A Case Study in Why I Don’t Trust Men Who Self-Identify as #MeToo Advocates
I am never surprised when the results of basically any study on the subject show that the majority of women in disciplines that involve fieldwork have experienced sexual harassment (see, e.g., this article in Science). Fieldwork provides a context for abuses of all kinds. This needs to change and I don’t pretend to know what will be effective at the kind of scale we need, but that’s not what this essay is about. This is, rather, about one contributor to an alarming trend of abuses perpetrated by people who claim to be advocates of the MeToo movement in STEM.
I am not well-connected in any field, nor am I well-versed in the history of this particular topic. I was late to the game with the controversy surrounding BethAnn McLaughlin and her work with #MeTooStem and know about it only from popular news articles that I read casually while I focused on my actual life’s responsibilities.
In what follows, I discuss the troubling actions and motivations of a self-proclaimed MeToo journalist, Michael Balter. Complaints about Balter go back years, I’ve come to learn, and they have not changed: people have been concerned about his potential and actual harms and self-centering for a long time. I give just two examples (with some tangents, perhaps) of behavior that I myself witnessed in just the past six months. These examples show Balter flagrantly harming vulnerable people who did not consent to work with him and, in the latter instance, who publicly revealed that he made them uncomfortable in their conversations about their experiences of assault.
I am not naturally inclined toward suspicion, but over these past months I have become not just skeptical of Balter’s professed motives but alarmed by them. Balter seems to seek privileged access to women’s trauma and to be overly concerned with the issue of control, making moves to ensure that he — no one else — owns the narrative. Anyone who disagrees with him is met with retaliation. Balter claims that they are lying and are out to defame him. He claims that they are abusers themselves or that they are actively trying to stop his reporting so that abusers can keep abusing. I have not seen evidence that those who have criticized him are trying to enable abusers; many of those who have spoken out are, in fact, actively working to improve academic environments. Not everyone is as self-promotional as Balter, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t doing meaningful work.
This is a tricky essay to write, as Balter is currently being sued for defamation by Danielle Kurin, an anthropology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara who, according to Balter’s reporting, enabled and attempted to cover up abuses committed by her (now ex-) husband. I don’t want this essay to be used in support or to the detriment of anyone in this case, especially because, as far as I know, Balter doesn’t fabricate his stories. Furthermore, I am fortunate in knowing that the lawsuit Kurin has brought against Balter has no real standing, so there’s little risk that anything I say here will jeopardize anyone’s right to free speech and freedom of the press. This lawsuit, though, has the potential to legitimize Balter’s work, a potential that disturbs me greatly and so I cannot remain silent, as I worry about what additional damages he could inflict on others in his crusades.
Michael Balter is trained as a journalist, but he is not currently affiliated with any publications that I’m aware of. His background and independence position him well to provide meaningful support to people in STEM fields who have been harassed or assaulted. I disagree with allies and advocates labeling themselves as MeToo journalists (in my mind, #MeToo is a tag used by victims, not their allies, hence the “me” part), but he does report on real stories of harassment, assault, and other abuse in STEM and STEM-adjacent disciplines. According to some people he has helped, his support has been incredibly beneficial, even, in some cases, returning to them hope that they thought they had lost. To the people Balter has helped, I cannot express how grateful I am that you had a way to receive the help that you needed and wanted.
But the good work he has done for some people does not erase the harm that he has caused others, nor does it permit any future harm he may (will?) cause. Maybe in earlier days we had to take what we could get, take the bad with the good from men who condescended to help us. But we don’t need that now. We don’t need to accept the collateral damage that some people will be harmed so that others can be helped. We can, instead, insist on better, more ethical standards from those who wish to benefit from our trauma. Balter’s behavior makes me suspicious of men who attempt to co-opt this movement for their own personal gain.
