Everybody knows what the Me Too movement is – it requires no introduction from me. By now, we all have at least a passing familiarity with the predatory sexual assaults of Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, and Kevin Spacey, to name only a few of the more famous men who have fallen from public grace.
As necessary and long-overdue as this movement is, I have spent considerable time reflecting on the opposite extreme in which we now find ourselves. Conflating awkward or merely inappropriate sexual encounters with harassment and assault, snapping the neck of someone’s career in the noose of public opinion, throwing aside the right to due process, alleviating women of all responsibility in the matter – all of these are now positions which seem acceptable. Nay, even desirable.
Although the American public in general is not recognized around the world for its love of nuance and fact-seeking, this issue is particularly dangerous because of the risk of personal and financial ruin to the accused. I have no pity for the men who have received their just desserts as a consequence of their actions. But when all it takes is an accusation of behavior leading to hurt feelings, or poorly-written “journalism” that describes an encounter which is merely awkward or uncomfortable, and people begin calling for resignations and boycotts, things have gone too far.
The now notorious case of Aziz Ansari provides an excellent example of this. For those who are unfamiliar, let me quickly paraphrase. A young woman, Grace, meets Ansari at an event and they exchange contact information. They go on a date, and later, they go to his house. As though to insinuate the sinister nature of Ansari’s intentions, Grace says that he offered her wine – pointing out the fact that he gave her white, and though she prefers red, he gave her no choice which type she wanted (seriously – what the fuck does that have to do with anything?). Ansari and Grace start making out, and things progress from there. Grace, feeling uncomfortable with how things are progressing, suggests they slow things down. Ansari briefly complies and they slow down, but things later progress anyway. After what we can presume was a couple of hours during which they started and stopped touching repeatedly, Grace leaves feeling pressured, gross, and uncomfortable – all justifiable, given the fact that she apparently did not want to do the things she did. The missing piece, however, is the fact that Grace never explicitly asked Ansari to stop, nor did she try to leave. Despite having what she later recalls as “the worst night of her life” (would that we all could be so lucky), Grace spends a significant amount of time with a man who is clearly desirous of sexual intercourse and doesn’t explicitly ask him to stop or exercise her ability to take herself right out the door. Thus Ansari joins the list of public characters whose character and career are being tried in the court of public opinion.
I get it, Grace. I really do. I’ve felt gross and pressured and left sexual encounters feeling like I really wished they hadn’t happened. But in every one of those situations, I did not say, “I’m uncomfortable,” or “Please stop.” We could debate over why it’s so difficult to say these things, because it is difficult, but the truth is that I am a woman who has agency and a voice. I am responsible for my own behavior. I’ve been in situations when I did not want things to progress, and I’ve said so, and then left. I’ve also been in situations where I was legitimately interested in sex but wanted the guy to work a little harder, or else make me feel like he really wanted me. One person’s legitimate reticence is another person’s coquettish game. There are women who enjoy aggressive sexual pursuit. Nobody can read your mind and know your intentions or desires.
And yet the Me Too movement expects men to do exactly that. Generally speaking, there is a mainstream refusal to grant women their due responsibility in the conversation and their own behavior. Women raise men. Women date men. Women often excuse the bad behavior of their partners, sons, and friends. How many fervent supporters of Me Too voted for Hillary Clinton, who continues her marriage with one of the most famous rapists of all time? How many women were willing to forget the disgusting smear campaign against Juanita Broderick that Hillary was part and parcel of? How many women in Hollywood – powerful, influential women – knew for a fact that Harvey Weinstein was a sexual predator, even if he had never assaulted them, and refused to speak out? How many women, watching a manager slap a coworker’s ass, won’t intervene? Many. I’ve done it. You’ve done it. Silence in the fact of terrible behavior is complicity, and women, myself included, bear responsibility for their silence and tacit support of men who engage in these behaviors.
Besides their role in diminishing the behavior of abusers they know, women must also accept responsibility for the grey area in their own sexual relationships with men. Such relationships are complicated and take practice and care to navigate. People misinterpret each other all the time. Just as men should be sensitive and inquisitive regarding women’s cues, whether verbal or nonverbal, it is the responsibility of women to ensure that their desires and wants are understood. It is the responsibility of women to say No, Stop, That hurts, or I’m leaving. Men are notoriously bad at intuiting a woman’s emotional state, and whether this is a material fact or learned helplessness, the truth is that, again, nobody can read your mind.
Another reaction to the Me Too movement is idea that, rather than teaching women not to be raped, we should be teaching men not to rape. Of course we should teach men not to rape. Don’t we already? Can you find me a fifteen year old male who can’t articulate that rape is wrong, and why? And yet predatory and violent behavior, including rape, is as much a part of the human condition as having eyeballs, and it is absolute idiocy to tell a young woman that she does not have a responsibility to protect herself from the predators who do exist. It is inexcusable to believe that you can go to a fraternity party, drink yourself into oblivion, and not open yourself up to the potential for being taken advantage of.
