This week, a woman who dated actor Aziz Ansari went to Babe.com to complain he continually made advances despite her “non-verbal cues” that she wasn’t interested. Sarah Tither-Kaplan took to Twitter last week to accuse James Franco of exploiting her, notwithstanding the contract she voluntarily signed to pose nude for his movies because, in her words, “‘I 100% did not feel like I had a choice to say no.’”
This is the latest from the #MeToo movement: women who freely enter into consensual relations with a man, or even contract, can apparently later revoke consent on the specious grounds that it was never theirs to give. Like children entering into a contract with an adult, a woman who faces a so-called “power differential” can’t really say no.
Some Trial and Error Is Par for the Course
When I was in my twenties and still dating, the quickest way a suitor could ruin things was by asking permission to kiss me. A request at once so innocuously sweet, so harmless and timid and proper, it practically begged for refusal.
What a man was supposed to do, what red-blooded American men have done for as long as there have been American movies to show them how, was to “just do it,” as Nike would have it. Take a risk. Prove himself worthy with a show of fearlessness a woman might just choose to reward. Only then would he discover whether he’d won the round or fallen flat, bloody but unbowed.
“Unwanted sexual advance” describes practically every date I’ve ever had with a man I wasn’t interested in. Dating in America has never been a “fair” sport, but it has long allowed each player to accept or reject the other, for any or no reason at all. An imperfect sorting system, where we fumble through a maze in search of our idiosyncratic prize, advancing in self-knowledge along the way.
This Environment Makes Men Wary of Women
Sexual advance has always been one move in a board game whose first square might be a library, a classroom, or yes, even an office. Where adults behave reasonably, even an unwanted advance shouldn’t be a crime or grounds for a lawsuit. A mistake, maybe. Faux pas at worst. Assuming the suitor accepts his rejection: no harm, no foul.
Not anymore. Recently, several married male friends admitted that they no longer speak to women at work when they can avoid it. They’re sincerely afraid something they say might be taken badly, that they might find themselves fired or sued, which is about right. In the social shambles left by #MeToo, we seem utterly unsure of the rules of engagement between the sexes, except this one: men should be wary of us. Women who fought for equal footing in the workplace have become, as tort law would have it, an attractive nuisance.
This is not to deny the corrective power of #MeToo. Hollywood had apparently become a sex trafficker’s paradise. Harvey Weinstein’s name is mud, as well it should be. Matt Lauer’s too. Bill Cosby—whose accusers came before but might now be seen as a precursor—should probably never work again. Kevin Spacey, good riddance; anyone who preys on children deserves all the public rebuke a society can muster.
But women are not children, and advance is most often not abuse. In the midst of a storm that began as righteous objection and whirled its way blindly to hurricane, so many women seemed to forget that the power to choose whom to date and on what terms was a power we had fought for.
Women: Use Your Power to Say No
Here’s a point about many of the men who might be swept up in the ever-expanding #MeToo web on the basis of “unwanted sexual advance” or “inappropriate comments”: The women are free to say “no.” “That makes me uncomfortable.” “I’d rather not.” If he doesn’t listen, by all means, call in an airstrike.
When did we relinquish the freedom to choose what behaviors to object to, which to ignore, and what comments to brush under the rug simply in the name of not letting one man’s boorish jokes distract us from the important work we need to get done? Perhaps when we began accusing men publicly, calling on the Internet crowds to save us, like so many damsels in distress or worse—mademoiselles who cannot speak, let alone fight, for ourselves.
When women who are in no physical harm proceed this way, they signal that they cannot handle men on their own. In so doing, they surrender the freedom to set the rules for their lives or even simply to be treated as adults.
Men are no doubt learning this lesson. Why ask a woman out at work? Better to consult the new “heads of household” for permission: an HR rep or employment attorney. And why would those patriarchs ever say anything but “no?”