Columns, Opinions

Steinman ’19: When #MeToo is split in two

By
Opinions Editor
Wednesday, January 31, 2018

It began with solidarity, with the tragic understanding that if the testimony of one woman is a fabrication and the testimony of two is a conspiracy, perhaps that of a few hundred or million could become a movement. With each woman who took to Twitter or the New York Times or the family dinner table to say “Me, too,” a system that has accommodated sexual assault and harassment became ever more difficult to ignore. And the #MeToo movement, true to the hashtag that precedes its name, could probably only ever have flourished in a time like this, when almost every woman in this country has access to a platform that can carry her protestations across the world. Thanks to social media and the internet, these stories are much harder to sequester or silence. But in its inclusion of the breadth of experiences that constitute sexual assault, #MeToo has begun to dangerously conflate sexual discrimination in the professional and in the interpersonal spheres — two problems which require different approaches and solutions.

Initially, #MeToo — at its most successful — showed us that the same culture of sexual harassment and assault that pervades Hollywood exists in workplaces everywhere. The pattern of behavior that Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K. and Kevin Spacey engaged in to keep their victims silent — drawing on the power to destroy their victims’ careers — is typical of this culture. #MeToo’s true strength lies in its ability to disrupt that power to silence by opening up a floodgate of accusations that can never be closed again.

And then came Aziz Ansari. Suddenly, a movement that had been defined by abuses of power, and the efforts that had been made to hide them, was dealt a much more ambiguous hand — not a criminal night, just a bad one. For those who haven’t followed the story, a woman using the name “Grace” gave an account of her date with actor and comedian Ansari, where she claimed that he took her back to his apartment and repeatedly attempted to pressure her into sexual acts, ignoring her obvious discomfort and nonverbal cues. When she eventually voiced her objections, he called her an Uber home.

What Ansari did that night was wrong, but it stands apart from the other high-profile #MeToo stories in obvious ways. It was not a pattern of abuse of professional power, not a rape. Rather, it was the last in a series of failures that begins with our culture’s belief that men must persuade women to enter into sexual relationships and ends with a blatant violation of respect and trust. Certainly, a power imbalance and a large dose of male entitlement still exist in the Ansari case, but it would be misleading to equate them with the more sinister power dynamic intentionally exploited by Weinstein, C.K. and Spacey. While it can be argued that Ansari poses a threat to Grace by virtue of being a male celebrity, Weinstein, Spacey and C.K. actively capitalized on their positions of power to threaten their respective victims. On the other hand, Ansari’s behavior has gripped the public imagination not because he is a celebrity engaging in loathsome behavior permitted solely by virtue of his position of power, but because many men — well-meaning and otherwise — can, and do, identify with him.

Ansari’s case shows us that there are two #MeToo movements: one dedicated to ending the culture of silence that protects powerful serial rapists and abusers, and another dedicated to shifting the norms for consent in all sexual interactions. The former requires an emphatic and, crucially, public callout to ensure that the perpetrators can no longer hide behind power structures. The latter should take a different approach — outright vilification on social media is a less useful tool when Ansari’s behavior occupies a space that is obviously abhorrent to some but less clearly violative to others. To be sure, Ansari’s behavior ought to be understood as unacceptable — but as our definition of consent is being constantly refined and improved, I am not convinced that online public shaming is an effective method of communication and education. A better, more refined and more lasting definition of positive, enthusiastic consent cannot be brought about through shaming, but requires dialogue.

In addition, while abuse in the professional space can be remedied through termination, the only way to resolve a case like Ansari’s is through a change in male behavior, which requires that Ansari understand his wrongdoing. This was certainly Grace’s intent in texting him; I do not believe that talking to babe.net advances this goal. While the onus of consent education should not be placed entirely on Grace — Ansari certainly should have known better, as a self-styled feminist, and must commit himself seriously to understanding Grace’s perspective, as should men everywhere — the process of redefining and refining consent is necessarily a collaborative one. Shutting down discussion through online public shaming, though it can be empowering in the moment, is necessarily self-defeating for women everywhere as it fails to produce a culture of consensus, only one of fear.

The nuanced work of redefining consent should not be accompanied by flashy headlines and viral hashtags, but that is no reason to neglect it. It takes a different approach — overhauls of sex education and the way relationships are depicted in the media, but also conversations between longtime couples and people who are meeting for the very first time.  To foster a safer environment and eliminate the scourge of sexual assault from our interpersonal relationships, it is time to think seriously about the tools that are needed to reach a common understanding of consent grounded in equity, respect and empathy.

Clare Steinman ’19 can be reached at clare_steinman@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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