It’s a weird thing, to know that you’re living in a capital-M Moment of history. The page corner has been creased and permanently pressed down: fall 2017, when Hollywood self-destructed. It feels too soon to write this as anything except a kind of rough-draft eulogy, as it is clear that we are still very much in the midst of the revelation stage. There are still more heads to roll.
All this to say that I want to take on the heady task of asking What’s Next. We have said Me Too, but also You Too; the locus of blame is finally moving from the space of “why didn’t she” to “why did he”. We all read “Cat Person” and we’re probably better for it. Because finally (finally!) we seem to be entering a national dialogue where acknowledgement of the ‘grey area’ is positioned as neither acceptance of the potential pain it may bring, nor a condemnation of its imprecise nature. Finally, our conversations on sexual violence are no longer punctuated with a sigh that suggests hopelessness or inevitability. This feels like something.
But just being upset with the status quo is not the same as upsetting it, and so there is still much more to do.
And in the wake of all of these allegations and shake ups, I find myself queasy over the idea of some kind of blowback. Because in our age of 280-character activism and black statement dresses and mass virtue signaling, it seems like all it may take is one false accusation, or one overzealous, pre-emptive punishment — and the whole movement could be derailed, could become the kind of ‘bitches be lying’ citation that the Men’s Rights Activists could only dream of. More and more I hear quiet conversations about the fear that the “revolution” we once almost-lovingly referred to as a Witch Hunt could turn on us with a snarl. Is there such a thing as going too far? And will we know, should we reach that point?
I don’t have that answer. And at this stage it may come down to something as unsatisfying as individual perspective. It seems that in a situation where injustice has become the norm, the path to relief is likely to be roughly-hewn and imprecise (which is really just me co-opting the long-held idea that revolutions cannot happen without casualties). But as we lean further into the blur between trial by press versus one of your peers, we have found ourselves in the unique space of being both Judge and Jury, making the real-time decisions on who will stay and who will go.
The Aziz Ansari story has become the kind of poster child for this odd democracy. The conversations around the allegations made against him range wildly — from the “Men Aren’t Mind Readers!” rally-cry (to which I say: oh, please) to the “Lock him up!” counter-yell. But it is likely that the truth of it all (if that’s even the right word in our post-truth era) is somewhere in the middle.
And that’s the space — a better word might be ‘displace’ — that feels so important right now. Because when we differ in opinion, we open up a space for introspection. And I’m not looking to probe the Aziz story in some kind of perverse effort to justify his (or anyone else’s) behavior. Rather, I want a deepening; a reminder that a pursuit in understanding something is not the same thing as accepting it. The right to question, to pry, to attempt to see through another’s eyes — these things cannot become flattened by a black/white, good/bad rhetoric. For so long, the term ‘grey area’ has existed as an excuse, as a scheming partner to the hollow “devil’s advocate” posturing. I want to reclaim it. Because if we don’t do any more work than simply reading these stories and spitting out a hashtag in response, we risk a dilution of our hard-won movement.
In the last few weeks of reading each and every hot take, I’ve begun to feel a wriggling sense of something being off. As much as I’m disgusted with the people I see saying Aziz did “nothing wrong”, I also have begun to feel, for the first time, a marked shift. We were all in it together when Harvey and Spacey and everyone else went down. The accusations against them are horrendous and easy to revile. But post-Ansari, I’ve noticed a divide: a smattering of op-eds or angry Facebook posts, asking how far is too far? Or when does misunderstanding become criminal?
These are genuine queries, and they frighten as much as they invigorate. Debate is good; dissent is healthy — it helps us to define, to unwind. We keep saying we want to “move the conversation forward” or “open up the dialogue” — but I have yet to see that come to meaningful fruition. If we want a new framework, we must do the work of its construction but also its distinction.
