Has the #MeToo Movement Gone Overboard with Aziz Ansari?
How casting a wide net can hurt women, stifle dialog, and hinder real progress.
Posted Jan 19, 2018
The #metoo movement has provided a valuable wake-up call for society. The first men to fall were flagrantly awful. But increasingly, we’ve been treated to equally breathless reports about the less awful. Unfortunately, by casting the net far and wide, and by lumping all transgressions together, the #metoo movement is losing credibility. Case in point: a bad date with the comedian Aziz Ansari.
This story appears on Babe.net, about a young woman who was eager to go out with this celebrity, whom she’d met and flirted with at a party. Days later, they met up for dinner. Sadly, she found herself on a bad date, with a bad kisser who tried to woo her into having sexual intercourse with him. He was insistent and she went along with lots of sexual foreplay, but in her mind, she was thinking, Ugh, I’m really uncomfortable and distressed, and he’s not picking up on my hesitance, and he keeps wanting to do stuff. And so I keep doing it with him.
Of course, she felt violated. Because he crossed a line. A line that she had set. In her mind. A line that she did not clearly, verbally enforce until he had crossed it a bunch of times. And she didn’t speak up until she felt desperate, sickened, and distraught. That’s when she finally, unequivocably drew the line: Enough, I’m out of here.
Afterward, the more she thought about it, the more violated she felt. But who violated whom?
It's his fault, right? After all, the “worst night of her life” wouldn’t have happened if he had figured out her boundaries. But that’s not his job. That’s her job. It’s his job to honor them, but she has to draw the lines clearly, whole-heartedly, and verbally. Not with hesitation. Not by debating about it in her own head. Not with nonverbal signals. She essentially violated herself by failing to honor her boundaries and enforce them.
And how did this lack of boundaries play out for her? She drank white wine, even though she prefers red. She went to his place after dinner, even though he was too eager for her taste. She got naked with him, even though she didn’t want to. She engaged in sexual activity, even though she found it distressing. Every time she asked him to back off, he did, eventually getting dressed, but whenever he resumed his advances, she went along for a little while. And every time she went along with something that felt bad to her, she participated in her own violation.
Yes, he was inappropriate, rude, pushy, and clueless. Yes, she felt violated by this. Yes, her reaction is appropriate and understandable. But does this young woman’s experience qualify as #metoo victimization? There are so many gray areas to consider:
- She claims she was trapped and pressured to submit to his demands, but as soon as she said, “No,” he obeyed. When she said, “I must go,” he facilitated her exit.
- He did not pour alcohol down her gullet. He poured her a glass of wine. She drank it. Was he “trying to get her drunk?” Or was she in total charge of how much she drank?
- He has no real authority over her. He isn't her boss, her teacher, or her superior. He has zero effect on her career, success, or safety. But did he fail to treat her as an equal?
- The next day, he contacted her to check in. When she told him how distressed she was, he didn’t dismiss or belittle her feelings. Instead, he told her he hadn’t realized this. He didn’t get defensive and accusatory. Instead, he apologized.
- Naturally, he could not know about this drama going on inside her head. As feminist Bari Weiss writes, “Aziz Ansari is guilty. Of not reading her mind.”
- It’s completely natural and common to have awkward, unpleasant sexual encounters. A rite of passage even. But even though it’s not a crime, can't we still talk about how violating it can feel, and embolden women to stop putting up with it?
- Women are socialized to be docile and polite. Men are socialized to be assertive and wired to seek sex. Perhaps this is unfair and at times, inconvenient or difficult. But even when this power dynamic exists, is it always an abuse of power?
- A clumsy, clueless man is not the same as a reckless, coercive man. A woman who is actually rendered powerless is not the same as a woman who fails to step up and honor her boundaries. But those lines are indeed blurry.
- This experience certainly qualifies as #baddate. Or #badsex. Yes, it sucks. Truly, madly, deeply. But should #metoo apply just because a woman lacks the knowledge, practice, or experience to deal with boorish male behavior?
On Having Boundaries
While you may not be able to fend off a bad man who is using his power to force or threaten you into sex, when you have boundaries, you can fend off a good man who is trying to woo, encourage, or beg you to engage in sexual activity. You do this by clearly enforcing your boundaries. You can stand up and say, “This is not okay with me.” And “No.” “Stop.” “Ick.” “Ouch.” Or “Let’s do something that we both want to do.” Or “I must leave.” Or “You must go.”
