The feminist website Babe published an account of a date gone bad. The pushback has been swift and sharp. I share some of the concerns of the critics, but I also think young women are sending a message that is being missed.
The account by the anonymous "Grace" about a bad date with comedian Aziz Ansari was, if not "3,000 words of revenge porn" (Caitlin Flanagan's phrase), certainly a low journalistic blow. To permit an anonymous accuser to assassinate the character of a famous man is a sucker punch. He may have behaved badly, but even assuming that her entire account is true, nothing she describes seems remotely awful enough to justify the public humiliation to which she has subjected him.
There is no way to know who is behind this. It could be someone with a grudge against Ansari. It could be someone who routinely makes accusations against people. Babe.net was grossly irresponsible to publish it.
But the cultural chord it struck is revealing. There were countless "attagirl" responses to Grace on social media. A recent New Yorker short story, "Cat Person," about a creepy sexual encounter generated a similar buzz. And sympathetic takes on Grace from sites such as Vox and Salon suggest that the #MeToo movement is fast becoming not just a protest of workplace sexual harassment but a broader uprising among young women against today's sexual culture.
To be clear, the critics, including Flanagan, Bari Weiss, Andrew Sullivan and even Catherine Deneuve, make two essential points. One, it is crucial to make distinctions between behavior that is boorish or uncouth and conduct that is abusive or criminal. Two, women must be forceful and direct in speaking up for themselves, or in Weiss' words, "claiming agency."
But I think we are seeing something much larger than pushback against male predation. What we are seeing in the broader culture now is something that has been evident on college campuses for some time: Women are unhappy about the state of sex and romance. They feel pressured, they feel disrespected, and they are fighting back. Sadly, our culture has so exalted sexual license that the only form of sexual conduct women are permitted to protest is coercion. It should not be surprising, then, that the terms "assault" and "rape" have been expanded beyond reasonable bounds.
Caitlin Flanagan says that Grace "wanted affection, kindness, attention. Perhaps she hoped to maybe even become the famous man's girlfriend." Isn't that what many people want when they embark on a date? What does it say about dating in our time that those are unrealistic expectations? Perhaps Ansari's particular reputation for sensitivity had led Grace to hope. Yet she found in this case, as apparently on many other dates in her life ("I hate men," she texted a friend on her way home), that she "had to say no a lot": "He wanted sex. He wanted to get me drunk and then f—- me."
Grace was bitter and hurt. Yet in our unbuttoned age, her only weapon, as she sees it, is to claim that a crime was committed. "It took a really long time for me to validate this as sexual assault. ... And that's why I confronted so many of my friends and listened to what they had to say, because I wanted validation that it was actually bad."
If you feel used, abused or any of a hundred other negative emotions about a sexual encounter, you are made to feel that you've failed in some way, because everyone else seems to be loving it. But coercion, that's the one Get Out of Jail Free card. If you were "coerced," your bad feelings are validated. He really did do something terrible to you.
Those who chide Grace by insisting that her experience was just "bad sex" are missing the point. It wasn't that the sex was bad — though it was — it was that the date was only about sex, and she had hoped for more. In this, I think Grace speaks for many, many women and also some men.
Feminists hate to seem to pine for love and romance, yet their responses to Grace seem to hint at the disappointment the sexual revolution has delivered. Jessica Valenti tweeted, "A lot of men will read that post about Aziz Ansari and see an everyday, reasonable sexual interaction. But part of what women are saying right now is that what the culture considers 'normal' sexual encounters are not working for us, and oftentimes harmful." Meghan Murphy commented, "The Aziz Ansari stuff is a perfect demonstration of how rape culture works and how men are socialized to feel entitled to sex. No, there was no rape, but this thing where men pester women for sex and don't let up, even when it's clear she isn't into it, IS RAPE CULTURE."
Is it? Or is it the sexual free-for-all they hate? Perhaps the new feminist slogan should be "Down with the sexual revolution!"