Gain, of course, is not an objective measure, it means different things for different people. In this case, I believe that Balter sees himself as a white knight, out to rescue women, and he desperately needs to be recognized for how good he is. The gain Balter seeks is not financial but seems, rather, to be moral. Any criticism of him validates his martyrdom: he feels like he knows he is right because so many are against him. He even once tweeted a James Baldwin quote about how “any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent,” as if his challenges are at all analogous to Baldwin’s. And this in spite of the fact that the vast majority of Balter’s critics do not hold positions of power or privilege. (Balter regularly refers to his critics as “gatekeepers,” but the majority are female and BIPOC graduate students and early career researchers.) He attempts to goad people into criticizing him, as, I believe, it is the source of his validation. There does seem, too, to be a hint of him wanting to strike down traditionally (toxically) masculine men, perhaps from someone who was himself bullied in his youth, but that’s just my amateur read of the situation.
I became aware of Michael Balter in the summer of 2020, when I saw a Twitter thread about him. The thread was about Balter’s investigation of a Peruvian archaeologist named Luis Jaime Castillo Butters. In the thread, you can read about how when Balter was investigating Castillo, he identified a graduate student who had allegedly dated Castillo. Balter reached out to this graduate student. He says in his blog that he politely and professionally emailed her twice, but somehow his polite messages were enough for the student’s university to get involved and instruct him to refrain from further contacting her. (As a note: I have been affiliated with half a dozen universities in my time and I cannot imagine any of them intervening after just two polite and professional emails. Something seems to be missing here.)
At some point, Castillo gave an interview with a Peruvian media outlet and may have identified this student in his attempt to defend himself somehow. The article went live and allegedly included Castillo’s identification of the student, but very shortly thereafter the media outlet edited the story to remove the student’s ID and replaced it with a reference to this being someone attending school in the “E.E.U.U.,” the Spanish acronym for the United States. This was, without a doubt, the right move, for the news outlet to correct their mistake.
Balter saw the original post identifying the student and then looked later and saw that the story had been edited to remove the student’s ID. He misinterpreted the correction as an attempt to lie (he regularly interprets others’ behavior as active deception) because he thought that the media outlet was claiming that the student attended school in the E.U., the English-language abbreviation of the European Union. In an overreaction to his ignorance of the very common acronym E.E.U.U., Balter moved to Twitter and identified the student in a tweet, saying that because Castillo (the alleged abuser) had identified her publicly, he could, too. He said, “I have tried to protect the student but she and Castillo have forfeited the right to that courtesy” (a screenshot of Balter’s tweet is included in the linked thread).
As far as I can tell from the publicly available information on Twitter and on Balter’s blog, the student is not implicated in any of the allegations against Castillo. Her only connection to the story is that she had previously, as an undergraduate student and maybe also as a graduate student, worked with Castillo, and Balter himself admitted that she may have been the target of Castillo’s abuses. Her only crime, then, was that she declined to respond to his repeated emails asking for her to participate. This student did not apparently consent to be identified by either Castillo or Balter.
When pressed on this issue, Balter repeatedly defended his decision to identify the student publicly, on the grounds that Castillo had done so first. But Castillo is an abuser, so I personally don’t think his model is a positive one to follow. A good analogy here might be with the whistleblower in the Trump-Ukraine scandal. The whistleblower’s identity had been leaked numerous times, yet members of Congress refused to repeat the identification because its release was both unethical and dangerous. Advocates and those dedicated to the safety and protection of vulnerable people do not perpetuate the spread of information that is unethical, harmful, and dangerous to the individual in question (in this case, a female graduate student who is not connected to the allegations and did not consent to participate), regardless of the benefit they may personally derive from it.
This is the first and perhaps clearest instance that I noticed of Balter’s willingness to sacrifice others — especially women in vulnerable positions — if doing so will advance himself. I think he did ultimately delete his post (I couldn’t find it when I went looking for it again), but he refused to acknowledge his mistake. (This was particularly interesting, as he regularly demands that others who “lie” issue full public apologies.)
