Sunday, August 14, 2022

How to kill a worthy #MeToo movement


From the beginning, the #MeToo movement has included stories, not all but some, that describe the normal affection people have for each other, even in the workplace.

Courtship dance, Japanese cranes (iStock)

One thing I have enjoyed, based on the movement a little, is that women are hugging me more than they used to, sometimes joking about how the hug is just a sign of affection. So that’s a nice side effect of all this attention people are paying to signs of affection.

But #MeToo was about powerful men taking advantage of women who couldn’t say no, either because they were being forcibly assaulted or raped or because there was a quid pro quo exchange, such as “I’ll fire you unless you have sex with me.”

What I read about this week, first in The Atlantic and then in the New York Times—yes, the national paper of record—was a story first published in about a photographer, Aziz Ansari, who went back to his apartment with a woman he had just met and with apparently no forcing of the action, got mutually undressed. They started having sex.

Up to a point, the sex was completely consensual, and she even described in the magazine article, which reads from a certain point more like a pornographic promotion you might get in a piece of junk email than journalism, that she was excited about meeting him.

But then, she wanted to stop. Except she didn’t say “Stop” or “No” for a while. Once she did, he appears to have stopped and watched some Seinfeld episode with her but eventually, tried again to seduce her into sex as a “horny 18-year-old” would.

What she is alleging, in the article, is that his sexual advances between the time when she wanted to stop—during which she appears to have given body language, such as moving away from him, removing herself to the bathroom, and other non-verbal cues that she wasn’t interested in continuing—amounted to him taking advantage of her in a moment of weakness, not on both their parts but on hers alone.

This is absolutely not what #MeToo is about. It’s dime-store novel stuff, maybe, a date gone bad, bad sex, a woman’s prerogative to change her mind, whatever. But not #MeToo, not criminal behavior. And I’m reading about it in the New York Times. The New York Times.

This will absolutely kill the whole movement, which has been great for both women and men. If we equate a bad date with the likes of Harvey Weinstein, every single man and woman in America is going to consider himself or herself guilty. Keep in mind, though, that the Babe retelling of this account didn’t explicitly link it with the #MeToo movement. But bad dates have happened to all of us who have been dating for any length of time at all. We aren’t as good at reading signals as we ought to be, and we are biologically programmed to seek sex. Some people are better at those courtship rituals than others, though, I admit.

And when we equate bad dates with #MeToo, look out. All the real #MeToo stories are going to be drowned out, since absolutely everybody has a story about bad sex. I’m not sure they’ll all want to publicize it, but—well, I’m old and kind of private that way. But we won’t be able to distinguish #MeToo’s brilliant signal from the noise of pornography and bad sex.

Such a situation may have even happened to girls in high school, when their boyfriend kept trying to go further but stopped as soon as she said no. What if that boyfriend grows up to be president some day? Could an incident like that be used to blackmail him? What about if the girl grows up to be president? Could that situation be used to show how weak she is?

Not only do most people like sex, but they can tell the difference between consensual sex—which has stages, like the bird dance in the above photo—and a #MeToo-worthy sexual situation. What the New York Times should be doing is trying to flesh out the parameters of that boundary. What it is doing now is promoting a non-journalistic non-article worthy only of spam, worthy only of discussion precisely because it is as ordinary and mundane as it is.

Furthermore, to continue to take #MeToo in this direction will backfire in that stories like this take away the important voice women have in our society. We need each other, folks, and to reduce sex to some Victorian notion of how women need protecting from consensual sex is a bad idea. If this keeps up, men (and women) are going to start insisting we only go on dates with our lawyers present. The whole movement will go backwards in time.

Also, a word of advice, since I know many readers may be new to sex: Use your words. That voice you have is what the #MeToo movement was made for, especially in professional situations. Reserve non-verbal cues, as the woman in the story says she used, for people who know you well. This was a first date, and nobody can be expected to pick up on non-verbal cues from a woman that quickly, especially from one who undresses willingly back in the man’s apartment.

Stories like Mr Ansari’s, I hope, teach us all about being responsible for our actions, even on dates, and respecting boundaries. The lingering question in my mind, though, is this: Should he have polled her, explicitly, along the way: Is this OK? Do you want to try this? Or is it only her responsibility to explicitly say no, as a SIGHUP signal interrupts an operating system?

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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