory. A year and a half later, police somehow became convinced of the second.

Around the time Schieber was killed, reporters at The Philadelphia Inquirer began investigating a rash of sex crimes in Center City, all with an MO: The rapist slipped into his victims’ apartments via unlocked windows in the early hours of the morning, covered their faces with pillows so they couldn’t identify him and slipped out just as quietly as he’d come in. The series should have been easy enough for law enforcement to put together. Not only was the MO similar, but the victims all lived in the same neighborhood, only the police had systematically dismissed them, casting doubt on their credibility. Rather than investigating their claims of rape, the police placed their cases in a circular file titled “investigation of person,” a move that both improved rape stats for the city and saved police the trouble of investigating tougher cases. A serial rapist who slipped in and out of women’s apartments quietly in the middle of the night would have required some real police work. Police would have first needed to believe the victims, take solid evidence and statements, see the pattern, and then confirm it via DNA testing, only they did none of that.

Their failure to link those early cases meant eight women would later be attacked in Colorado, where the Center City rapist moved after the media frenzy in Philadelphia became too great. It also meant that, a year after he committed his first crime, he was still at large and on the prowl, leaving Schieber, leaving all the women of Philadelphia, exposed. As Schieber’s father put it: The Philadelphia police set his daughter up for murder.

They set me up too.

When I got to Barnes & Noble, I briefed my roommate. We decided I had not been out of line the night before. There was a maniac on the loose, and we were going to take action, the sort of hard-hitting action that clueless college girls take. Did we decamp for a friend’s house? No. Once we got home, we rang our upstairs neighbors’ bell and told them about the situation. Then we folded out the couch and went to sleep.

My mind lurched from one hellish dream to the next: There was a man with aviators and a windbreaker on, à la the Unabomber, standing over us. Next I heard sounds emerging from the hall, a slowly approaching footfall, but couldn’t move. Then there was the sound of an alarm: First it was inside the dream, and then I woke to find the doorbell ringing. My roommate and I parted the blinds to see two beat cops standing on our stoop.

At this point, I began screaming. I did not want my roommate to open the door or let the police in. I can remember the confused furrow in her brow. I wasn’t making any sense. I was screaming loudly enough that the neighbors came barreling down the stairs in their underwear. No one could understand what was going on with me, let alone calm me down. After a round of curious looks among them, the door was opened, and I fainted.

Upon coming to, I was told the police had been called because the phone line had been cut. What? That made no sense. By whom? The mutual friend I’d run into getting coffee had done a little research and come to the conclusion that I was not crazy: I lived smack dab in the middle of the territory a prolific, nationally famous, and as yet unapprehended rapist hunted. She called to tell me I should leave, but she kept getting a busy tone. Finally, she called the operator and asked her to do a line break. The operator informed her she couldn’t: The line had been cut.

“That’s ridiculous,” I told the police. “The cordless died. That’s it.”

One of them walked to the back of the apartment. The line for the phone entered the apartment in my roommate’s room. A few inches away from where it entered, the landlord had installed a split so that the line could travel in two directions: back into my room and forward into the rest of the house. The split was yanked out of the wall. It could have been an accident, I told the police. Never mind I’d been sitting on the couch when it happened. There was some feeling I wasn’t taking this seriously enough. It was agreed the FBI would come by in the morning. I didn’t see the need. I’d probably tripped on the line at some point. To leap to the conclusion that a notorious sexual predator had pulled it out was ridiculous. But in the 11 months that followed, it never fell out again.

A few days later when I explained to my English professor why I was late with the paper I was still too distracted to write, she gave me an extension and told me to buy a gun.

I laughed.

The case of the Center City rapist made something of a cultural splash. It spawned some Pulitzer Prize winning reporting, inspired an episode of Cold Case and a two-part episode on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, starring Tracy Pollan. The TV episodes are unsettling. Certain details trickle in: the rapist’s uncanny ability to slip into women’s apartments. He puts a pillow over his victims’ faces so they can’t identify him. There are references to the Philadelphia police department’s failure to take their complaints seriously. The denouement of the SVU episode reveals the rapist lying in a pool of his own blood. His victims got the trial thrown out of court on purpose, so they could band together and kill him themselves, by far and away the episode’s most satisfying detail. They were on the same wavelength as my English professor, only they took a more liberal view of what constitutes “self-defense.” “Street justice is always bloody,” Ice-T’s character says.

In addition to these cultural high- and low-lights, the case actually changed the way sex crimes are policed. The Women’s Law Project, a public interest legal organization in Pennsylvania, worked with the Philadelphia police department and other advocate groups to reform the department’s procedures and culture and correct past wrongs. The plan they came up with is called The Philadelphia Model. It has been adopted by police departments around the world.