I understand that advocates may have personal motives for their work, and I can abide some amount of male ego in this particular endeavor, so long as the actions undertaken in pursuit of justice privilege and prioritize the needs of victims, not the ego of the advocate.
In another instance later this summer, an individual, YYYY, publicly discussed their previous experiences with Balter. As a part of their revelation, YYYY disclosed that they had been assaulted and even that they had received a legal judgment or relief of some kind related to their assault. As the victim, YYYY is of course well within their rights to reveal any details that they choose and to control how, where, and when that story is disseminated. At some point after their assault and legal judgment, YYYY said, they reached out to Balter for help telling their story or seeking his advice about their abuser’s continued actions or something. During the course of their conversations with Balter, YYYY changed their mind about working with him. I don’t recall how long ago it was that they worked with him, but in September 2020 YYYY came forward and tweeted about their experience and revealed that they had developed uneasy feelings about Balter’s motives and that he had made them feel uncomfortable in the course of their conversations.
This revelation would not have had a major impact: most of the people who responded were already suspicious of Balter and his motives and, in fact, most people seemed to use it as an opportunity to offer their support for YYYY, not to criticize Balter. This led to a shitshow, to put it mildly, as Balter and his supporters attacked YYYY and anyone who supported them, while those who supported YYYY attacked Balter and his supporters in turn. Things got really messy as numerous people on both sides self-identified as victims of various kinds of abuse and as having had mental health diagnoses of things like PTSD, depression and anxiety, bipolar disorder, and so on.
So, there were two camps of people, some of whom are vulnerable, all focused on this central figure of Balter. Throughout this, Balter spent much of his time, from my view, encouraging the increasingly chaotic attacks. What stands out to me is that he egged on one of his supporters, whom he referred to several times as his “Avenging Angel”, even as she made increasingly concerning statements about mental illness and previous suicide attempts, seeming to suggest that the current conversations were pushing her to have some of those same feelings again. Balter repeatedly encouraged and even urged this Avenging Angel with no apparent thought to the long-term consequences of her being involved in a Twitter pile-on where people undermined others’ claims of previous abuse, demeaned each other, and lobbed all sorts of harmful accusations.
Things escalated when Balter published the private communications he had had with YYYY on his blog. This post was eventually removed by Blogger.com, who hosts the blog, for violating its terms of service against revealing private information. But, in publishing their private communications, Balter publicly identified YYYY and made it possible for any who read the post to identify their abuser and, in turn, for their abuser to (potentially) learn more about his victim.
YYYY had written a tweet about how they had previously worked with Balter and did not like their experience. Balter retaliated by disclosing YYYY’s private information — claiming that it was OK because YYYY had previously disclosed this information themselves (never mind that it was THEIR story to tell, so they can do what they wants with it) and that they had no right to his discretion because they had not chosen to work with him. Why did he do this? He claimed that it was in his attempt to…clear his name among a group of people who already don’t trust him. The motives here for publishing their private communications are suspicious: regardless of the veracity of YYYY’s claims that he was unprofessional, as there was almost no risk of his work being jeopardized by this single tweet. Rather, it seemed like retaliation against someone who had not consented to work with him and an attempt to silence others who may consider publicly revealing their negative experiences with him.
Just as the graduate student in the first example had forfeited her right to privacy by refusing to work with him, so, too, did YYYY lose their right to privacy because they publicly stated that they chose not to work with him.
There are other, less visible examples of problematic behavior. I saw an email that at least one person wrote to Balter privately during the September event. This email expressed concern that several participants on both “sides” had made comments about the damage the back-and-forth was having to their mental health and some even publicly and privately made reference to past/present suicidal ideation. In the email, she asked Balter to help de-escalate the situation, emphasizing that the issue at hand was not worth the potential death of anyone involved. Balter responded with an offer of a quid pro quo: he implied that he would be willing to consider de-escalating the situation if the other person publicly accused an assault victim of lying. This person reemphasized the need to protect the health and wellness of all involved, even if it did not personally benefit either of them.
