For the countless victims of sexual abuse, the #MeToo movement has been, for so many women, the first chance they’ve been given to speak about their experiences and actually be heard. While not all victims feel they have the agency to come forward (or simply prefer not to, and they’re absolutely entitled to protect themselves in any way they need to), the brave victims that first came forward last fall about powerful men like Harvey Weinstein helped pave the way for conversations in our culture that were overdue and desperately needed. That said, it was only a matter of time before #MeToo was hit with backlash, and lately we’ve seen an alarming number of high-profile people calling it a “witch hunt,” and suggesting that it’s somehow gone “too far.”
It makes sense that this is happening — you can’t call to take power away from powerful people without inciting some level of criticism or even fury. But even the latest moments surrounding these issues — like the recent sexual assault allegations against actor Aziz Ansari — prove that the cultural conversation about sexual abuse is far from over, and it is so much more complicated than #MeToo critics would like to acknowledge.
Writers and public figures alike have been quick to refer to the #MeToo movement as a “witch hunt,” but reactions to the Ansari story are an unsettling reminder that some of us still aren’t asking the right questions about consent.
In one particular example, Fox News writer Karol Markowicz mused that the sexual encounter described in Ansari’s accuser’s story was “downright unpleasant,” but questioned whether or not it “counts” as assault because “at no point does she make a move to leave despite her discomfort.” Markowicz remarks that because of this victim’s “participation” in sexual acts with Ansari, that his story is somehow different than the Weinsteins, the Spaceys, and the Lauers, which are all situations that Markowicz feels “fit” the checklist of what counts as sexual assault. She also feels that “the Ansari case could well mark the unofficial end of the #MeToo movement.”
The #MeToo movement should not be exempt from criticism, but to say it’s “in danger of becoming a witch hunt” is definitively wrong. Ansari’s story is a reminder that predatory behavior exists in many forms, including those that the perpetrator might not recognize as predatory. But none of them should be tolerated.
Sexual abuse is an epidemic (and endemic) in our culture, and it can only go away when we understand the myriad ways in which abuse can exist. It’s not fair to say that only rape and egregious physical coercion is a form of sexual violence — we also need to acknowledge that ignoring a person’s cues (verbal and non-verbal) and pursuing them sexually does fundamentally ignore some of the core values of consent that we have to fight to uphold. Being unaware of someone during a sexual encounter means that encounter is not nearly as consensual as it needs to be.
Important side note about Ansari: He, like so many other men who go on to be accused of assault, has openly called himself a feminist. But as we all (hopefully, by now) know, liking Beyoncé, reading bell hooks, and calling yourself an ally doesn’t mean you are not capable of sexual misconduct.
Instead of asking why the woman in this story “didn’t just leave,” why aren’t we asking why Ansari kept going after she indicated she wasn’t interested?
The conversation needs to keep evolving beyond just the most blatant, abhorrent abuses of power that have dominated headlines over the past few months. We are not done giving victims the space they need to discuss what they’ve been through, and we’re also not done in looking critically at the politics of consent and the reasons that so many victims consent to sexual experiences they don’t want to have for fear of what might happen if they do say no or try to leave. If #MeToo has taught us anything, it’s that men will use their power as a weapon, the potential damage of that weapon increased with the more power a man has, and that in the moment, victims often have no idea what the consequences could be for leaving the apartment, the party, the hotel room, or the situation.
As for concerns about innocent men being accused of assault: It would be remiss to deny that false allegations are a possibility. But it bears repeating that only 2 to 3 percent of rape accusations have been found to be false, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. No one is saying that false accusations don’t happen or that it’s okay when they do, but they are a statistical anomaly compare to the other 97 to 98 percent of accusations — and we are very not done talking about those.
Instead, we must continue believing victims. According to Vox,
To call #MeToo a witch hunt also suggests that there has been excessive punishment against powerful men in the wake of the allegations against them. And yes, by firing or suspending them, removing them from their projects and their companies, and forcing them to retreat from the spotlight (or enter “treatment” for their issues), we are stripping them of their power (and for good reason). But few of those men are facing any real, legal implications beyond being fired, and only time will tell if some of them are given a second chance to come back into Hollywood’s good graces. We’ve seen it happen before. Who’s to say any of their careers are actually over?
Whether #MeToo is enough to create lasting positive change on a systemic level remains to be seen, but it’s about time that we’re opening the door for victims of abuse to speak about their experiences. #MeToo is not over — there is still so much work to be done, and to stop now would be a disservice to every victim of abuse. We must continue having these difficult conversations — it’s the only way permanent change can happen.