One of the most novel reforms involved inviting advocates to audit sex crimes files, not just cases that have been dismissed, but a random sampling of those that are open as well. The goal is to review police work to make sure it’s thorough—and free of anti-victim bias. Journalists in cities across the country have contacted the Women’s Law Project to report similar failings in special victims units in their cities. The Law Project also successfully lobbied the FBI to change its woefully outdated definition of rape, a move that lowers the bar for how individual states define it.

The advocates who came up with the model actually test-drove it by reviewing all cases from 1995 to 1997 marked “investigation of person,” an effort that resulted in the prosecution of 681 new felony rapes and 1,141 other sex crimes.

Perhaps the greatest of #MeToo’s failings is that it centers itself on a storyline in which women are violated and shamed with seemingly no counternarrative.

Another important element of the model is reforming police culture. Before the model, police did not assume the victim’s credibility. They worked from a place of skepticism that required victims to convince police that the attack against them was real. This was a common starting point for rape investigations nationwide, part of a general law enforcement mentality about rape. The framers of the model called attention to this bias, inspiring a sea change in the way police approach victims across the country—and a host of trainings and workshops designed to help police do better.

Once it became clear that the Philadelphia Special Victims Unit had failed to see the link between rape cases—and that a woman had been murdered as a result—the department’s culture and commitment changed overnight. A task force, led by two homicide detectives known for being dogged when it came to difficult cases, was created. Sex crimes detectives worked with crime labs to disseminate the DNA evidence they’d collected to police departments across the country and 1,200 tips were followed up on. Plainclothes officers sat in Center City bars on a nightly basis to survey the clientele in the hopes that a face in the crowd matched the one in the composite sketch. Plainclothes female officers walked the streets of Center City at night, in an attempt to lure their quarry. Detectives cast a wide net, even looking at clowns from a circus that had passed through town. All to no avail. The statute of limitations was in danger of running out on the earliest assaults, so prosecutors took the unusual step of charging the rapist’s DNA. No one in Philly wanted to let this go, but they would have to, for a little while anyway.

Then, in August 2001, a civilian dispatcher spotted an all points bulletin about a string of rapes in Fort Collins, Colorado. The MOs were the same. By September, the DNA had been matched.

Though the series had been discovered, the rapist himself remained elusive—even as he became more daring. In one year alone, he attacked seven women. Then, a detective in the major crimes unit in Philadelphia built a database of men who had lived in both cities. He was able to whittle the list down to 40 names. Detectives in both cities worked to eliminate men from the list—until they got to 34, and discovered a suspect whose movements and former addresses lined up with the string of attacks: Troy Graves. Fort Collins detectives got a court order for his DNA, but before the results had even come in, Graves confessed to everything. It took five years and untold man hours, but in the end, Graves was outmaneuvered.

Eighteen years later, when #MeToo launched, it dawned on me for the first time in my life that, technically, I meet the definition of a victim. It was a moment of total cognitive dissonance for me: I’d never even thought of myself as a survivor, let alone a victim. I was simply someone who had stayed ahead of the currents of sexual violence running through the cities in which I lived. I’ve never felt cowed by danger or wounded by its manifold existence in my life. As a result, I had no interest in joining the chorus of #MeToo because I knew that if I did I would turn events that were, for me, anecdotes into episodes that defined me. And I knew that whatever social currency I scored by doing so would come at the expense of my power to tell my story on my own terms.

Back then, I actually thought Alyssa Milano invented it. What better way to burnish a fading star than to become an activist, acquire a few million followers and let the puff pieces rain.

But the truth was so much more cynical. Activist and educator Tarana Burke coined the phrase “me too” in 2006, before there were hashtags, to raise awareness of how common sexual assault is, and to give survivors a sense of community around experiences that can be shameful and isolating. It was meant to shine a light on women whose stories are invisible to the culture at large. Sexual violence affects all women. Around 20% of all American women have been sexually assaulted—but not all victims are created equal. The case of Girl X, a Black child who was brutally assaulted in a Chicago housing project just a few weeks after JonBenét Ramsey was killed, received almost no media attention. Meanwhile, Ramsey’s murder set the pre-internet world on fire. All that attention didn’t make Ramsey any less dead, but it did make her more visible. Burke developed “me too” through her work with girls whose stories will never be splashed across the pages of People magazine. How fitting, then, that the Rose McGowans of the world should co-opt it.

The problem with #MeToo wasn’t just that it served one demographic: powerful, rich, mostly white women. Movie stars recounted the lurid details of their encounters with Weinstein. Women in media cataloged the transgressions against them in a spreadsheet, and therein lay the real issue: 55% of sexual assaults occur at or near the victim’s home. Only 12% of assault victims report that they were working at the time of the assault. #MeToo went viral as a workplace harassment movement—among the most well-heeled workers in America no less—when it was created to bring attention to the problem of sexual assault in our society as a whole. On the basis of age alone, #MeToo was out of step with the problem it purported to point up: 70% of sexual assault victims are under the age of 18, too young to find themselves stuck in an office cubicle.

