The revelations of #MeToo, a social campaign to empower women to share their experiences with sexual misconduct, have been rolling out almost nonstop since November 2016. And despite the simplicity of its intent — a society where women are safe and respected — as movements regarding how we treat women so often are, #MeToo has become a source of bipartisan conflict, confusion and outrage across the political spectrum both in Hollywood and on Capitol Hill.
New allegations against comedian Aziz Ansari, a vocal feminist advocate and the mastermind behind the groundbreaking Netflix original series Master of None, have only added fuel to the flames. On Saturday, a 23-year-old female photographer accused Ansari of sexual coercion, claiming they had gone on a date that ended with the actor repeatedly attempting to engage her in sexual contact despite her numerous verbal and nonverbal objections. The report spared no detail and offered a jarringly familiar portrait of sexual misconduct, not as the overtly criminal, stereotypical back-alley rape, but as a wrong so commonplace men and women alike have come to accept it as normal.
A month after the advent of #MeToo in December, the internet became a cesspool of hot takes, op-eds and tweets arguing that men now live in an oppressive new world in which they must be afraid to hug women.
It’s uncomfortable for me to dignify a reaction so out-of-touch by offering a counter-argument, but I’ll say what must be said: The egocentrism of men in whom #MeToo has instilled fear rather than solidarity is part of the problem, whether or not they’ve ever sexually abused a woman in their lives.
Women are taught early on to not only accept gendered fear, but structure every aspect of their lives around it. From everyday decisions like never walking alone at night to deciding not to report a powerful man in their workplace for sexual misconduct for the sake of their economic stability, fear of being violated, hurt, threatened or taken advantage of has shaped the female identity for centuries.
Beyond speaking your truth and empowering other women, there’s nothing to gain and — as we’ve seen with survivors who speak up and face sexual harassment, threats and even arson, which one accuser of former Alabama Senate candidate and alleged child molestor Roy Moore was subjected to — everything to lose from coming forward. To be a man and suggest that a woman would risk her safety, career and reputation just to hurt you is a true testament to the boundlessness of the male ego, and a reflection of the insecurities bred in a dominant group whenever a historically marginalized one makes any gain whatsoever.
In either case, Ansari’s story has generated such a strong reaction because the prevalence of his alleged actions has led so many to believe a man pressuring a woman to have sex with him, and forcing sexual acts on women despite clear signs of hesitation or verbal objections, is a sort of gray area leaving room to debate whether a woman has the right to feel violated.
Perhaps what Ansari’s accuser described is a moral gray — perhaps, indeed, for some men, whether or not to hug a female coworker is, too. More than anything, what this latest #MeToo story reminds us is how, just as so many women identify with the women who come forward, many men are able to identify with men who are accused. Perhaps not with former Today Show co-host Matt Lauer and his notorious button, nor with Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein and the numerous allegations of rape against him, but with Ansari: a man who may not have done anything transparently illegal, but crossed lines and made a woman feel violated and unsafe nonetheless.
Throughout last weekend, Twitter was abuzz with debate between Ansari’s apologists and women like feminist author Jessica Valenti, who argues a key reason so many men are coming to the defense of Ansari on the technicality of legality is that they don’t want to believe something they’ve probably done at some point is wrong. The reality is that trying to convince a woman who has expressed either reluctance or outright objection to engage in a sexual act is coercion. Any man who has never been subjected this has no right to argue that it isn’t wrong, that women have no right to feel violated by their consent being trivialized and disrespected with bargaining, that women have no right to speak up and identify their experiences as sexual abuse.
When it comes to #MeToo, I agree that the consideration of scenarios from a legal perspective can be important. For example, let’s talk about creating effective laws to protect women’s rights in the workplace and protect women who report harassment and assault from retaliation. Let’s talk about the legal reforms that need to happen so we don’t live in a country where one in six woman will experience rape or attempted rape; two-thirds of sexual assaults will go unreported; and sexual crimes are the least likely to result in prosecution, conviction or punishment of the perpetrator.
But beyond that, it would be small-minded to suggest #MeToo should limit itself to cases of tangible sexual crimes that could be tried in court. The movement is certainly about fair laws, but it’s also about the oppressive nature of our culture — one that too often degrades the value of women’s consent with cheap legal arguments that miss the point, that absolves grown men of responsibility on the basis of their ignorance, while savaging women who dare to say a man’s treatment caused them to feel violated and threatened.
Kylie Cheung is a sophomore majoring in journalism and political science. She is also the associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column,“You Do Uterus,” runs Thursdays.