How #MeToo Can Probe Gray Areas With Less Backlash

Reporting will always be vital to exposing the most egregious abuses of power. Yet the most underutilized tool in the movement’s turn toward lesser wrongs is fiction.

Mike Segar / Reuters

Millions are talking about the comic actor Aziz Ansari’s actions during a sexual encounter with an anonymous woman who felt wronged on their date night. Her grievances were publicized by an article in the online magazine Babe. And as many have noted, the article is similar, in its subject matter and public reception, to another recent viral sensation––the fictional New Yorker story “Cat Person.”

“Each describes an evening that a woman in her early 20s spends with a man in his 30s, and the tension in each comes from the disjuncture between what the woman feels and what’s going on around her,” Anna Silman wrote at The Cut. “Each describes a sexual encounter that might safely be described as bad: uncomfortable, filled with misunderstandings, and ultimately, for the woman, upsetting.”

And each resonated with many people eager to extend the #MeToo conversation beyond criminal sexual assault and sexual harassment in the workplace.

Anna North explained this desire at Vox:

Despite a growing conversation around enthusiastic consent, most everything in American culture still tells men that they should be pushing for as much sex as possible at all times. The idea that men have more sexual desire than women still goes unchallenged, leading too many men to believe that a lukewarm yes is all they’re ever going to get, because women don’t like sex that much anyway. Boys learn at a young age … that it’s normal to have to convince a woman to have sex, and that repeated small violations of her boundaries are an acceptable way to do so—perhaps even the only way.

Jill Filipovic touched on related themes at The Guardian:

Girls are raised with a contradictory set of expectations: Be kind and acquiescent, but also be the brakes on male sexual desire. We are taught to reflexively say yes except for when we’re supposed to definitively say no, but we don’t learn how to know when we want to say either …

In a perfect world, Grace would have walked out the door. But women are so strongly socialized to put others’ comfort ahead of our own that even when we are furiously uncomfortable, it feels paralyzing to assert ourselves. This is especially true when we are young …

Men aren’t morons, and they know as well as anyone that a woman who is silent, physically stiff, or pulling away is not exactly aflame with desire. But they also know that we are collectively invested in a social script wherein men push to get sex until women acquiesce. And so they push, even when they know it’s unwelcome, because they can.

I agree that men are too often socialized to be sexual aggressors who meet all resistance as an obstacle to overcome––or if you’re of another perspective, that inborn aggression in men is too seldom mitigated by socializing them to “do unto others” rather than to “catch as can.” And cultural critics should probe flaws in sexual culture even when they don’t implicate rape, sexual assault, or workplace harassment.

Still, I am not persuaded that it is necessary, just, or effective to probe these thorny, noncriminal, nonworkplace flaws in sexual culture by singling out individuals; publicly airing the most objectionable descriptions of their sexual behavior; and applying stigma and public humiliation per the whims of the digital masses. It seems to me that short stories like “Cat Person,” along with other fictional  portrayals of sex in novels, films, and TV shows, are much more constructive vehicles for hashing out the nuances of noncriminal, nonworkplace sex.

Admittedly, “Cat Person” generated exceptional attention for a short story; whereas a story like Ansari’s that involves both celebrity and sex will reliably reach millions, in part because there is inherent drama in real-life stakes. How will Ansari respond? Will his career suffer? Will any other women accuse him? The gossip factor alone will draw eyeballs as surely as any Us Weekly or TMZ story.

Yet those same public stakes help explain why most who encounter the Ansari story aren’t as likely to undertake an openminded inquiry into the cultural norms that shaped it. Sure, the few observers who already care most about the shortcomings of sexual acculturation or prevailing norms around consent will flag those concerns. But getting others to focus on them, let alone engaging in a productive conversation about whether and how change should come, will be nearly impossible, because real stakes mean that lots of competing concerns are implicated.

For starters, to the readers of “Cat Person,” every last detail was unimpeachable. One converses about it knowing the story is exactly what the story says.

With the Ansari story, in place of an omniscient narrator, we have a journalist of unknown experience at a publication heretofore unknown to most readers interviewing an anonymous source about a date after the fact––then presenting it in great detail, all without getting the other participant’s perspective. If source and reporter acted in good faith and displayed exceptional memory and skill, one would still expect a degree of divergence from what happened. One neither wants to criticize Ansari in ways that facts do not merit nor to disbelieve “Grace” if her account more or less faithfully conveys the relevant events. Both concerns loomed large in reactions to the story.

Next, no one’s privacy was breached to write “Cat Person.”

Whereas the Ansari story raises a thorny question about privacy: When is it okay to breach the implicit compact with one’s date that neither party will go to the internet afterward and unilaterally publish a graphic account of the encounter?

I think lots of men and women reacted negatively to the story in part because it seems to imply the answer, “When one person behaves like an entitled jerk, even if they possibly didn’t realize it because they’re clueless or self-centered.” That standard seemed fair to the 20-somethings who published the story. Others adopt a softer line, especially as they age––many men and women in their 30s and 40s who never persisted in pressing a partner to have sex still look back at the clueless beginnings of their dating lives and feel some chagrin, for time has shown them moments when they could’ve been less jerky or self-centered.

I suspect some of the backlash to the story is explained by a sense that going nuclear on the clueless or selfish would torch most anyone on their worst night––and that while very common problems are vital to discuss, doing so in a way that focuses anger on a few not especially egregious offenders by singling them out for public humiliation is an ugly distraction, not a necessity of progress. What’s more, if the norm against graphically sharing details of sexual encounters is significantly weakened, the cruel, self-centered, and clueless seem more likely to be among those breaching future confidences than having them breached.

Then there is the matter of relative clearheadedness.

