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On Aziz Defenders and The 100 French Women: Holding Empathetic #MeToo Conversations About Sexual Harassment

100 influential French women signed a letter protesting the #MeToo movement. According to them, men should be free to “touch a knee”, “steal a kiss”, and talk intimacy at business dinners. Brigitte Bardot, an actress that signed the letters, called the movement “ridiculous” and “hypocritical,” saying that she found  “you’ve got a nice little backside” complements charming. Do we really want a Puritanist restriction of sexual freedoms and its conception of women as “poor little things under the influence of demon phallocrats”?

This a simplistic and retrogressive view of the entire movement and of the strides women have made to create equal and fair spaces at home, at work, and in public. The crop of women that fought for sexual harassment legislation and policies in public spaces, understood that our society was patriarchal and it would be a while, an eternity perhaps, before that changed. Societal, economic and political power belonged to men, and the contributions and identities of women would be demeaned as long as powerful men who were the gatekeepers to opportunities could discriminate on the basis of, talk about, look at and touch nice little backsides.


Sexual harassment legislation never caught up to reality

But even this understanding and the resulting legislation never caught up to societal structures. Higher education institutions in the US have high incidents of sexual harassment cases and a history of poor accountability and strong opposing forces, many of them belonging to women, are still straining the process of devising solutions. Men with economic and political means are still members of single-gender private clubs in West London where women of lower means are exploited (for those of us excluded, Prince Phillip’s Thursday Club portrayed at the beginning of season 2 of The Crown will shed some light). And it is hard to imagine that Larry Nassar was a lone wolf and that no one knew about his predation 156 women later.

Spaces that have a reputation for liberal progress, are anything but when it comes to women’s issues and empowerment. Investors and venture capitalist are preying on women entrepreneurs looking to change their lives, the world, or both. And for a century, we have been willing consumers of women’s sexualized image in media depictions in Hollywood and elsewhere in  pop-culture – if the thriving cosmetics surgery market is anything to go by, we are buying much more than the images.

Even these cases of societal structures that have been slow to change are the hopeful cases in which the women abused have been given a chance. In other parts of the world, the women abused are girl brides languishing in poverty and forced to marry as teenagers, girls denied a chance at education, women sold in sex and human trafficking rings, and women prohibited to drive, own property or go to work without the consent of a male relation.

The breadth of experiences between women struggling with pain and abuse is staggering, and we owe them all thoughtful and critical engagement. We don’t all have to agree. But we have individual responsibilities to participate, and in doing so to exercise empathy, intellectual humility and drive.


Seeking nuanced answers and perspectives to questions about choice, sex and power

Writing about the Babe story, in which a woman recounts a terrible date in which Aziz Ansari was overtly aggressive, a lot of women’s commentary concludes that Grace, the alias used to conceal the women’s identity, is every woman. It is me. It probably is you too. A more productive analysis of the story could have focused on how our perceptions about sex are imbalanced across genders and how men’s entitlement should be challenged and untaught. Then the conversation could have explored strategies for ensuring that future reporting does not harm all the progress we are making with #MeToo. Instead, the story evolved into a personality war between the two journalists that could have made the conversation much more nuanced and valuable.

Grace did flirt, she did let a man buy her dinner, she did go back to his apartment, but that did not entitle him to a fuck in front of the mirror. Moreover, Babe’s other headlines should not deter us from a careful analysis of the story’s occurrences. There is no reason why a blog that publish posts about women’s fantasies about rape should not publish posts about women’s pains after real assault. Women should be able to decide when and how to experience their sexuality, but they should also be able to decide when and how not to, and their decisions should be respected each time. Men’s are.

A productive engagement with the #MeToo movement and other accompanying initiatives will demand self-examination from each one of us. We have to admit to and confront the double standards we conform to and that place us at an unequal footing in all matters sex and power. In Silicon Valley, a world whose gender problems make one gag, men who participate in orgies and sex parties grow their personal and professional networks, women who don’t lose out on making valuable connections, but those who do invite unwanted advances. A woman with gut and drive needs to do something about it. Perhaps hold women-friendly versions?

Would Grace’s cues have been clearer had she paid for her dinner, never gone back to Ansari’s apartment? Doesn’t a contradiction exist in asking young women to never go to men’s apartments and hotel rooms instead of teaching men that women who choose to be in their physical spaces retain their right to consent, distance and respect? There are no clear and perfect answers. We need to listen to each other, to think deeply, to engage thoughtfully and to take action.


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