It's been a concern for some time that the #MeToo movement has been in danger of becoming a witch hunt. What began as accusation and exposure of the disgusting, and sometimes illegal, behavior of big names like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Russell Simmons, Matt Lauer and so on, has morphed into criticizing boorish behavior by men in general.
Take the accusation over the weekend of comedian Aziz Ansari. A woman, referred to as Grace, told her story to Babe magazine about a date with Ansari gone wrong. In it, she’s excited to go out with him and goes back to his apartment. He only offers her white wine which she finds off-putting. He makes clumsy passes at her, some of which she engages in and some of which she rebuffs. She tries to steer the evening toward cuddling and TV-watching but he persists in his seduction attempts. At no point does she make a move to leave despite her discomfort.
Feminist writer Jessica Valenti tweeted “A lot of men will read that post about Aziz Ansari and see an everyday, reasonable sexual interaction. But part of what women are saying right now is that what the culture considers "normal" sexual encounters are not working for us, and oftentimes harmful.”
And absolutely, the sexual encounter as described by Grace sounds downright unpleasant. Anzari comes off as aggressively in pursuit of sex. But where is a woman’s agency in these sexual encounters that are, as Valenti describes, not working for her? What is feminist about giving a man all the power in a sexual encounter? If a sexual situation is not enjoyable why stay and continue it?
Melinda Taub, writer for the TV show “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee,” tweeted that “I feel like this will get lost in the convo about if Aziz Ansari Did Sexual Assault - but that feeling when you shut down and stop responding, and the guy just keeps going and you realize that he doesn't care if you're in your body or not? It's awful too.”
Let's believe women, let's listen to victims, but let's be clear about separating bad sex from violence and inept lovers from predators.
It’s entirely possible that Ansari, who had only met Grace one time before their sexual interaction, didn’t care that she had shut down. It’s a lesson of life, for women and for men, that strangers cannot be counted on to care about your feelings. It’s also possible that Ansari didn’t know that she had “shut down” as she remained in the situation and continued to participate in sex acts with him. We spend so much time talking about how women are so strong, smart, capable-- the future is female after all--that the expectation in 2018 may well be that women will say what they want and not expect men to read their minds.
The Ansari case could well mark the unofficial end of the #MeToo movement. Other than his celebrity, it doesn’t fit with the other accusations.
So many of the well-known #MeToo stories centered on power dynamics. Matt Lauer allegedly assaulting his underlings. Weinstein blocking the careers of actresses who turned him down. But no such power dynamic existed in this situation. Grace was not hanging out with Ansari for a career opportunity. Their date was understood to be romantic by both of them. If we’ve reached a point where #MeToo will include regrettable hook-ups the whole movement is diluted and actual sexual assault stories minimized.
Ansari issued a statement on Sunday night underlining that all that had occurred between himself and Grace had been entirely consensual and made sure to note that he “continues to support the movement happening in our culture.” Ansari seems not to realize that he’s no longer in that movement but on the outside of it, its latest target. The consent is beside the point now.
Let's believe women, let's listen to victims, but let's be clear about separating bad sex from violence and inept lovers from predators. The movement has to start asking women who come forward to share their stories the inevitable question: You too what, exactly?