Margot Libertini: #MeToo is our movement

Thursday, January 25, 2018 - 6:24pm

On Jan. 13, babe.net published an article revealing an experience that a young woman (referred to in the piece and throughout this article as Grace) had on a date with comedian Aziz Ansari in September. The story describes him making multiple aggressive attempts to have sex with her, despite her many verbal and non-verbal cues that she was not into it. This accusation has been more divisive than any others that have come out of the #MeToo movement. Previously, this movement to expose sexual abusers has received enthusiastic support from feminists and decent people everywhere. The Ansari allegations have caused a sharp divide among many of those same people. Some claim this story does not describe an assault and is thus undermining #MeToo as a whole, while others argue that though it may not be rape or workplace sexual harassment, the movement has room for all stories involving sexual abuse or coercion. I adamantly agree with the latter.

The allegations made against Ansari clearly describe him as continuously pressuring Grace into sexual acts after she clearly expressed she would rather not engage in them on that night. That is a clear example of sexual coercion. I’ve been disturbed at the number of people who have doubted the malice of Ansari’s actions; I’ve been even more disturbed at how many have suggested that this could decrease the legitimacy of other stories or #MeToo as a whole.

I expect that kind of opinion from people like conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, who immediately capitalized on the chance to ask “Is #MeToo Falling Apart?” but it wasn’t only open misogynists who were acting as though the movement was being threatened. Journalists Caitlin Flanagan , Ashleigh Banfield and Bari Weiss all had pretty strong attacks for Ansari’s accuser and the journalist who reported the story. Flanagan had previously written a piece that hailed #MeToo, calling it a “long-overdue revolution.” These are women that I’d often think were on our side; ready to smash the patriarchy.

Maybe they are, in their minds. But that isn’t enough. After meditating on this for a week or so, it seems that the writers who are attacking Grace and the author of the piece, Katie Way, for derailing the movement were only ever fighting for themselves. It is just another example of exclusive feminism, and I am quite exasperated with it.

Grace’s story represents the experiences of so many young women who do not have voices as prominent as those who brought down Harvey Weinstein. Though her story was still aimed at a famous man, it made #MeToo relatable and relevant to many college-age women. It confirmed that those creepy, scary nights that made us cry — but never felt “bad enough” to call assault — are not OK and will not be tolerated. But the older, more powerful women said sit down and shut up because this is their movement.

That sentiment was clearly displayed by Ashleigh Banfield. On Jan. 15 she said this during her segment on HLN: “You have chiseled away at a movement that I, along with all of my sisters in the workplace, have been dreaming of for decades, a movement that has finally changed an oversexed professional environment that I, too, have struggled through at times over the last 30 years.” I suppose that means Grace isn’t a sister, but a whiny young girl who went on a “bad date” and wants to ruin a man’s career for it. Caitlin Flanagan expanded this narrative by calling the piece “revenge porn” by a girl who “hoped to maybe even become the famous man’s girlfriend.”

Well, if they disapprove of Grace’s inclusion in this movement, they can leave it. They can keep fighting for justice in cases that fit their narrow definition of abuse. But #MeToo is much larger than that. It is a movement intended to draw attention to the magnitude of the problem of sexual abuse, something that cannot and will not be done if survivors are intimidated and silenced by those controlling the messaging. The rhetoric of these journalists, and others, is victim blaming, irresponsible, anti-feminist and exclusionary.

I do not doubt that the generations of women before us have paved the way by withstanding years of abuse and harassment, and I understand that the Ansari allegations may seem far removed from the traditional conceptions of sexual abuse. As Flanagan herself wrote, “intimate accounts of commonplace sexual events of the young seem like science fiction.” The culture and norms are changing. Just because behavior has been historically deemed as commonplace or acceptable, does not mean that we must continue to allow it, or that it is not coercive or abusive in nature.

Twenty-three perent of female undergraduate students experience some form of sexual assault in college, according to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. This is the terrifying and traumatic reality of modern-day college women. We do not need anyone to explain the reality of sexual assault to us, we understand. We understand affirmative consent and expect it. We understand that any attempt at changing our minds after we express we are not OK with the sexual advances is coercive. We understand our trauma and our fear, and we want to fight back. We understand the importance of intersectionality in this conversation; varied identities inevitably result in varied experiences with sexual abuse. Do not tell us to sit back and carry out this movement on anyone’s terms but our own. Our understanding is correct, valid, and will be the guiding message of a movement to expose and eradicate all forms of sexual assault, harassment and coercion and the culture that allows them. Please join us, and follow our lead.

Margot Libertini can be reached at mlibertini@umich.edu