Having boundaries also means not putting yourself in compromising situations. For example, not impairing your judgment with drugs or alcohol. And not going to a guy’s place or having him at yours when you have no interest in getting to know him better. Not abandoning your boundaries just because you pity him, don't want to offend, or you feel awkward about saying, "No." And having boundaries means not engaging in sexual activity when it doesn’t feel right or when you don’t want to.
Is conversation about boundaries a routine part of how human sexual activity naturally unfolds? Nope. But if this is this how you want it to unfold, you can say, “Hey, I’d like to have a conversation about boundaries and where I draw the line.” And if he doesn’t want to have the conversation, you can say, “I draw the line here.” And then you can get up and leave. And that's how to avert a #baddate.
Why #metoo Must Be Discerning
Unfortunately, #metoo is becoming the default label, applied to any awkward or icky encounter. And many women are uninterested in differentiating between rape and an unwanted kiss, or between the sexual advances of a boss and the sexual advances of the boy next door. But when we assign #metoo to bad sex and bad dates, we trivialize the habitual, career-threatening, power-over, violent, coercive behaviors of men like Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer. It is even trivializing to assign #metoo to the crude, immature, or embarrassing behaviors of guys like Louis C.K. and Al Franken, who've since grown into mature men. There is a difference between bad guys doing bad things and good guys doing gross things, particularly back in their youth. Plus, being awkwardly groped is not the same as being forcibly groped. Being exposed to a guy’s private parts is not the same as being forced to expose yours.
Of course, none of this unseemly behavior is okay. And you don’t have to tolerate anything that crosses your boundaries. But treating all transgressions as equally criminal is foolish and destructive.
Still, some argue that it’s too complicated to tease apart the borderline, the bad, and the ugly. Of course it’s complicated. But if we can’t do the hard work of differentiating between degrees of transgression, the #metoo movement can’t do the hard work of changing social norms. Likewise, with #believewomen, we can’t afford to muddy genuinely mistreated women by lumping them together with women who are manipulators and maligners. Though this may happen rarely, we must discern which women are telling the truth, and disavow the women who aren’t.
Why must we be so discerning?
- For this movement to spark change for the better, it must seek justice, rather than perpetuate injustice.
- People will reject the message if it’s unfairly harsh to basically decent men, or lumps them together with the incorrigible.
- Change for the better requires the participation of men, and if we criminalize or demonize them for any and all misconduct, how can they buy in?
- Change for the better also requires a focus on reformation and redemption, rather than solely on punishment, public shaming, and shunning.
- To ensure integrity, we can tolerate scrutiny of women’s stories, as long as men's stories receive equal scrutiny. And it's okay if #believewomen swings the pendulum a tad too far, if that's what it takes.
- Applying #metoo to all unfortunate encounters implies that women are hapless victims even when they're on bad dates or having bad sex. It negates their responsibility for having and enforcing their personal boundaries.
On this last point, for #baddate or #badsex, and even to some extent for #metoo, if women want change, they must take full responsibility for themselves during sexual encounters. They must fully claim their desires, their boundaries, and their power, rather than expecting men to figure it out for them. Women must be the change they want to see, rather than relying on men to be the change. Women must stand up and present themselves as rightful partners in society, business, romance, and life, rather than resigning themselves to a victim role whenever a man comes on strong. In turn, men must take full responsibility for being attuned to the women they are interacting with.
How do we instill these responsibilities? By having these difficult, contentious conversations about all the gray areas. By raising awareness and examining our individual contributions to the status quo. By talking about how socialization and social norms and porn contributes to the status quo. By raising both girls and boys to fully claim their feelings, their desires, their boundaries, their power to be true to themselves--and to respect all of this in each other.
See here, Emma Gray's excellent analysis of the blurred line between sexual assault and bad sex; why this conversation is so important; and how bringing men into the conversation can benefit us all.
See here, KatyKatiKate's look at the complicated reasons why we might try to avoid equating bad sex with sexual assault.
See here, on Jezebel, Stassa Edwards writes about the chasm between sexual assault and bad sex, and how #metoo can add to its power by charting that territory.
See here, Padma Lakshmi in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, describing why she did not report date rape when she was 16, and how women pay the price for the rest of their lives, so why shouldn't men have to pay too, even if it takes many years for his assault to come to light?