Can #MeToo lead to a new “normal”?

January 29, 2018

The #MeToo moment is having a broader impact on people's understanding of how women experience sexism and oppression, write Eva María and Leela Yellesetty.

FOR THE last three months, the #MeToo movement has been unapologetically speaking out against the horrifyingly wide array of experiences of sexual harassment and assault perpetrated by powerful men in places like Hollywood and the White House.

For the first time, the accusations that some brave women are bringing out against men like Harvey Weinstein and Larry Nassar or Roy Moore and Donald Trump are being heard, and a number of these men are finally having to face consequences for their actions.

A new sense of solidarity and confidence among women has arisen with this momentum. A Hollywood initiative with the name #TimesUp is bringing women together to empower them to speak out about their abusers.

Oprah Winfrey spoke at the Golden Globes ceremony about the world being a different, safer place for women thanks to these new developments in feminist awareness. The next day, 50 million people had already streamed her video.

But one recent viral article about a date with celebrity Aziz Ansari has opened up a widespread debate--both with those who would launch a backlash, but also among supporters of #MeToo about whether this case weakens or enhances the strength of the movement.

In the streets for the 2018 Women's March in Washington, D.C.
In the streets for the 2018 Women's March in Washington, D.C. (kellybdc | flickr)

How we approach this case as socialists, with a new women's movement taking shape, matters. This article will look at the issues surrounding the debate about Ansari, with the aim of extending the important conversations surrounding these accusations into the longer-term discussion of how to win full gender equality and sexual liberation.

ONE OF the main reasons why the Ansari story has created so much confusion and raised a debate is that it is a relatable experience for most women (and the men they date).

In an article for Babe, a woman who wrote under the pseudonym "Grace" described going on a date with the comedian as "the worst night of [her] life." In her experience, Ansari ignored verbal and nonverbal cues indicating that she was uncomfortable and didn't want to have sex.

She ended up asking for a cab home, texting her friend while in tears on the ride home. It wasn't until texts the next day that she let Ansari know how violated she felt that night in his apartment.

In his statement, Ansari corroborated Grace's story, and said that he was not aware of her discomfort, and if he had known, he wouldn't have pursued her further. He ends his letter by stating his continued support for the "Times Up" movement, agreeing that it is a necessary development for the industry.

Grace's experience reads differently from many recent public #MeToo experiences because it's so familiar--and the man being accused seems to be on women's side in this. Most women can identify a few of those nights where we went home in tears after what was supposed to be a fun date that quickly felt horrible.

Predictably, reactions to this story were polarized in the press and on social media. For some, here was clear evidence that the #MeToo movement has descended into a "sexual panic" or "witch hunt," in which all men would be swept up and punished.

For others, this case opened a much bigger, but necessary discussion about sex, consent and power in the society we live in, and how this plays out in our most intimate and everyday experiences.

Clearly, we can all agree that Ansari isn't the same as a Weinstein or Nasser. There's no evidence that he is a violent, serial predator. What's more, he has projected himself as a woke feminist ally. In fact, it was seeing him wearing a #TimesUp pin at the Golden Globes that prompted Grace to come forward with her story.

For writers like the Atlantic's Caitlin Flanagan, however, Grace's story amounted to "3,000 words of revenge porn" about what was essentially a bad date, ruining an innocent man's career in the process. Women of her generation, she claims, were strong enough to fight back or leave if faced with Ansari's behavior.

In a similar vein, Bari Weiss argued in the New York Times that the Babe piece "transforms what ought to be a movement for women's empowerment into an emblem for female helplessness."

Interestingly, none of the pieces defending Ansari dispute the facts of what happened, or are even surprised by them. They assume they are par for the course, which is why women must learn how to suck it up and deal with it. By conflating "awkward" sexual encounters with sexual assault, these kinds of stories, they argue, actually alienate potential allies and undermine the ability of feminists to confront instances of "real" abuse and assault.

THIS SORT of argument has been building for quite some time, as a backlash has assembled against the growing power of #MeToo, which threatens to shift the tectonic plates of power in whole industries--not the least of which being the politics industry in Washington, D.C. Even when dressed up in feminist garb, the arguments are still very familiar.

First, there is the victim-blaming. If she didn't like it, why didn't she just leave? If he didn't pick up on her "nonverbal cues" why didn't she just slap him? As CNN's Ashley Banfield scolded, "You had an unpleasant date, and you didn't leave, that's on you.'

This, of course, ignores the many reasons that a woman might not "just leave" in such a situation--ranging from a completely justified fear of violence; to being socialized to be agreeable and pleasing (also a survival tactic re: point one); to freezing up in confusion at being treated so callously by someone you liked and trusted.

Beyond that, why is it only Grace who is given advice on how she should have behaved? One humorous tweet drew out this double standard: "All I know is if Aziz Ansari didn't want his sexual misconduct to become a national news story, he could have left his apartment as soon as things got creepy. It's not like she was blocking the door."

The same articles that lambaste Grace for playing the victim have no trouble casting Ansari in that role. His career has been pre-emptively pronounced "ruined," though his only crime was not being a "mind reader."

One would think that a person who wrote a book on modern dating and dealt sensitively with topics of sexual harassment and consent in his show Master of None could be held to a higher standard on this question. But instead, like Al Franken, his progressive bona fides are held up as a reason why we can't afford to criticize one of the "good ones."