The public comes fresh to the characters in “Cat Person.” Whereas many who read the story about Ansari will have skewed reactions because they like him or dislike his comedy, priming them to think he’s a jerk. They might judge him less harshly, wanting to keep consuming his work with a clear conscience, or more harshly, because they see his failure to be the characters he plays as a betrayal. Such prejudices can only distort attempts at the larger, more general conversation.

And if most of our collective discussions of sexual misconduct are rooted in examples involving Hollywood celebrities, we’re going to be using a very unrepresentative set of interactions with some hugely distorting variables to shape norms that will apply overwhelmingly to relationships between the nonfamous. On the other hand, if men and women who aren’t public figures start publishing call-outs that go into graphic detail about the transgressions of former hookups, it is difficult to imagine the arc of that world bending toward justice.

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that nothing useful came from the publication of the Ansari story. As Emma Gray recently wrote in an essay on the subject:

If the #MeToo movement is going to amount to sustained culture change—rather than simply a weeding out of the worst actors in a broken system—we need to renegotiate the sexual narratives we’ve long accepted. And that involves having complicated conversations about sex that is violating but not criminal.

The sexual encounter Grace described falls into what I see as a gray area of violating, noncriminal sex—the kind of sex that Rebecca Traister described in 2015 as “bad in ways that are worth talking about”; what Jessica Valenti described on Twitter as an interaction that the “culture considers ‘normal,’ but is ‘oftentimes harmful.’”

This is a kind of sex that is not only worth talking about, but necessary to talk about. Behavior need not fall under the legal definition of sexual assault or rape to be wrong or violating or upsetting. And when nearly every woman I’ve spoken to about the Aziz Ansari story follows up our conversation with a similar story of her own, it’s worth thinking about why that is.

Yet the question remains, did talking about Grace’s story require naming Ansari? Did the Babe story improve in any way––beyond attracting extra clicks––by naming Ansari rather than simply describing a date with a Hollywood celebrity? If not, did naming him do more to help or hinder the project of renegotiating long accepted narratives by deconstructing lesser sexual violations?

Gray’s article actually includes anecdotes of less-than-assault violations from her own life that contribute to the very project she rightly identifies as necessary.

Here’s the second one:

I went on a second date with an accomplished book editor. He was smart and kind of nerdy, and I was excited about him … He invited himself over after we finished grabbing food. I said yes, but made sure to tell him that I didn’t want to have sex yet. He agreed that it was too early and came up for a nightcap anyway.

We began hooking up and eventually it got to a point where I wasn’t into it any longer, so I told him I was tired and wanted to call it a night. He got up and went to the bathroom, and I assumed it was clear that we were done for the evening. When he came back to my room, I was still lying in bed, partially undressed. He stood over me and began masturbating. Ten seconds in—though it felt like an eternity—he asked, “Is this OK?” I felt frozen. I didn’t want to make a scene or embarrass him or end up looking “crazy.” It felt easier to just say “yeah,” so I did. I did counting exercises in my head until he came onto my stomach, got a paper towel, wiped my skin off and left.

She concludes:

I do not believe that either of these encounters qualifies as sexual assault, nor do I think that the men involved were being intentionally thoughtless or harmful. But … I ended the night feeling gross and a bit violated. I wondered why I had let these men into my private space or entered theirs … why I hadn’t articulated my boundaries more clearly. I wondered why so little care or attention had been paid to my verbal and nonverbal cues of discomfort and disinterest. I wondered whether or not these men were rehashing these concerns, too.

That anecdote illustrates one way in which nonfiction can responsibly plumb this subject. Fruitful discussion about what her anecdote means and what might be done about it is more likely, I think, because the man is not named; naming him would transform the reaction into a heated referendum on that choice, stoking debates about privacy, fairness, accuracy, proportion, and precedent.

Of course, something is often lost in the withholding of details needed to protect anonymity. But fiction offers an ability to tell such stories, with detailed characters for context, without any worry of giving away someone’s identity thereby, or missing a detail––and without the bravery needed to give up one’s own privacy. As Phoebe Maltz Bovy once wrote, “Stories that require nuance and suspended judgment get neither when told online as personal narratives, as authors seek validation and many readers seek reasons to bash what they’ve just read or to play advice columnist for the author … Behind-closed-doors behavior absolutely has a place in literature, but why must it be that of real, identified people?”

She adds, “Readers seem quite capable of passionate responses to fictional people and their fictional dilemmas.” And who can doubt the passion for fiction or the decisive importance of responses to it when one remembers that America’s norms about what consent looks like and how sexual engagements unfold are substantially the product of cinema, TV shows, and more recently, porn videos? Insofar as culture shapes these things, it’s mostly fiction all the way down.

Conversely, why would anyone expect that shaming Ansari for his nonfiction encounter, whether justly or unjustly, would successfully transform mass culture? Between the backlash to the shaming that is as predictable as it is inevitable and the knowledge most people possess that they are insufficiently famous to have their own sexual behavior make web headlines, I see little reason to think that the shaming aspect, the only part that required his name, was useful.

The novelist Margaret Atwood recently observed, “In times of extremes … moderates in the middle are annihilated. Fiction writers are particularly suspect because they write about human beings, and people are morally ambiguous.”

If the #MeToo Moment is to transcend the most unambiguous cases of sexual misconduct, and to delve into the grayest areas, where changing any norm will be sharply contested, a model rooted in naming and shaming famous individuals for real-life encounters seems doomed. But with personal accounts of ambiguous edge cases that don’t breach anonymity and fictional accounts that present characters in full, every wrinkle of consent norms can be probed or modeled or discussed with diminished backlash, and without, I’d argue, any significant substantive loss. For those who agree at least in part: What existing fiction does this best?