When the life coach Tony Robbins suggested last month that women were using the #MeToo movement “to try to get significance and certainty by attacking and destroying someone else,” his remarks did not get much attention outside the California arena where he made them.
Then, on Friday, the video news organization NowThis posted a clip of Mr. Robbins’s response to an audience member who had challenged him. The video was shared tens of thousands of times, and on Sunday, Mr. Robbins apologized for “suggesting anything other than my profound admiration for the #MeToo movement.”
Mr. Robbins made the remarks on March 15 at an event called “Unleash the Power Within,” part of a series that his website says is “designed to help you unlock and unleash the forces inside that can help you break through any limit and create the quality of life you desire.” Prices ranging from hundreds of dollars to nearly $3,000.
At the event, in San Jose, Calif., he told a huge audience: “If you use the Me Too movement to try to get significance and certainty by attacking and destroying someone else, you haven’t grown an ounce. All you’ve done is basically use a drug called significance to make yourself feel good.”
After Mr. Robbins praised the casino magnate Steve Wynn, who is accused of sexual harassment, Nanine McCool stood up. But when Ms. McCool, who later identified herself in an interview with Refinery29 as a survivor of sexual assault, said, “I think you misunderstand the Me Too movement,” Mr. Robbins interrupted her and doubled down.
“I’m not knocking the Me Too movement; I’m knocking victimhood,” he said, adding that while Ms. McCool might be using the movement productively, “you’re using it differently than some other people.” At one point, Mr. Robbins — who is 6 feet 7 inches and towered over Ms. McCool — put his hand against hers and started pushing her backward. He then asked why she was resisting him, suggesting that she mistakenly believed that pushing back would make her safer.
Later in the exchange, he suggested that women were hurting themselves by speaking out. More than “a dozen men” in positions of power had told him they hesitated to hire attractive women, even when those women were more qualified than male applicants, because “it’s too big a risk,” he said — seeming to imply that the blame for such situations lay not with the men making the hiring decisions, but with women for making themselves liabilities.
Mr. Robbins’s remarks were met with sporadic jeers in the arena. When Ms. McCool responded by saying, “I think you do the whole movement a disservice by characterizing,” audience members burst into applause as she continued to speak.
The viral NowThis video showed only short clips of the exchange, but Ms. McCool posted more complete footage on YouTube.
Mr. Robbins’s arguments struck a particular nerve because similar ones have been used frequently against victims of sexual assault and harassment since long before the #MeToo movement began. Women who report sexual violence are often accused of seeking attention, or criticized for destroying men’s careers and lives.
In a series of tweets on Saturday, Tarana Burke, the #MeToo founder, said that hearing those assertions from a person as influential as Mr. Robbins was “so damaging.”
“We have a hard enough time trying to shift the narrative about what this movement really is and he stands in front of thousands of his followers and completely misrepresents the @MeTooMVMT,” she wrote.
In his statement, Mr. Robbins — who is known for his infomercials, self-help books and big-ticket events at which attendees sometimes walk over hot coals — said his comments had “failed to reflect the respect I have for everything Tarana Burke and the #MeToo movement has achieved.”
His publicist did not respond to an email seeking comment on Sunday.