Which is to say: the Aziz story and many of the Me Too narratives are obviously different. With Aziz, we have a communication failure (or perhaps willful misunderstanding) that culminates into a situation that is both a violation but also an encapsulation of our societal failure to articulate meaningful consent versus coercion. In many of the other stories that have come out, there are allegations of women being lured to places under false pretenses and raped (at this point, you can pick and choose which formerly powerful man I’m referring to in this latter scenario. There are options) (allegedly).
Stating that the above situations are markedly different is not saying one should be taken less seriously, or ignoring that they occur in a similar psychological space. If we want to achieve real progress in the realm of sexual violence— policy-changes, education reform, justice system overhaul — we must come to terms with the kind of cognitive dissonance that all sex abuse is absolutely wrong and must never be excused, AND that not all sexual abuse is the “same”. And that to ignore those differences, however well-intentioned, is a kind of regression into all-or-nothing posturing that ultimately distances us from our goal of breaking down the gendered socialization that has made these abuses so rampant.
And I know this idea may seem so very much at odds with what so many of us have long-fought for — i.e. the right to have all sexual abuse recognized as valid, as real, no matter the variation in perpetration or behavior of the victim. It’s been a bloody fight, and I do not want my advocacy for making space for nuance in our movement to be the same thing as making cracks in our foundation. As feminists, we fight for the right to speak our truth; and now I am arguing for that truth to be spoken and discussed without us having to concede to a framework of priority, of “worse than”.
I want to say that variation in violation is not a concept to shy away from. Vocalizing the difference between a boss who sends sexual texts to his employees and one who engages in physical violence feels like a necessary step in allowing the analysis and subsequent punishment of those behaviors, rather than some kind of sick game of comparison. Advocating for the ability to discuss the difference is not an opportunity to compare “who had it worse”, but rather a chance to broaden the conversation about how widespread and downright creative some modes of violation have become. Painting all sexual abuse with the same brush feels reductive — instead of granting new validity to situations that have previously been brushed off, it renders what is very clearly a multidimensional scenario into something 2D, flattened and at risk of being forgotten.
This is a difficult idea for me, and I’m still not sure of all of its edges. Some days I am so tempted to succumb to my baser impulses, to revel in that fresh hot hit of instant gratification that comes from watching a whole legion of creepy men be taken down without further thought or care. I argue with myself constantly — these men have not done this kind of emotional labor, this internal back and forth; they did not offer their victims any sort of mercy, so why should we women be doing the hard work of distinction, analysis, and ultimately justice? Many days I want every man who has ever hurt a woman to be thrown to the wolves, I want to wash my hands of it and say “figure it out yourselves”. But then I remember that sweeping the dirt under the rug is the kind of behavior that got us all here in the first place, and that no matter how much I want to dismiss all of this thinking and walk away, I also feel a massive need to not only make this world a place where women — where all people — are afforded a level of dignity and bodily autonomy that is not constantly under threat.
We are not there yet. And as much as I never want my grappling with ideas to serve as any kind of basis of “forgiving” the bad behavior of men in power, I do feel a trembling sense of duty in advocating for a move away from absolutes. I do not believe — or, I cannot — that male violence is a product of biology. To dismiss them as such is playing into the same ideology that women are naturally submissive/weak. So in the coming months, as more revelations are bound to come out, I hope that the cultural conversation around these abuses of power will become one that emphasizes context — of the intersection of violence and power and gender — rather than falling into a pattern of ferocious but concise anger, followed by hasty think pieces and tepid malaise and then, finally, a sighed acceptance of ‘another one down’. This can’t ever begin to feel normal, or inevitable.
If we truly want to re-focus and reframe the conversation around sexual assault, we will need to take a few steps back from the kind of snap-judgement declarations (read: conversation-enders) and commit ourselves to the difficult task of complication and interrogation. As we move into a time where language is hyphenated, visualized, compacted — emojis-as-hieroglyphics — I want to champion a method of lengthening, of unpacking. Analysis and complexity becoming tools of justice, rather than implements of blame. We must re-discover the space between absolutes and do the hard work of shedding the rigid strictures of violence and then teach ourselves — not once, but continually — to demand and deserve an existence that is as radical in its empathy as it is in its anger.