By Chloé Meley
On 14th January 2018, Caitlin Flanagan, a journalist for The Atlantic, wrote an opinion piece about the accusations of sexual misconduct against the actor and comedian Aziz Ansari. She argues that the power given to women by the Me Too movement can be mishandled and abused, to the point where the vilification of men occurs automatically and immediately, without casting into doubt the veracity of women’s claims.
Grace, the identity-protecting name she was given, is the young woman who decided to share her story, shortly after Ansari was awarded a Golden Globe for his work, proudly wearing a Time’s Up pin on his suit. Grace recounts the night she spent in Ansari’s company, describing the actor’s repeated attempts at engaging in sexual intercourse and his apparent disregard for her distress and discomfort. Flanagan qualified the story that first appeared on Babe.net as ‘3000 words of revenge porn’; the result of anger, the pain of rejection and an inability to differentiate between assault and a disappointing sexual encounter. For her, the detail in which the story is told serves no other purpose but the humiliation of Ansari. She argues that the Me Too movement automatically gives women the power to vilify men, without doubting the women’s claims. She goes on to dismiss the trauma of Grace’s experience by painting her as emotionally demanding, attention-seeking and malicious. If Grace did not get up and leave, it is not because she was in shock, bewildered or fearful; but rather because she wanted attention and affection from Ansari, and kept on seeking it unsuccessfully throughout the night. When she realised she could not in fact get the thing she wanted from the man she admired, she was angry. She wanted to become important in the eyes of a celebrity, but when she couldn’t, she decided to humiliate him. Flanagan wholeheartedly defends Ansari, depicting a Grace that is manipulative, whiny, angry and who abused her newly acquired power as a woman.
There is something inherently wrong in Flanagan’s reasoning. She perpetuates the idea of women as manipulative and greedy. She perpetuates the idea that ‘she should have just said no’ and ‘she was asking for it’. She perpetuates the idea that it was her fault. She perpetuates the idea that women exaggerate and lie. The most unsettling thing about this is that this piece has not been written by a misogynistic man. Rather, it has been written by a woman who openly voiced her support for the Me Too movement, and even wrote about it passionately back in November. And yet, she displays no sympathy for Grace, completely invalidating her experience. She refuses to listen to her. She does exactly what the Me Too movement denounces as a mechanism of oppression. This is of significance, because it opens a discussion about the boundaries of the movement itself. Some argue it has gone too far, waging a war on sex and men, while some argue it has just addressed the tip of an iceberg of institutionalised power relations. The movement that has been consistent in its unity and solidarity has been arguing over Grace’s story, revealing another debate, the one surrounding consent. How do we understand it? How should we understand it? But most importantly, where should we draw the line?
The differing responses to Grace’s story reflect the difficulty of establishing a consensus on this question. Answering it is more complex that it would appear at first glance. It requires us to cast into doubt what we have accepted as normal, to really think about what we have experienced and failed to feel comfortable with. I for one, can identify with Grace. Most of the women I know would as well, each of us with a different Aziz. We have come to qualify some sexual encounters as weird, awkward or disappointing without recognising or indeed refusing to recognise the way it made us really feel. Grace voiced the way it made her feel, and that was confusing to Flanagan because suddenly the spectrum of sexual misconduct expanded. Ansari is not a rapist. He is not a sexual harasser in the way that Harvey Weinstein is. But his conduct reflects the complete banalisation of certain coercive behaviours in sexual relationships. How reluctant people are to legitimise Grace’s allegation of sexual abuse demonstrates how normalised those harmful practices have become. How oblivious he was to Grace’s uneasiness shows how deeply internalised this sort of demeanour is.
His excuse to Grace seems sincere and his intent was probably never to make her feel violated in any way. And yet, to his complete surprise, she did. Intent does not matter in this situation as much as the consequence does. What he intended in no way undermines the way she felt. The complex social and cultural codes that organise relationships are automatically subject to interpretation, and those two antagonistic perceptions of a moment that was shared reveals the existence of a grey area of consent. However, the line does not have to stay blurred. Grace’s story makes us consider with renewed attention the concept of consensual sex, shining a light on the normalised yet potentially harmful dynamics at the core of intimate relationships. It is crucial to recognise that her experience is not an isolated event and to acknowledge how noxious some ‘normal’ behaviours are.
The Me Too movement has initiated a shift in society, through the denunciation of all forms of sexual assault and their perpetrators, as well as the empowerment of survivors. It lays the first stone of a society in which no one has to fear infringement upon their physical integrity and psychological wellness. For this enterprise to be successful, it is necessary to define a spectrum of sexual misconduct that is inclusive enough. Not as an attack upon sexual liberty, not as a constant vilification of men, not as a ‘feminazi’ malevolent scheme. But rather as a step forward, towards the validation of women’s experiences and the creation of an environment that is safer and healthier for women and men alike. Defining the boundaries of an area of consent is a difficult and abstract, yet essential, task. The scope of the Time’s Up movement, a continuation of Me Too, will be shaped by the discourse we build, the education we provide and the dialogue we create around consent. The new layer of nuance that Grace’s story brings to our understanding of sexual coercion is therefore necessary, with all due respect to Caitlin Flanagan.