Do not deliberately misunderstand me – in no way am I suggesting that a woman who is drunk or sober and is sexually assaulted is responsible for what happens to her. But rape is not the same as getting drunk and wanting to have sex with someone you might not otherwise want to have sex with. Rape is not the same as choosing to sleep with someone you don’t particularly want to sleep with. Conflating true sexual assault with drunken sex and uncomfortable or bad sex is intellectually and morally dishonest, and it is heinously disrespectful to the many women who are truly raped. And there is a lot of grey area between all of these things. But as far as the Me Too movement is concerned, they could be one and the same. Feel weird the next day? He’s not as cute or funny later on? Didn’t really want to give that blow job but did it anyway? You were assaulted. Full stop. And so the gravity of sexual assault is diminished when it begins to include anything and everything not verbally and enthusiastically consensual, and the agency and decision-making capacity of women is diminished when we insist they cannot make the distinction for themselves.
In no other area as their sexual behavior do we treat women as though they are so infantile and men as though they are so evil. We know that people text and drive, so we create laws insisting that we wear our seatbelts. We know that people steal, so we lock our doors and keep our valuables out of our back pockets. To tell young women that they are free to ignore the risk or predators or even the poor decisions of otherwise decent but drunk young men is stupid and dishonest. To insist that a man is always a perpetrator of a later-regretted encounter if both parties are equally intoxicated is a disgrace to logic and human decency. And to encourage carelessness in face of the fact that eager and willing rapists exist in the world is to knowingly put someone in the path of danger.
Furthermore, insisting that women only have sexual agency under certain situations including complete sobriety, that consent must be obtained using specific magic words, that we may shame and disgrace non-compliant people into acceptable behavior – is an attitude that creeps into the same territory as religious barricading of women’s sexuality. Women are competent and capable and know what happens to their decision-making processes when they take shot after shot of tequila at a frat party. Women can and should be trained and trusted to know and speak their own minds. Adults need not utter “Do you actively and happily consent to me putting my mouth on your genitals?” before engaging in consensual activity. The Me Too movement does women no favors by removing their agency and competency and placing all the blame on the men.
Another major issue within Me Too movement and broader sexual assault handling is how easily due process tends to be thrown out the window. One of the greatest assets of America’s justice system is the fact that the accused are considered innocent until proven guilty. As we see frequently in cases of racial minorities and the poor, this principle isn’t always carried out justly, but it is a critical principle nonetheless. Rape is a criminal offense, and conviction carries serious consequences. Therefore, criminal cases are subject to the highest level of scrutiny – “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The Obama administration made a huge mistake in directing college campuses to relax that burden of proof to simply the “preponderance of evidence” in sexual assault cases (meaning that it is only more likely than not that the assault happened). Of course I believe in a much greater effort on the part of university administrators to make sure that sexual assault cases are dealt with swiftly and justly, but removing a fundamental legal protection in order to do so is just plain wrong. Innocent lives have been ruined because of this, and no matter how many men are correctly convicted, this is not justified. It was merely a shameful shortcut for both sexual assault justice zealots and lazy universities to remove potential aggressors from campus. Betsy Devos, in what is probably the only thing she’s done that I applaud, thankfully overturned that terrible Obama-era policy.
All of these problems are serious, and we should take them seriously. The Me Too movement has a significant place in our culture only as long as it serves to improve behavior, facilitate conversation, and prevent bad things from happening. Otherwise, what’s the point? If we justifiably drag the assholes who harass and assault women into the public sphere to make an example of them, but then sacrifice all of our principles by refusing to exercise discernment and restraint, we impale ourselves on our own sword. In many ways, the Me Too movement has arrived at this point, and it does itself an enormous discredit by carrying on without regard to honesty, fairness, and the grey area that surrounds all human behaviors – especially those as highly charged as sex.
Me Too is a movement based on moral principles. It cannot make the impact it needs to make by disregarding some important principles in pursuit of others. Everybody has a role in the conversation, and everybody bears some responsibility for the fact that we’ve gotten to this point. Everybody must continue to take responsibility if we are to move forward in a way that makes sure that the Me Too movement is not in vain.
The last thing I want to address pertains to the title of this piece: The fact that, when I voice I do not believe Aziz Ansari sexually assaulted Grace, the reply I almost always receive is “Me neither.” When I say that I don’t think men are necessarily an aggressor when two drunk college students have sex, the response I almost always receive is “Me neither.” When social movements take us by storm, it is easy to forget that the loudest voices in the room don’t speak for the majority of people. If you believe, in any sense, that the Me Too movement is overreaching and under-analyzing, you are not alone and you shouldn’t be afraid of being shamed into silence.
It’s called a conversation for a reason – join it.