Why Feminists And Conservatives Should Agree To Talk About Me Too’s ‘Gray Areas’

A widely circulated Jezebel article suggested late last month that Me Too’s next frontier must be “the gray areas,” defined by the author as “behavior that is harmful and inequitable but isn’t illegal.” This assertion came in an expose of sorts on former Mic writer Jack Smith, who was accused by five women of emotional abuse and coercive sex. He lost his job as a result of the Jezebel story. 

“All of these women accuse Smith of behavior they variously describe as emotional abuse, manipulation, and gaslighting,” the article stated. “Three of these women say independently of one another that these tactics led to coercive sex.”

Coercive sex is what Aziz Ansari was notoriously accused of pursuing, although only one woman made such an allegation against him. She referred to their encounter alone in his apartment as “sexual assault,” a clear overstep that was widely and immediately criticized.

The similarities between Smith’s alleged behavior and Ansari’s are so obvious that Jezebel made the connection itself. “[L]eveled more clearly, the Ansari story could be interpreted as a night of repeated transgressions and sex that could have been characterized as coercive,” wrote Julianne Escobedo Shepherd.

Recall this excerpt from the Ansari story (which Jezebel acknowledges amounted to “sloppy reporting”):

When Ansari told her he was going to grab a condom within minutes of their first kiss, Grace voiced her hesitation explicitly. ‘I said something like, ‘Whoa, let’s relax for a sec, let’s chill.’’ She says he then resumed kissing her, briefly performed oral sex on her, and asked her to do the same thing to him. She did, but not for long. ‘It was really quick. Everything was pretty much touched and done within ten minutes of hooking up, except for actual sex.’

Here’s another:

He sat back and pointed to his penis and motioned for me to go down on him. And I did. I think I just felt really pressured. It was literally the most unexpected thing I thought would happen at that moment because I told him I was uncomfortable.

Now here’s an excerpt from the story on Smith:

Jenny says that she then ‘just let it happen’ because, still stoned, she ‘wasn’t really in a frame of mind to make a thing out of this.’ Smith then ‘pressured’ her into sex in a way that made her uncomfortable, she says, and penetrated her without a condom or asking if it was okay. They had sex twice again, later that night and in the morning, both of which were consensual.

It’s worth remembering that one of the most common reactions from Ansari’s detractors and allies alike was how mundane the encounter seemed to be, how common such experiences are for urban millennials who pursue casual sex. So I concur with Jezebel: this is a conversation we should have. 

But there are two points to be made about the prospect of Me Too forging purposefully ahead into the gray area. First, the power and beauty of Me Too initially came from the sudden cultural realization that very powerful men like Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, and John Conyers were very severely abusing women— and getting away with it for years. Given the importance of the cause, the movement should stay focused. A broadened scope targeting the gray areas dilutes its meaning.

Second, I’m not convinced it’s fair or productive for media outlets to report on the bad sexual experiences women share about prominent men in the first place. Sexual assault and harassment are absolutely newsworthy. I don’t know if that’s true of allegations involving a man treating women like a jerk, given how subjective such things can be. 

That being said, by all means, let’s talk about those gray areas. Yes, it’s a conversation that should occur outside the confines of Me Too. But so many of the stories the movement has inspired women to share, even when they didn’t rise to the level of assault or harassment, raised serious questions about our broken sexual culture. 

If feminists want to have a conversation about the gray areas, we can do that. But it’s a conversation that will inevitably probe the consequences of the sexual revolution, and the normalization of hookup culture. No woman ever deserves to be mistreated by a man, be he Smith, Ansari, or anyone else. But we can help women make the gray areas look more black and white. 

I’ll never forget what Jessica Valenti tweeted after the Ansari story broke: “A lot of men will read that post about Aziz Ansari and see an everyday, reasonable sexual interaction. But part of what women are saying right now is that what the culture considers ‘normal’ sexual encounters are not working for us, and oftentimes harmful.”

There are obvious echoes of this problem in the Smith report, and though a staunch feminist such as Valenti would never concur with conservatives on the problem’s cause or solution, it’s remarkable that we can all start from the same point of agreement: these “normal” sexual encounters are not working for women. 

So, yes, let’s talk about the gray areas. Let’s talk about all the times women reluctantly consent to or regrettably engage in sexual activity that makes them uncomfortable. And let’s have an honest conversation about why they’re uncomfortable, why they consent, and why men don’t notice or don’t care.