by Neta Meltzer
Communications & Development Coordinator, CCASA
This morning, I read an opinion piece in the New York Times by a self-proclaimed feminist. In the piece, the writer, Bari Weiss, claims that the recent allegations about Aziz Ansari, brought forth by a woman who is being referred to publicly as Grace, are “bad” for the #MeToo Movement.
There are many distressing elements to the piece. For one thing, Weiss comes across as, at best, dismissive, and her analysis of the event (for which, for the record, she was not present) suggests a lack of understanding of the concept of consent and speaks to the power of the patriarchy in shaping our responses to these stories.
As an educator earlier in my career, I spent a lot of time talking to middle and high schoolers about consent. It is a concept that, with age-appropriate examples, can be understood as early as Kindergarten. It is, in fact, very simple. I would tell my students, “Consent is made up of words and physical actions that indicate that everyone involved freely agrees and really wants to do the same thing.” Then we would talk about which words would indicate consent, and about the words or the silence that would mean consent has not been given. We would talk about which physical actions and body language would indicate consent, and what behaviors would mean that the person you’re with isn’t okay. We would talk about how important it was that both of these elements of consent be present in a sexual encounter, and how the absence of either one would mean a lack of consent. We would answer the questions, “What does it mean to agree freely? How can we know if we want to do the same things?” Finally, I would ask them, “What should you do when you don’t have consent?” And they always knew the answer. “Stop.”
I’ll give Weiss the benefit of the doubt on that front – after all, she never sat through one of my presentations. But her assertion that Grace’s story is “bad for the #MeToo Movement” – a claim she makes while promoting her piece on Twitter – is simply wrong.
Weiss writes, “To judge from social media reaction to Grace’s story, they also see a flagrant abuse of power in this sexual encounter. Yes, Mr. Ansari is a wealthy celebrity with a Netflix show. But he had no actual power over Grace — professionally or otherwise. And lumping him in with the same movement that brought down men who ran movie studios and forced themselves on actresses, or the factory floor supervisors who demanded sex from women workers, trivializes what #MeToo first stood for.”
How does Weiss define ‘power?’ She admits that Ansari is a wealthy celebrity with a Netflix show – is that irrelevant here? Further, Weiss herself trivializes #MeToo when she insists that it was only intended to address workplace harassment and assault. I remember the day I first saw the prompts popping up on my Facebook Newsfeed. “If you have ever been sexually harassed or assaulted, share the hashtag #MeToo.” I posted, “#MeToo.”
In the article which broke Grace’s story, she is quoted, “I didn’t leave because I think I was stunned and shocked. This was not what I expected. I’d seen some of his shows and read excerpts from his book and I was not expecting a bad night at all, much less a violating night and a painful one.” We spend so much time blaming the victim, asking them why they didn’t do more to protect themselves, why they didn’t simply take charge of the situation. But it is not up to women to assert themselves in sexual situations lest they be forced into something they’re not comfortable with. Ansari may not hold power over Grace as her employer or direct supervisor, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have certain elements of power in that situation. Did Grace know where she was, and how to get home if she were to run out of his apartment? Did her consumption of alcohol throughout the night make her more vulnerable? Did she suspect, given his persistence in response to her repeated attempts to redirect him, that a refusal might lead to an escalation and potential physical harm?
We are not asking men to read our minds, as Weiss suggests. We are asking them to treat us with respect and dignity, and, frankly, to care whether or not we want the same things in a sexual encounter. Grace’s story does not take us backward in the women’s movement, another of Weiss’ claims. It moves us forward to demand more from men and from our sexual encounters.
Finally, Grace’s story is not “bad for the #MeToo Movement.” What’s bad for the movement is when self-identified feminists act as arbiters of justice, deciding which claims of sexual violence they believe and which they will dismiss, when they engage in victim-blaming, and when they claim the authority to label and come to conclusions about the experiences of other women.