The #MeToo movement is starting to play out with lots of famous and/or powerful men being accused of sexual abuse, harassment, or even sleazy compliments or bad jokes, incidents that often took place more than a decade ago.
As a result, many thoughtful, sympathetic men have considered the debate and re-examined their societal norms, finding them to be contributing to a “rape” culture that objectifies women, especially by powerful men.
A line must be drawn between affection and something that would actually constitute impropriety or even a crime. First, let’s start with the high end: crime is forcibly having sexual contact with a woman who didn’t or couldn’t give her consent. What constitutes consent is variable and is defined differently in different situations, but:
- Underage girls can’t legally give consent
- Incapacitated (drunk) or unconscious (sleeping) women can’t give consent
- Quid pro quo necessarily compromises a woman’s ability to consent
Exceptions have been made in our laws when both parties are of age but drunk, but even that gets sticky. Most of the #MeToo incidents come somewhere in between harmless or affectionate behaviors and crimes.
For example, Senator Al Franken of Minnesota recently admitted to groping a coworker’s breasts while she was sleeping. He and the woman agree that he thought it was a joke, and his role as a comedian at the time plays a role in determining how significant that frame of mind is. Perhaps, since the woman was also on the same comedy tour as Mr Franken, if he had asked her consent to pose for a picture with him groping her breasts, she might have given her consent.
But she was sleeping and says she didn’t think it was funny, so we’ll never know. The absence of consent makes the sexual contact improper; whether it was a crime would depend on Mr Franken’s frame of mind, but the #MeToo movement isn’t concerned with legal definitions as much as with impropriety of what happened.
To that end, we could never say what Mr Franken did was right, because it wasn’t. He has apologized, and some people are calling on him to resign from the US Senate, where many people have seen him as a champion of equal rights.
His next move, of course, is mostly up to him and him alone. What can we learn from what happened? The woman claims to have been overpowered by Mr Franken, and since she was sleeping at the time, she is certainly correct in that assessment. She wasn’t able to say no to the sexual contact, and that seems to be where we’re drawing the line.
Some commentators have also pointed out that President Donald Trump admitted to groping women as well. Mr Franken should resign only if Mr Trump resigns, they say.
But that’s a bit disingenuous. If what Mr Trump did was to grope women who “wanted” him to engage them in a sexual way or “let” him do it, language like that sort of implies consent. Sex between two consenting adults is not, on its face, improper.
But context is important here, too. Any quid pro quo would be illegal and wrong.
The situation of Mr Trump’s sexual escapades differs significantly from that of Mr Franken’s. While Mr Franken was a coworker, who had no “authority” over the woman, Mr Trump was a billionaire who had all kinds of power over the women he groped.
In that sense, many people have argued that the women weren’t able to say no, either, much as if they were sleeping. If they couldn’t say no, they couldn’t give consent, which makes the whole “sex between consenting adults” concept elusive.
As I have pointed out on these pages, we are programmed to like each other, but crying foul when any action or words render women unable to say no—either because the man overpowers them physically, psychologically, emotionally, financially, or whatever—is starting to look like the take home lesson from the #MeToo movement.
I have also hypothesized that a backlash could develop if companies or universities don’t understand the clear line between consensual sex and men who take advantage of a weakened position on the part of their sexual prey.
Society doesn’t help, though. Women are turned into sex objects everywhere we look. They’re objectified, and that is, for the most part, what makes this line so difficult to understand for men. We venture into dangerous waters when we try to categorize every sexist or offensive behavior even good men have committed throughout their lives as similar to what Mr Trump did. No man will escape it. Sexism has been so much a part of our society that context and nuance are paramount when it comes to how we deal with sexual acts.