After months of revelations about the extent of sexual violence and harassment taking place in and outside of the workplace, women are wrestling with what comes next. The Atlantic is, too. Yesterday, over 100 people—including a few local Masthead members—gathered at The Atlantic’s offices in Washington, D.C. to talk about #MeToo. The journalists on the panel—Atlantic writers and editors who have focused on these issues—debated some of the movement’s most difficult questions. In today’s issue, we distill a few of the highlights.
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The Unanswered Questions of #MeToo
Atlantic writers Megan Garber, Caitlin Flanagan, and Gillian White discussed a few key points of tension that have emerged from the #MeToo movement. One point of tension: the writers’ ages. Caitlin comes from an earlier generation.
Can, and should, different types of sexual assault and harassment be categorized and separated?
Caitlin Flanagan: I don’t think this movement can accomplish anything without categories because the solutions to all these different types [of sexual assault and harassment] will be radically different. The guy who indecorously, rudely, assumedly, grabbed someone's rear end is substantively different from the guy who is forcing ongoing sexual contact with a woman for her to keep working there.
But in our culture, and in our modern ways of thinking, we are very opposed to hierarchies. One reason is that we feel like certain stories get erased, and certain stories don't get listened to.
There is also the question of who gets to be on the hierarchy, and who's not on the hierarchy. The category of, “You have to sleep with me, or you don't have this job,” is a particular category that Human Resources should handle differently than, “He made me feel uncomfortable at the Xerox machine. He told a story that I didn't like to hear.”
But suffering—that is a profound word. We should never get to a point that anyone doesn't feel that their suffering is valid.
Gillian White: But I think that's exactly what the hierarchy does. I spent maybe a month after the Weinstein story broke listening to women tell me stories about their experiences.
For the first week, no woman was calling to tell me something that happened to her. They were always like, “Oh, I witnessed this bad thing at work.” And then I would say, “Did you ever experience anything?” And they'd be like, “Oh, no, nothing to that level.”
I'd just keep talking to them, and they would tell me really awful things that had happened to them. Violent things, scary things.
In this moment, there is danger in saying, “This is really bad, and this is medium-bad, and this isn't bad at all, just deal with it.” There are a lot of women who are taught to just sit around and deal with it, especially for the sake of their careers, who are going to lock themselves into that medium-to-not-that-bad place for really bad things. And then those things are going to happen to more and more women.
In Babe’s story about Aziz Ansari and “Grace,” the pseudonymous accuser said she gave Ansari signals to stop but didn’t explicitly say “no.” What makes that kind of sexual interaction so challenging to interpret? Is there a generational divide?
Megan Garber: I don’t think the sexual revolution has fully finished. We feel like we have all this sexual freedom, and we congratulate ourselves on that. The fact that women could wear skimpy clothes in public—that was part of what feminism had fought for in the second wave, and actually what is still going on in the third wave.
The Aziz Ansari story made me think about the ways that awkwardness is weaponized against women in so many ways, and how we have these strong cultural mandates against letting things get awkward. No matter what, don't let it get awkward. That is what you are not allowed to do in this culture.
Caitlin: But this is your generation, because to me, popping up on the counter to have oral sex performed on me by some guy I don't even know who is kind of a jerk … That's awkward.
Megan: I identified with that so much. She was sending signals, she just didn't want to say no.
Caitlin: But that's on her. You're a woman, you're strong. Get up, stand up. All these people have done things so that we can be sexually free.
Megan: She was doing everything she could except use that word. I don't think that's a character flaw. I think she is informed by a whole culture that says, “Don't be weird, you're already here, you might want to go on another date with him.” And he should have picked up on that.
Gillian: There was a generation who fought for the ability to be fun and wild and free and all those things, so then our generation is the same. We're having fun, and we’re wild and free. But then we start thinking, “I don't like this anymore, but this is something that I courted, and I am a strong woman.” There is that fear of being too sensitive. Women ask themselves, “Am I just freaking out for no reason?”
When you see other women who come out and say, “I was into it, and then I wasn't,” people ridicule them, and they say, “Why didn't you just get up and leave?” That’s part of the fear.
What’s next for #MeToo?
Caitlin: If you think about women's suffrage, there were many things that were on the table originally, but then the women decided, we are going to work to get the vote. They put everything into that, and then other things flowed out. I do think there is enough cultural juice right now that if one of these things was really tackled, we probably would make tremendous headway with it.
Gillian: I don't think this is over. I think there are so many women and so many situations that have not even begun to be touched on. But at this moment, I think there are so many groups of women who have to deal with this in such a violent and awful way who have not even begun to be helped.
Part of the reason #MeToo started with work is because this type of violence and discrimination are illegal at work. There is an entire governing body that investigates these things and disallows discrimination based on gender. We haven't actually seen this massive movement of companies to rethink how they deal with these things.
Even if some of the media hubbub around it dies down, that is the kind of thing I would expect to see continue, because if nothing else, #MeToo has proved that this is an incredibly pervasive and perditious problem, and companies are just going to have a bunch of lawsuits on their hands if they don't figure out how to deal with it soon.
Today’s Wrap Up
Question of the day: Should different types of sexual misconduct be ranked by severity, and met with varying levels of penalty? Let us know what you think by replying to this email.
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