Can #MeToo Keep Its Eye On the Ball?

In a Facebook discussion last night, I encountered a feminist who responded to the questionable claims against Aziz Ansari as such: "Many women have said that if the story about Ansari constitutes assault, then everyone they know has been assaulted. They are so close to getting it!" (Yes all men, indeed!) Another who viewed Ansari as a predator insisted that she was not at all anti-male or anti-male sexuality; that, indeed, she was in favor of 'the redemption of men' and a wonderful future in which women no longer have to live in fear -- but that it is unreasonable to expect women to be able to simply 'walk away' from an uncomfortable sexual situation or to be able to communicate explicitly and emphatically; that the onus must be placed on men to know unambiguously that women are enjoying their come-ons.

Before proceeding, I ought to note that the 'Me Too' phenomenon has had plenty of merit. I have been somewhat taken aback by the prevalence of clearly bad -- even illegal -- behavior on the part of so many high-profile men in entertainment, the media, and politics. Although I suspected it was a festering problem, I would have scoffed if someone had given me a list of the names of people credibly accused -- from Matt Lauer to Mark Halperin -- and told me that they were all sexually predatory. I can admit my compass was not calibrated properly. And the rules of the workplace, especially, must be different than the rules of dating, and especially of hooking up.

Feminism will spoil its legitimate gains here if it chooses to embrace claims akin to those leveled against Mr. Ansari as tantamount to those leveled against the likes of Mr. Lauer and Mr. Halperin -- and with it, those defending the equivalence. If your feminism leads you to assert that women have collectively been victimized by men, that male sexuality unrestrained by feminist teachings is essentially predatory and invariably leads women as a whole to live in fear -- claims made by feminists from Kate Millett in the 1970s to the young woman I appeared with on CBS in 2010 -- and that men as a group are therefore in need of sexual 'redemption,' or that discomfort and regret is tantamount to assault -- then your feminism is not about equality. The style of feminism that has tried to paint Mr. Ansari as a sex criminal or a predator rather than something else -- what he really is remains especially unclear, given the lack of trust I am willing to place in anyone who would publish such a reckless attack -- are attacking male sexuality as such, casting anything that is not totally comfortable as predatory, and attempting to drag all permissible expressions of sexuality down to the level of trauma victims who are fearful toward and disgusted by nudity, the male body, and male sexuality. 

Let us look at the Harvey Weinstein situation. Without downplaying the repulsiveness of his acts, we should remember that many of the women who encountered his behavior did not look at him with horror, trauma, and revulsion: surely just as many women found him to be painfully pathetic. Where are the stories of those women who laughed at Weinstein's humiliating lack of self-control and thought 'Well, this will be easy: this moron can be controlled with a massage!' -- and then went on to use him to launch their careers, without regret? But we are not permitted to hear these stories, because the dominant feminist narrative filters everything through the lens of trauma, abuse, and victimization. Then again, women who are street-smart and gutsy about sex -- French and Italian women know better than puritanical Americans on this matter -- tend to not see themselves as 'feminists' in the first place. 

It is striking that so many feminists have presented arguments to the effect that 'it's not so simple' for a woman to just 'walk away' from a sexual encounter which makes her feel uncomfortable -- and, in fact, that even saying No can be a monumental psychological task that we cannot reasonably expect every woman to explicitly articulate. But that's just the thing -- it is not always 'easy', but it really is a simple motion. If you are not psychologically prepared to walk away from an uncomfortable sexual encounter, then you shouldn't be putting yourself in situations like that in the first place. This is the basic onus of responsibility in a society based on self-government and individual responsibility. This means it is imperative for each of us to follow the old Socratic injunction: know thyself! That means knowing what you can handle and what you can't. If we are to categorically deny that women should be required to both be as explicit and straightforward -- and even repetitive -- in their sexual intentions as are men, and even willing to walk if necessary, then there is no point in having sexual freedom, and we ought to just go back to the old patriarchy, which operated according to the same logic: male sexuality is too volatile and crude, women are too fragile and prone to trauma, the potential for misunderstandings is too high, and only strict rules and regulations can lead us to an acceptable sexual politics.

The unsatisfying truth is that sex and sexuality are and always will be a volatile undertaking, and anonymous sex, including sex on the first date, is always psychologically and even physically risky. Sex cannot be ever fully 'sanitized' or subordinated to the desires of liberal politics. As with anything sensuously evocative, sex will always be full of confusion, tension, ambiguity, and risk. I have personally experienced a number of awkward and even uncomfortable sexual encounters -- and I am convinced that feminists might even see some of them as assault, which I would find preposterous. I simply view such uncomfortable and regretful situations as something that comes with the territory of sexual freedom. We cannot have sexual freedom and simultaneously retain this puritanical desire to regulate a rigid, risk-free sexual order into existence through politics.

As a gay man -- that is: a man who does not desire women's bodies, as well as one whose admiration for various female artists, writers, politicians, and more is beyond question, I feel somewhat comfortable expressing these viewpoints. I have been speaking out on these issues for years. And the regime of censorship and intimidation surrounding this topic has only grown worse. Women who reject feminist excesses must take the reins in this conversation, and declare that they don't need a coalition of administrators, regulators, activists, and more to rescue them from the risks and ambiguities of sex and sexuality. Men and women will never see eye-to-eye about sex. But we cannot turn regrets into rapes. We cannot substitute accusations for discussions. And we cannot substitute prostration to whatever the most shame-happy activist calls feminism for discussion, either. Let us finally have a sexual freedom appropriate for a free people: one which can embrace the old paradigm of the battle of the sexes -- a battle of understandings and interpretations, a battle of priorities, dating back to at least the days of Aristophanes -- as vigorously as it embraces gender equality. There is no other way for us to live together with trust and mutual respect.

Alex Knepper