#MeToo inspired a wave of sexual harassment legislation, culminating in the Biden administration’s Ending Forced Arbitration Act, which prohibits employers from forcing female employees to arbitrate disputes related to sexual harassment. The impact of #MeToo on the workplace is clear and unequivocal, which is something, but the gains all went to the top. Its effects didn’t trickle down to help the victims of sexual assault.

Today, only a fraction of all rapists will do time for their crimes, around 0.25%. There’s still a 99.75% chance their attackers will go free, and sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes there is—only around 30% of rapes are reported—so the chance that a rapist will be incarcerated is actually much lower, along the lines of 0.0075%.

Women were on their own before #MeToo, and they’re on their own now. If anything, the system is even more stacked against them than it was before.

In 2018, the number of rapes reported in New York City jumped from 1,449 to 1,794, a bump of 18.5%. It seems reasonable to attribute this to #MeToo. The consensus is that at the very least it destigmatized coming forward. For the three years prior—2015, 2016, and 2017—the number of reported rapes hovered in the 1,440’s, so the rate was stable going into 2018. 2018 and 2019 saw a sharp spike in reported rapes, likely due to #MeToo, but by 2020, the number returned to just below its previous level, at 1,427. After that, a wave of violent crime took hold in New York City. As a result, rape stats have climbed to their highest levels since 2005.

In fact, since 2017, the rate of prosecution for sexually based offenses has actually fallen in New York City. In 2021, the Manhattan DA declined to prosecute a whopping 49% of cases, up from 37% in 2017. The citywide rate of arraignment for felonies fell modestly, by 5%, between 2018 and today.

But the total number of felony cases sentenced to incarceration in 2018, 5,740, plummeted to a disturbing low in 2020, around 1,151. The number has rebounded slightly, up to 2,180 last year, but that’s still a drop of 62%. Lest you imagine that those numbers mean crime is somehow down: Reported felonies are up by 25%. So felonies are up, but the rate of incarceration is down.

Why?

Incredibly, there’s now a contingency of #MeToo feminists who want to see rates of incarceration for rapists go down. The good women of the Law Project in Philadelphia represent the basic disposition of Second and Third Wave feminism toward sex crimes: They worked to get police to hold sex criminals maximally accountable, work that still seems vitally necessary today—though not to Fourth Wave, #MeToo inspired activists. Their agenda is to promote “non carceral feminism,” meaning they want to limit the power of the criminal justice system to prosecute sex offenders. Instead, they want mandatory sex ed nationwide and guaranteed mental health coverage. It’s hard to say what they think this will achieve. Do they think men rape women because they have no idea how sex works or they’re having an off day? Either way, not only is this agenda misogynistic; it represents a total failure to understand how little the criminal justice system does for victims of sexual assault. Women were on their own before #MeToo, and they’re on their own now. If anything, the system is even more stacked against them than it was before.

When I was growing up, feminism came in the form of Riot Grrrls. Two decades before the Silence Breakers, they talked about sexual violence. They confessed their experiences angrily, made fun of misogyny, exuded a fuck-you attitude and were awesome on their own terms. And I idolized them, which may have been why I never doubted my ability to outfox or outfight anyone who crossed me.

Perhaps the greatest of #MeToo’s failings is that it centers itself on a storyline in which women are violated and shamed with seemingly no counternarrative. Even before its viral takeover, psychologists and sociologists were chattering about the rise of what they called “victimhood culture.” I shudder to imagine what that will mean for girls who carry their image of themselves as victims out into the world. Because the world loves to victimize women, and I can’t help but wonder if #MeToo hasn’t primed them to meet it halfway.

A year after the Center City rapist episode, I found myself riding the New York subway during the midmorning lull. I was one of just a few people in the car, my nose buried in an issue of Granta. At some point when the train was screeching under the river to Brooklyn, I felt someone’s eyes on me. I looked up to find a man with a teardrop tattoo next to his eye, exposing himself to me. I could tell by the way he was staring at me that this was a prelude to something. He stood up, so I stood up. He stepped toward me, so I stepped toward him. He seemed about to pounce, so I lunged at him. He dodged me and made for the door. I actually laughed, as he ducked into York Street station and sprinted toward the stairs.

I know that laughing in the face of a sexual predator isn’t normal. I’ve learned to dissociate when faced with a threat, which is useful for remaining calm and in control, though it’s not the greatest coping mechanism to carry with you through life—but it kept me safe. It spared me from seeing myself as a victim. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Justine el-Khazen is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York.

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.