Lastly, there's the idea that Ansari's actions can only be bad if they meet the legal definition of rape. This theme accuses the #MeToo movement in particular and women generally of being incapable of distinguishing between violent assault, creepy behavior and mere clumsy attempts at flirting.

But few people, if anyone, are actually lumping these all together. While there is a range of opinions on whether Ansari's behavior amounts to assault, it should be clear that this was more than just a "bad date."

Indeed, according to the account in Babe that Ansari has not contradicted, he seemed to skirt the line of consent throughout the evening, pulling back at times when she expressed discomfort, only to pressure her again soon after.

Even if this doesn't meet the legal definition of assault, that doesn't mean it isn't bad or not worth talking about. As Rebecca Reid notes:

Let's say that you think that what happened really was "just a bad date." Does that mean that she should have kept her story to herself? Absolutely not. Grace's story is an opportunity to have a different conversation. A conversation which isn't about pressing charges or building a case. It's about having your voice heard. It's about telling the world that even if it's not illegal, this isn't behavior that women have to put up with anymore. If you treat women like trash, there is a strong chance that she'll end up telling people about it.

Rather than "taking away" from experience of rape victims, this can be about expanding the narrative and understanding the broader social context in which serial abusers are able to operate--one in which women's needs and desires are regularly ignored or considered an afterthought, both in the workplace and in the bedroom.

THAT SAID, expanding the #MeToo discussion to include experiences like Grace's definitely raises some complex questions.

If what happened to Grace was assault, would it be correct to say now that most women have been sexually assaulted at some point or another? If Ansari is a sexual predator, are most men also predators?

What this very common example shows us is that the discussion shouldn't be confined to Ansari or any individual man, but should be about a sexist society.

In fact, it's quite possible both to believe Grace when she says she felt violated, and also to believe Ansari when he says he thought everything seemed fine.

Grace felt violated because, well, she was. She says her boundaries were crossed, and she felt deeply wronged at the moment. She expected more from Ansari, and the disappointment felt scary and saddening. She went home and, upon reflection, described the incident as one of assault. You may agree or not with this conclusion, but it is nevertheless her right to make this judgment.

Ansari was confused about this disconnect because the norms we learn around sex and fulfilling relationships are deeply rooted in sexism, not healthy gender dynamics.

Much of this is due to the deeply distorting messages about sex and relationships absorbed by both men and women through popular culture, and rarely corrected by adequate sex education in school--or, worse, reinforced through abstinence-only miseducation. Reviewing many examples from pop culture, David Wong concludes:

Long before I was old enough to date or even had female friends, it was made more than clear: In any relationship, men are the predators, women are the prey. Their expressions of fear and rejection--including defensive physical attacks--are a coy game to be overcome, like a tricky clasp on a bra.

Ultimately, gender inequality is rooted in pervasive power imbalances in society, dictated by the needs of capitalism. The ideology of the nuclear family and women's subordination within it serves to justify women's unpaid domestic labor and lower pay in the workforce.

The commodification of everything, including sex, in order to make a profit, leads to both the intentional use of sexism in marketing campaigns as well as the generally alienated conditions within interpersonal relationships.

Under the nexus of "callous cash payment," as Marx put it, we are all accustomed to view each other as objects--as means to an end. We are also encouraged to "kick down" and take out our anger and frustration against those who are even more oppressed and thus more vulnerable than our exploiters.

These ideas are both imposed upon us by the reality of navigating a competitive, unequal society, and internalized, often unconsciously, by both men and women--though men are often less aware as they're not on the receiving end.

We can and should hold men accountable for their actions--which can take different forms, depending on the severity of the offense--but such a widespread problem requires challenging institutions, culture and consciousness on a systemic level as well.

THE #METOO movement has raised in mainstream consciousness the pervasiveness of sexism experienced by a majority of women in our society. But most importantly, it has opened up the space for the development of a higher level of confidence among women to demand better treatment.

We have seen the rebirth of a new feminist consciousness around all these issues, even if it has yet to cohere into an organized and generalized movement.

Such a movement can and must be built in order to address all of these interconnected questions, including demanding accountability for powerful, abusive men, fighting for increased rights and protections on the job and on campus, comprehensive sex ed in schools, and greater representation and diversity in the media, among many other things.

Socialists and radicals should seek to stand in solidarity with this movement every step of the way even as we engage in debates about next steps forward and push to expand its horizons rather than limit them.

We want a world in which no woman should have to tolerate abuse or harassment as the price of securing their livelihood or a relationship. Where the bar for a sexual encounter being acceptable isn't "not rape," but an actually fulfilling, satisfying experience for all parties involved.

Getting there will not be an easy process, but as Sarah Solemani writes:

Let's get real about what a social movement actually is. It does not come organized, strategized, streamlined and clean. It does not come neatly presented by experienced journalists and authorized by legal ombudsmen. It's messy. It's chaotic. It ebbs and flows and expands and retracts because it's a human phenomenon. It takes place in the streets and in unofficial publications, and is propelled, most crucially, by a collective imagination. And historically, the imagination of a movement is led by the young. This is where we are now: the hard bit, the exciting bit, the bit that counts.

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