One of the main principles for movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp is that we should believe women when they come forward to confront the men who have harassed them. And in believing them, there will of course be a strong backlash. And so one must ask the question:
Might it go too far?
The short answer is, yes. Of course it could. As in all other social constructs, some will abuse a system for their own personal gain. Some women may try to extract financial benefit from casting doubts on powerful men, while others may want to exact revenge. So it is understandable that some will want to step back from just believing the woman in order to be fair.
But let’s put this another way…
In the past, there are countless examples of women, from young girls to baby boomers, who have come forward to talk about the abuse they have suffered. And in countless examples these women have been ignored. Some were threatened, silenced or bought off, such as in the case of Harvey Weinstein; others go to their HR departments in organizations which have “zero tolerance” policies, and are fired to safeguard management. Women were not believed, and the men were accepted as abusers. To not believe women, to not give them the benefit of the doubt, gives the man the advantage. And of course it is the man who regularly holds the power.
We have spent generations repeating this process and nothing has stopped the level of harassment prevalent in every industry. And because the women regularly have nothing to offer other than their word, the cycle of harassment, assault, and rape continues.
We have made it part of regular practice to protect powerful men at the expense of millions of women, and too many men who often remain silent because men are masculine and cannot be abused let alone tell someone.
It is important to ensure we believe women, but most of all it is important to listen to their stories, and have an open discussion.
That is what is happening in the case of Aziz Ansari.
Babe.net published a story where a woman, known as “Grace”, had a one-night stand with a the comedian and actor. Grace details the evening in which she felt pressured to have sex with Ansari, and after the fact believed it constituted sexual assault.
After reading the article and listening and reading many women discuss the events, I believe Ansari acted as many men have acted and continue to act when they are with women: inappropriately with the belief they can get sex if they try hard enough. I do not, however, see the scenario as sexual assault.
First, the article reads like revenge porn with the aim to both humiliate and ruin Ansari publicly. Second, it doesn’t offer the same journalistic integrity the New York Times went through with Weinstein; no corroboration to Grace’s accusations.
But this isn’t to say Grace isn’t allowed to feel the way she does. Rather than this being an example of sexual assault, it seems to me to be an example of the culture surrounding men and how they should act to get sex. That a soft yes means “Yes!”; that it is OK to put any pressure on a woman when sex is expected.
Ansari acted badly and should be made to examine how he behaves around women. But does he deserve to have his entire career destroyed for it? Grace’s story may have been poorly reported, but that doesn’t mean she should be attacked for “overreacting”.
There is a difference between assault and what Ansari did, much like there is a difference between Weinstein and Ansari. One used his authority in an industry to assault women, to threaten their careers if they didn’t do what he wanted. The other pressured a woman into sex in a way which is disgustingly normal for many men. And this action stems from a culture which glorifies men as supreme, sexual beings, deserving the rewards of their pursuits, all of which have been depicted endlessly in film, television and other mediums: that it is OK to pressure women for sex.
In Grace’s situation some say she was able to leave if she wanted, that Ansari didn’t stop her from leaving, threaten her with violence, or verbally abuse her. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t feel pressured to stay and perform sexually. But at least legally, the line to assault was not crossed.
The conflict now seems to be between women; people who want the same result from this new wave of activism. But when women attack each other ruthlessly, when the Babe.net writer, Katie Way, attacks those who refute her story by slamming the relevancy of an older journalist, as she did with Ashleigh Banfield, then the point of the movement loses focus.
As Vox’s Anna North puts it, the normality of Ansari’s actions are exactly why discussions need to take place:
Listening to Grace doesn’t mean deciding all men should go to prison, or should lose their jobs. It does mean admitting that many men behave in exactly the ways their culture tells them to behave. It means asking men to recognize that and do better, and it means changing the culture so that badgering and pressuring women into sex is deplored, not endorsed. None of this will happen if we refuse to reckon with stories like Grace’s.
The movement is important, but cannot run the risk of becoming what many have already said: that it goes too far. The work being done is too vital.