Last October, actress Alyssa Milano encouraged survivors of sexual violence to spread the hashtag #MeToo on Twitter and other social media platforms to call attention to the ubiquity of sexual harassment and assault. One year later, the significance of those two words, “me too,” remains as relevant as ever in our national discourse in the wake of the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings, in which Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh faced accusations of sexual assault by high school classmate Christine Blasey Ford. Regardless of one’s stance on Kavanaugh and his accusers, it is clear that the #MeToo movement, along with the traditionalist and progressive feminist perspectives on it, highlight a critical transition period within our sexual culture and even within feminism itself.
Soon after allegations of sexual assault and misconduct were made against cultural elites like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Louis CK, conversations about abuses of power, corruption, and consent became much more pervasive. Both sides of the current culture war scrambled to fit this new information into their preexisting narratives and attempted to find the root cause of the problem. Many traditionalist conservatives saw the victimization and objectification of women as inevitable consequences of the sexual libertinism produced by the Sexual Revolution, which, in the 1960s and 70s, challenged traditional social attitudes towards sex. In conservatives’ view, the degradation of traditional boundaries on sexuality was a major contributing factor in the sexual misconduct crisis.
On the other hand, social progressives and feminists were somewhat divided, with different factions taking contradictory approaches. Pro-#MeToo feminists believed that the patriarchy essentially overtook women’s sexual liberation and processed it as male sexual entitlement, resulting in widespread sexual misbehavior. Interestingly, both pro-#Me-Too feminists and traditionalists called for a reevaluation of sexual contracts and boundaries, specifically concerning the nature of consent and acceptable male and female behavior. However, feminist critics of #MeToo, typically older women, claimed that the movement actually represented regression in terms of women’s liberation. These individualist feminists argued that the movement treated women as if they were “as frail as Victorian housewives” without the personal strength to enjoy a sexually liberated existence with all of its benefits and drawbacks.
The most common criticism of #MeToo made by conservatives and liberals alike seemed to be that it failed to make distinctions between various degrees of sexual misconduct. Particularly controversial was the exposé of Aziz Ansari published by the feminist website Babe. It detailed an anonymous woman’s unpleasant date with the comedian, during which she felt pressured for sex despite giving Ansari verbal and nonverbal cues to indicate that she was deeply uncomfortable. Eventually, after the woman said “no” for the first time during the encounter, Ansari seemed to understand, but this did not prevent her from later categorizing his behavior as sexual misconduct.
Many conservatives, #MeToo-skeptic feminists, and others believed that the gravity of the incident was not nearly on the same level as that of allegations made against Harvey Weinstein, for example, and that including it and other similar incidents under the umbrella of #MeToo ultimately trivialized the core message of the movement. This sentiment was echoed in a New York Times op-ed by Bari Weiss, in which Weiss argued that Ansari was found “guilty of not being a mind reader” and that the situation was indicative of an “insidious attempt by some women to criminalize awkward, gross and entitled sex.” But to pro-#MeToo feminists, the diversity of the claims being made and among the victims themselves was an asset, not a drawback. The fact that so many women from different walks of life could be united by their experiences with sexual violence and misconduct demonstrated that the issue was indicative of deeper problems with our sexual culture.
This tension within feminism is both ideological and generational. Many older feminists experienced a time in which casual and premarital sex were taboo and considered to be acts of rebellion against a traditionalist moral system. Women were expected to act and dress modestly, men were supposed to behave as “gentlemen,” sex was strictly for marriage, and divorce was relatively rare. The Sexual Revolution, advocated by second-wave feminists, was largely successful in overthrowing this system, but to the dismay of older feminists, younger feminists seem to want a reevaluation of our culture’s sexual mores. For example, in response to sexual misconduct allegations against Matt Lauer, NBC put in place strict anti-harassment policies which even specified that hugs are to be quick and involve minimal bodily contact. To many older feminists, this looked like a feminist Puritanism and a betrayal of the sexual liberation that they fought for.
On an ideological level, many individualist feminists believe that ultimately, each individual woman has the agency, responsibility, and strength to navigate society and make decisions in a way that enables her to avoid or overcome sexual misconduct or abuse. Any attitude contrary to this is believed to downgrade women to a childlike status in which they are incapable of being responsible for their own well-being. The solution to the problem of Ansari and other men’s failures to pick up on nonverbal cues, they claim, is for women to be more verbal and willing to give no-nonsense rejections when they feel uncomfortable. Meanwhile, collectivist-leaning feminists believe that the best approach to feminism is women’s collective liberation rather than the empowerment of individual women. They criticize the worship of “free choice” because not all choices that women make within a patriarchal society, to the extent that they can even be considered truly “free,” are actually conducive to said collective liberation. In this view, it is the responsibility of society as a whole to eliminate sexual misconduct so that women never have to deal with it in the first place.
From a traditionalist conservative perspective, at the root of all the confusion surrounding our evolving sexual culture lies the sexual anarchy that followed the Sexual Revolution. The regulations previously placed on the sexual marketplace by a traditionalist moral system were repealed, causing sex to become commodified and transactional and consent or lack thereof to become the only method by which to judge the morality of a sexual act. In the eyes of traditionalist conservatives, it eventually became clear that this consensus, while supported by second-wave feminism, was actually detrimental to women because female sexual liberation gave men easier access to sex without the emotional attachment that women supposedly desire. To traditionalists, pro-#MeToo feminists are correct to feel that their own objectification has actually been intensified, not diminished, by previous generations’ support of the de-stigmatization of female sexuality. But rather than criticizing the ‘male gaze’ or male sexual entitlement, traditionalists believe that expectations of modesty effectively prevented women from being seen as sexual objects. To them, it may just be unrealistic to expect men to stop objectifying women within a sexually liberated culture in which women’s bodies are used to sell practically everything and a woman choosing to flaunt her body to advance her career can be considered a form of empowerment. In this view, #MeToo demonstrates that women rightly want greater protection against male misbehavior but refuse to see the role that the erasure of boundaries on sex and female sexual liberation played in the creation of the sexual assault and misconduct mess we find ourselves in.
Amid the recent Kavanaugh debacle, President Trump declared that it is a “very scary time for young men” because they are “guilty until proven innocent.” Naturally, this triggered countless opinion pieces on various media outlets of differing ideological persuasions debating the prevalence of false accusations of sexual assault and the legitimacy of “believing women.” While some concerns about #MeToo being taken too far are simply a result of paranoia, much of this anxiety among young men is symptomatic of shifting attitudes towards a “free love” outlook on sexual behavior and a lack of distinction between different categories of sexual misconduct. An Economist poll found that over a third of millenial men believed that it is harassment if a man compliments a woman’s attractiveness and around a quarter believed that asking a woman to go for a drink is always or usually harassment. Post-Sexual Revolution, these actions may have seemed completely innocuous and opposition would have seemed prudish, but in the era of #MeToo, the answers are not nearly as definite. In times of moral confusion and uncertainty, anxiety and fear are to be expected.
It is still unclear whether our culture will decide that sexual boundaries need to be updated to include an awareness of power dynamics, mutual respect, trust, and even love, or that it is up to individuals to figure out how to navigate the sexual landscape for themselves. It is certain, however, that #MeToo has forced us all to seriously reconsider issues that may have been ignored, or worse, accepted as normal.