If the term "jump the shark" didn't already exist, it would need to be invented to describe the state of the #MeToo movement after the publication of (and lavish praise for) a lengthy essay recounting the lurid details of one woman's bad date with comedian Aziz Ansari.
Already, a growing list of writers — Cathy Young, Masha Gessen, Daphne Merkin, Margaret Atwood, and Andrew Sullivan — had begun to raise concerns about the danger of the movement going too far, engaging in witch hunts, displaying disregard for due process, and imposing prudish Puritanical standards on sexual interactions. But with the Ansari essay, published on the website Babe.net, we've entered new territory.
The essay, which author Caitlin Flanagan aptly describes at The Atlantic as "3,000 words of revenge porn," recounts the story of a 23-year-old photographer who eagerly went on a date with Ansari last September, accompanied him back to his apartment after a rushed dinner out, and then engaged in a complicated series of graphically described and exceedingly awkward sexual interactions with him. Eventually the woman (given the pseudonym "Grace" to conceal her identity) fled his apartment in tears. The following day, when Ansari texted to say he'd had a good time, she sent Ansari a text message in which she admitted her discomfort with his behavior the night before, and he rather cluelessly apologized.
That, apparently, was it — until the story of the date appeared online, insinuating that Ansari is guilty of … well, the story never really says. If its account of his behavior is accurate, then he certainly acted like a self-involved, sex-obsessed creep for much of the date. Lacking a word to describe such behavior, many have resorted to calling it "sexual misconduct."
In a workplace, expectations regarding interactions among employees are clearly defined by law and binding regulations. That makes it possible to define sexual misconduct with some precision as a violation of those expectations. But Grace didn't work for Ansari, and they weren't coworkers. He had no authority over her at all (beyond the authority she may have invested in him by virtue of his celebrity). In that open-ended context of two people who decided to go home together, describing his actions as "sexual misconduct" sounds vaguely Orwellian — as a transgression against norms that are presumed to be binding on all despite the fact that they have yet to be defined.
And that's what the hit job on Ansari is really all about.
The #MeToo movement began in the immediate wake of revelations of astonishingly abusive behavior by movie producer Harvey Weinstein (which itself followed similarly vile accusations against Bill Cosby, Bill O'Reilly, and Roger Ailes). From the start, its message was powerful and compelling: Women need to come forward and share their stories of sexual abuse and predation, both in the workplace and elsewhere. They have done exactly that, and they continue to do so. A long list of powerful men have now been brought down by such stories: Leon Wieseltier, Mark Halperin, Kevin Spacey, Louis CK, Matt Lauer, and dozens of other actors and media personalities.
But the #MeToo movement has also been about something else from the beginning — something less focused or clearly defined. Just two weeks after the Weinstein story broke, I wrote a column in which I noted that the movement was already in danger of becoming a quasi-religious quest for spiritual uplift marked by righteous denunciations, post-Christian expressions of atonement, and calls for moral awakening and conversion, mass repentance and purification.
Over the intervening months, as the movement took down a series of men who had gotten away for years with wildly abusive behavior in the workplace (and also targeted some borderline cases), some of its most prominent champions have insisted the movement be more ambitious. Women need to call out any and all examples of behavior that could be described as sexual misconduct, broadly defined: bad sex, inconsiderate sex, sex in which the man treats his partner solely as an object for his gratification, and sex in which consent is in any way ambiguous or ambivalent.
But of course bad sex isn't illegal. And neither does it violate any clearly defined laws or regulations, such as those set up in the workplace. In the absence of codified norms against such behavior, what can be done?
The Ansari case shows us the chilling possibility: The alleged perpetrator of sexual misconduct can be shamed, humiliated, his every oafish act offered up to the world for mockery and condemnation by the tweet-mob. That's assuming, of course, that he's famous. All the countless thousands of faceless men who treat woman just as bad as (or far worse than) Ansari treated Grace will retain their anonymity, since no one will click on a story about how some random woman hooked up with some equally random horny, self-involved jerk.
The best that can probably be said for the Ansari story is that it's supposed to serve as an object lesson and cautionary tale for all those anonymous guys. Ansari's punishment — exacted by his unhappy date, imposed by the media outlet that was willing to run the story — is to serve as a negative example: Don't treat women like this! It's wrong! And they hate it! (As Flanagan notes, the most moving moment in the essay comes when Grace storms out of Ansari's apartment proclaiming, "You guys are all the same, you guys are all the f-cking same.")
Is this likely to work? Will the ritual humiliation of a few entitled, sexually stunted men accomplish a moral revolution? I doubt it very much — because it takes two to have bad sex, and the key to teaching men how to improve their ability to relate sexually to their partners is communication, which is one thing completely lacking in the story of Grace's horrible date with Ansari.
The impression one gets from reading that sorry account is that Grace is incredibly passive. Ansari dictates when they leave the restaurant and return to his apartment. Through several rounds of sexual interaction, he's the one who initiates. She stops him multiple times, and indicates that she'd like to take it slower, but until the final conflagration, she never really explains what she wants or expects, or firmly tells him the date is over, or makes clear that she will not continue fooling around with him. On the contrary, she repeatedly relents to his cloddish and smarmy advances. Until she leaves and sends him the angry text the following day. And then speaks to a reporter at Babe.net, which published the whole account for all the world to read.
The psychological term for such behavior is passive-aggression. One of its sources is an inability to communicate emotions, which leads to lashing out in hostility.
If #MeToo is a political movement to ensure that women are treated with respect and protected from the predatory behavior of men, then the way to go is the sharing of stories and careful reporting — in short, the publicizing of that behavior. But if #MeToo is a moral crusade to rid the world of creeps, it needs to take a different and decidedly longer-term approach and focus on changing attitudes one person at a time — men as well as women. Both need to express their wants, needs, and expectations; both need to speak and know they've been heard.
The way to accomplish that is by talking, and listening, and forthrightly standing ground — not by going along passively with a bad experience while it's happening and then launching a vindictive attack on the most public stage imaginable.
By taking the latter approach, "Grace" has done nothing at all to advance the movement of which she is a part. Neither will anyone else who chooses to follow her example.