Millennials are changing the dating game. But they need to do better.
“I’m glad I’m married. I’d be too scared to approach a woman for fear of being accused of harassment,” a male friend lamented two weeks ago over dinner. As a staunch supporter of the #MeToo movement (a long-awaited catalyst capable of bringing change to the daily lives of women across the world), I became irate. I dismissed his comment as cowardly. I pointed out that none of the public figures outed by the #MeToo movement have been labeled harassers or worse simply because they approached a woman (who doesn’t work for or with them) and their advances were rejected. I argued that if this man didn’t know whether what he was doing when he expressed romantic interest was harassment, perhaps he had no business dating or trying to date women.
I bristled at the comments made by Catherine Deneuve that men should not be forced out of their jobs for “touching a knee” or “stealing a kiss.” Yes, they should, Catherine. They are at work. They should be working, not subjecting their reports to unwanted touching and kissing.
Men should know what harassment looks like. Women sure do.
Or do we?
Just days after this conversation, I read the controversial article describing a date with Aziz Ansari as “the worst night” ever experienced by the woman in question. The woman (identified only by a pseudonym, ‘Grace’) described an uncomfortable situation where she felt that things moved too fast sexually once they arrived at Ansari’s apartment. Ansari persisted in behavior such as placing his fingers in her mouth and asking her: “Where do you want me to f*ck you?” Grace alleged that Ansari ignored her cues to stop. Cues which included pulling away and mumbling. She admits to removing her clothing and performing oral sex on Ansari though she recounts that she felt uncomfortable doing so. When she verbally indicated that she did not want to have sex, it was Ansari who suggested that they get dressed. When she expressed that she wanted to leave, he called her a cab. Grace goes on to explain that she considers this a case of sexual assault.
It is a case of a man who felt entitled to a woman’s body, felt entitled to sexual satisfaction, and behaved inappropriately. It is not sexual assault. I repeat. It is not sexual assault.
The power of #MeToo lies in the fact that every story emerging in the early days of the movement gave an account of men in powerful positions using those positions to harass, assault and rape girls, women, boys and men. #MeToo was a chorus that indicated that these extreme and shocking acts were not isolated instances, but systemic. The power of the hashtag was the very fact that this extreme behavior, this criminal behavior, was so commonplace.
Let’s be clear. We should be talking about the coercive behavior of men on dates, and challenging the entitlement men feel to a woman’s time and body. We should be pointing out the dangers of the “playing hard to get” narrative. We need to banish the words “prude,” “frigid” and “cock-tease.” We should be dismantling the notion that men are less responsible for the comfort and satisfaction of their partners or less likely to pay attention because they “think with the wrong head.” The dating game does need to change.
But to label this encounter sexual assault (and by extension, to accuse men like Ansari of a criminal offense), is not the right way to start that conversation. Why? Because it minimizes and delegitimizes the #MeToo movement. Sadly, the story about Ansari virtually buried the account of Eliza Dushku who was sexually assaulted on a movie set when she was 12. Ansari might be a creep, but he is not a criminal.
#MeToo cannot be everything to everyone. By trying to include all conversations related to the way our patriarchal society influences behavior is akin to raising “Blue Lives Matter” in discussions around “Black Lives Matter.” It is a conversation we should be having, and is valid in its own right, but not under the same umbrella.
Many argue that women know the difference between Harvey Weinstein and Ansari. I want to believe that. But then I remember that Grace expressly categorized her experience with Ansari as sexual assault. I am an older millennial, on the periphery of the generation, and I am not American. Perhaps that contributes to my opinion. Recent research indicates that over 30% of American millennials consider compliments about one’s appearance to be sexual harassment either most of or all of the time.
Whether we admit it or not, we are harmfully blurring the lines by lumping all accounts of toxic masculinity with #MeToo.
Yes, millennials are changing the dating game for everyone. They are demanding higher standards and trying to eliminate the power imbalance between genders. This is important. I applaud and support this effort. However, it is aligned with, but not akin to, the #MeToo conversation. We should be having both.
You would be hard pressed to find a woman who has not been subjected to behavior stemming from male privilege and patriarchal attitudes. They deserve to tell their stories too. And they should. But they should not feel pressured to categorize these experiences as instances of assault in order to “belong” to a current narrative.