It is clear that Balter has done no work to understand how to support victims of assault or other forms of trauma; how to support people who have a history of mental illness; or, perhaps most importantly, how to subordinate his ego to the needs of victims. He chooses which victims deserve privacy and support. If someone chooses not to work with him or criticizes him, he retaliates hard. He seems to use his supporters, some of whom he seems to have made feel personally indebted to him, to attack his critics. He does not seem to appreciate that others may be risking their health and wellness in order to defend him against what I can only describe as criticism that is either minor or unlikely to make a major impact outside of the Twitterverse.
Ask around and you will find that concern about Balter’s behavior goes back years. I didn’t reach out to anyone for additional “evidence” because I wanted to ensure that the story was my own, not clouded by others’ assessments of Balter or his motives. Balter threatens anyone who criticizes him. I watched as he threatened a former confidential source, a BIPOC graduate student, because the student was one of a group of moderators of a Facebook group that decided to remove Balter from its membership because they had received numerous complaints about Balter’s aggression. Because he had been removed from a Facebook group, Balter threatened a graduate student and even publicly tweeted this person’s place of employment, knowing that one of his supporters has a history of calling his critics’ places of employment to accuse them of abuses to their superiors.
Read his blog and see how he centers himself in his reporting: it is important to him that you, his reader, know that HE is the ONLY one who is willing to stand up against abusers. HE is the ONLY one willing to risk it all for this cause. Anyone who criticizes him is an abuser or an enabler of an abuser: there is no way that someone could have legitimate concerns. Balter is the one who decides who deserves protection and whose safety is instead an impediment to his quest for…glory? I don’t know. He collects the stories of women’s trauma, controls them, and then uses at least some of them as leverage against the very same women who shared them with him.
If you’re really motivated to understand the sources my concern, look, too, at the numerous anonymous accounts who regularly amplify Balter’s work on Twitter. How their rhetoric and patterns of speech are all remarkably similar. How they all seem to have the same knowledge of Balter’s private messages with third parties. How the profiles are relatively inactive except when Balter is being criticized, when they seem to live on Twitter. The way that one claimed not to know Balter and to have met him only in July 2020 but then claimed just two months later to have “extensive and personal experience” with Balter, including knowing details of years-old private conversations he had with victims they have no connection with. I can’t say what is going on with these anonymous accounts, but something is off and if I have learned anything as a woman, it is to trust my instincts when something, or someone, seems off.
I don’t believe that advocates must be wholly altruistic, but I do believe that the needs and rights of victims should be paramount, even when it means that the advocate himself loses something, especially when that something is as inconsequential as a Twitter controversy (there’s literally a new one every day). Michael Balter is a good example of what I think is a larger and more disturbing trend of men looking to make a name off of women’s trauma, of men looking to improve their high opinion of themselves off of women’s trauma, of men looking to control women’s stories and women’s trauma.
Work with Balter if you want to. I do believe that he has helped some people. But know what you risk when you do it, if you decide to go another way, if you decide not to work with him. Know that you risk your story being co-opted, taken out of your control, used for someone else’s gain. Know that in the course of his reporting on your behalf, Balter may choose to harm your colleagues who are also vulnerable.
This isn’t a perfect essay. There’s much more I could say, more examples I could give, people I could point you to who understand the historical depth of Balter’s behavior. I am a woman and an archaeologist and I am personally affected by Balter’s actions within my discipline. This essay reflects my observations and my interpretations based on those observations. I write out of a concern for my friends and colleagues (women in STEM) who need help but who I think deserve better than what Michael Balter currently offers. I cannot trust any self-proclaimed advocate who refuses to reflect on their position and their work, who refuses to consider criticism and instead labels vulnerable people as his enemies, and who cannot consider that as an older white man, he might not have a full appreciation of what victims’ stories mean to them. Especially not when they have shown repeatedly that they can’t be trusted with those stories.