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Women can tell the difference between Ansari and Weinstein

Critics worry that #MeToo will lump together inappropriate behavior and sexual assault. But women know how to make the distinction.

Aziz Ansari in November
Aziz Ansari in November.
Photo by Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

It’s been one of the most common criticisms of #MeToo: Women are lumping together crimes like sexual assault with smaller violations and misdeeds, like what a young woman says she experienced on a date with Aziz Ansari.

We heard it from Andrew Sullivan, who worried that “distinctions among many different types of offenses — from bad behavior at private parties to brutal assault and rape of employees and co-workers — were being instantly lost in the fervor.”

We heard it from 100 high-profile French women (including actress Catherine Deneuve, who has since apologized to survivors), who wrote, “Rape is a crime. But hitting on someone, even awkwardly, is not, and neither is gallantry a masculine aggression.”

And after published the account of a date with Ansari from a woman the website pseudonymously called Grace, we heard a similar refrain from, among others, HLN host Ashleigh Banfield.

“The #MeToo movement has righted a lot of wrongs, and it has made your career path much smoother,” Banfield said, addressing Grace directly. “Yet you looked that gift horse in the mouth and chiseled away at that powerful movement with your public accusation.”

It’s true that there’s a big difference between what Grace says happened between her and Ansari and what many people have reported about Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men: Grace and Ansari had no working relationship, and Grace is not alleging any kind of workplace harassment, which has been the core issue of #MeToo. But it’s eminently conceivable to discuss both harassment on the job and coercive behavior in private without getting the two mixed up.

Many of those criticizing #MeToo seem to think that modern-day McCarthys want to strip men of their jobs and lock them up at the merest hint of flirtation. But there’s no reason to think that the many people coming forward to speak out about sexual misconduct can’t handle a conversation about a variety of kinds of sexual misconduct — and a variety of possible remedies.

Many women and gender-nonconforming people have been forced to think about sexual harassment and abuse not just in this moment, but for their entire lives. When it comes to parsing different kinds of misconduct and their appropriate consequences, unfortunately, they’re already experts.

Women can tell the difference between sexual assault and inappropriate behavior

One subject of intense anti-#MeToo backlash has been the “Shitty Media Men” list, a crowdsourced spreadsheet of reports of misconduct by men in journalism and publishing, which was criticized for including instances of sexual assault along with other acts like sending inappropriate messages.

In her essay at New York magazine’s the Cut, list creator Moira Donegan addressed this criticism head-on. “There was an understanding of the ways that these less-grave incidents can sometimes be harbingers of more aggressive actions to come, and how they can accrue into soured relationships and hostile environments,” she wrote.

“No one confused a crude remark for a rape, and efforts were made to contextualize the incidents with notes — a spreadsheet allows for all of this information to be organized and included.”

Donegan also spoke to the concern, expressed by many critics of the list, that the reports on it had not been independently verified. “The spreadsheet only had the power to inform women of allegations that were being made and to trust them to judge the quality of that information for themselves and to make their own choices accordingly,” she wrote.

“This, too, is still seen as radical: the idea that women are skeptical, that we can think and judge and choose for ourselves what to believe and what not to.”

Much of the backlash against #MeToo in recent days seems to assume that women are not skeptical, that they will say or believe anything, so long as it makes a man look bad. Some criticism of the call to “believe women” perhaps stemmed from this assumption, and from the misconception that advocates were calling for unquestioning acceptance of everything a woman says, rather than simply taking women’s reports and testimony as seriously as society has always taken men’s.

Moreover, many critics seem to believe that women are incapable of discernment, that they see no difference between a rape and an unwelcome comment, that they are equally outraged by everything.

Finally, many see women as lacking any sense of justice — to critics, women want all men’s heads to roll, regardless of the accusation, and can conceive of no possible response to sexual misconduct but career destruction or incarceration.

All of these perceptions are simplistic at best.

Many people have been dealing with sexual harassment and abuse since long before the New York Times published its exposé on Harvey Weinstein, and people marginalized because of their gender have been especially vulnerable. They have learned exactly how much proof they will need before their reports will be believed (often, more than they can ever supply). They know all about skepticism.

People who have been dealing with sexual harassment are also typically capable of distinguishing between different types of unwanted behavior, and are often very careful in speaking, and even in thinking, about what happened to them. When NPR reporter and producer Rebecca Hersher spoke about Michael Oreskes, the editorial director of NPR who resigned after two women reported that he had kissed them in what they thought were professional interactions, she made a clear distinction between her experience and those of the other women.

“Rebecca Hersher says she considers the incident less severe but nevertheless felt it crossed a line and made her uncomfortable,” NPR’s David Folkenflik reported. Of another, anonymous woman who had a troubling experience with Oreskes, Folkenflik wrote, “She decided not to apply to NPR and says she found the experience bewildering as she tried to sort out whether what she had experienced was truly sexual harassment.”

This kind of minute and careful attention to the gradations of negative experiences is not an exception among people who report sexual misconduct — at least in my experience talking to people who have been in such situations, it is the norm.

Then there’s the question of justice. Some critics have assumed that all people coming forward about sexual misconduct, no matter what behavior they’re reporting, want to see the perpetrators behind bars or driven out of their industries. Others have assumed that a public report of misconduct is essentially equivalent to jail time, or at least career destruction.

Neither is always the case. Aziz Ansari may face career repercussions for Grace’s story, but that hasn’t happened yet. Nor is there any suggestion that he’ll go to jail. And contrary to the image of women as vindictive harridans out for blood, there are examples of women who have responded with gratitude, even forgiveness, to men’s apologies.

After Community creator Dan Harmon apologized to her for his sexual harassment, writer Megan Ganz wrote on Twitter that she felt relieved and vindicated, and forgave Harmon:

No one owes forgiveness in response to an apology. But it’s also true that firing and jail time aren’t the only possible consequences for sexual behavior that causes someone else pain. Part of acknowledging that Grace’s story is a common one is acknowledging that many men — including men who are otherwise kind, who may be good friends to women and supporters of female colleagues — have probably done a version of what Grace says Ansari did.

One of the hard things we have to accept in this moment is that otherwise good men have done bad things, things that harmed people. And while women may joke about banning all men, the ostracism of an entire gender is neither a practical nor a desirable response to the behaviors of our brothers, our fathers, our partners, our friends, and our sons.

Some harms demand that perpetrators be removed from their jobs to keep the women around them safe. Some demand legal action. Some demand apology, atonement, a change in behavior, and a commitment to be an example to others. Women — and all survivors of sexual misconduct and their allies — are capable of thinking through those nuances.

Indeed, they already have been. Many activists working against sexual assault, for instance, have championed restorative justice, which seeks to remedy the harm done by a misdeed rather than merely punishing the perpetrator.

Feminists and other advocates for gender and racial equality have long opposed mass incarceration and supported responses to sexual misconduct and violence that don’t involve the prison system.

The publication of Grace’s story about Ansari in some ways made the public conversation around sexual misconduct more complex. But women, and all people marginalized because of gender, have had to deal with complexity for a long time. We are accustomed to it. Don’t underestimate us.

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