It’s Fine if #MeToo is Also About Bad Sex

Because Abuse is a Spectrum


cw: pictures of domestic violence, talk of sexual violence

It’s 2018 and much to my surprise, people are actually caring about sexual violence, harassment, domestic violence and other abuses of power that have destroyed the lives of women. It’s a topic I’ve been closely following for much of my life and personal experience has made me even more acutely aware of how often harassment and violence happens. I was so used to following news about sexual harassment and domestic violence that only had consequences for the victim that I had stopped believing that I’d ever live in a society that would make fighting gendered violence a priority.

I was wrong and in 2017, suddenly a wave of allegations finally pushed the topic to the forefront of Things We Should Care About As a Civilized Society. But then, just as swiftly, big brained think pieces popped up wondering aloud if things have gone too far. Because of course they did. Because apparently all of history wasn’t a long enough time to spend burying the problems of systemic gendered violence. People (men) wondered how far this whole bitching campaign would go. Would they not be able to flirt with women without facing a lynch mob? Were there more inaccurate, extreme analogies privileged white men could draw to show how embarrassingly out of touch they were? I guess we’ll know because they can’t let us forget they have opinions too.

A familiar refrain in the criticism of the #MeToo campaign is that we (women) have gone too far in our proclamations of abuse to the point where poor men are being vilified for simply being pushy about sex. The infamous article about Aziz Ansari was the tipping point to a backlash we (women) all expected. It’s one thing to complain about violence but totally unacceptable to complain about bad or pushy sex and how fucking dare we talk about this extremely common situation when there are other worse things we could talk about? We’re not allowed to care about less bad bad things!

The logical fallacy you’re looking for is relative privation and you have no idea how hard it was to not begin this sentence with “well, actually”.

Today, news hit that a White House Staff Secretary beat the shit out of his ex wives and yet (shockingly!) was allowed to keep his job and may have used his connections to cover the abuse up. Did no one tell him we live in a post-domestic violence society? You’re not allowed to beat up your wife now — men are only allowed to use their power to pressure women into mediocre sex according to the weird binary being carved out in this discussion.

Extreme emotional abuse was also alleged but that type of abuse only wrecks you on the inside so it doesn’t really count.

But the abuse of women and non-men isn’t binary; it’s part of a multifaceted system that deprioritizes their personhood. The disturbing part about the Ansari story wasn’t in its sensationalism but in its banality. We have an image of sexual violence as something abrupt, shocking, and with visible wounds. Colbie Holderness also mentioned emotional abuse at the hands of White House aide Rob Porter but because that’s not as visible it’s easily dismissed. But this nitpicking and ranking of abuse misses the larger point of why abuse happens.

We don’t tend to think of pushing boundaries in pursuit of mediocre sex as violent but it comes from the same place of entitlement and lack of respect that underlies domestic violence. Gropers, desperate dudes, and Nice Guys(tm) aren’t going to punch their victims. They prefer to wear them down through attrition because that’s what they’ve been taught is acceptable their whole lives and their victims are taught the completely opposite lesson — that they should give in because they are obligated. Believing that some people have fewer rights to say no than others have to take what they want is a fundamental problem. We don’t live in a consent based culture; we live in one where coercion is normalized. That’s not the same as saying all women should fear all men or that power dynamics are always fixed or that rapists are waiting behind every corner.

But we don’t get to pick and choose what is an acceptable level of violence when the premise the underlies the types of violence against non-men is the same. Whether it’s a full on “rape rape” or sex that ignores the needs of one party; we can care about the whole spectrum of shitty behavior. That’s also not to say that all situations are equivocal — of course there are differing levels of severity. But harping on people for feeling unsafe in a sexual situation is a dumb hill to die on and also dishonest when framing the larger discussion. No one is calling for gray area encounters to supersede the discussion of more serious forms of sexual coercion. That less coercive sexual situations happen is not an indictment of a movement meant to shine light on all the ways patriarchy inhibits gender relations.

In order to effectively attack the root of gendered violence, we must consider how many branches it has and how much it influences our interactions. #MeToo isn’t just about the most obvious cases of sexual abuse but also about all the uncomfortable gray areas where consent isn’t explicit. Can’t we also wonder why there is such a large orgasm gap or why a scenario like Cat Person is so common? Is that terribly privileged of me to say that concern over the “lesser bad” side of the sexual abuse spectrum can be useful in fighting the larger problem of gendered violence? Well, maybe only if I make it a hill to die on but I don’t honestly care if people want to talk about examples of sexual discomfort as well as more “obvious” examples. Talking about the spectrum of sexual harassment is not a distraction from more important examples of sexual violence; it’s a reinforcement of the premise that personhood is still very selectively defined by cultural standards.

We know why abuse victims don’t leave, but the same thing that keeps people in abusive partnerships is the same thing that keeps people in a room with a pushy but probably physically harmless man. It’s harder to leave a room when the door that is locked is in your mind. And “probably physically harmless” is a terrible metric to judge the safety of a situation by. “Probably physically harmless” is not an acceptable standard for what men should be or how we judge whether or not an aggrieved party’s complaints are valid. The problem is that men feel it is okay to keep pushing and women feel that they can’t say no past a certain point, not that women don’t leave when people far removed from the situation thinks she should. And it’s easy to say what anyone would do when their role is a detached spectator and not the person being pushed.

You can leave at any time but outside that door is just a larger world of boundary pushers and entitlement. That people choose to disregard the smaller cuts of the thousand cuts for survival purposes does not mean they are not harmful. In fact, it exemplifies how sick society as a whole is regarding gendered violence.

If the logical conclusion of #MeToo means talking about lesser breaches of trust than “full on” rape and domestic violence, good. Wonderful, in fact. I don’t want to live in a society where any of the things on the spectrum of gendered violence is acceptable. While I’m not optimistic this future will ever happen, I think it’s a worthy goal to work towards and that means a diversity of approaches for tackling such a monstrous topic. “But but what about proportionality?!” By elevating concern about lesser violations, we can become even more proactive about the worst violations. Noticing these things are also problem doesn’t lessen the impact of sexual harassment; it shows how pervasive it is. It adds to the whole fucked up portrait of what women are expected to endure — and have endured throughout all of history. Don’t tell people they can finally be believed as an abuse victim but then snatch it away saying, “No not like that!” because they don’t have the most shocking story of sexual abuse.

The standards set by history for how we treat women have been dangerously low and this is evidenced by it taking until 2017 for people to care about these issues en masse and view gendered violence as a systemic problem. The #MeToo movement hasn’t “gone too far” when the metric for discourse around sexual harassment still contains loud proclamations of “bitch is probably lying and/or didn’t do enough to get away” as it always has.

Proclamations of “But it’s a slippery slope!” don’t mean much when we haven’t even broached anything nearing a middle ground on this topic. I don’t need to hear how I should keep perspective when I’ve had perspective on this for my whole life and so have scores of abuse survivors. It doesn’t help when the pendulum hasn’t even come close to swinging in the other direction. Look the people who still have careers despite numerous allegations of abuse, look at who’s president, look at the women you know who joined in #MeToo and try to tell me we have reached any sort of equilibrium on gender relations.

And you’re goddamned right that having the right to care about gray area encounters and bad sex come from a place of extreme privilege — I wish this to be the case for all people around the world. I wish the worst thing women had to worry about was pushy sex instead of being killed or having their career sabotaged by men after being raped or being beaten up or getting acid thrown in their faces or having their kids killed. I am well aware of proportionality and it is the reason why I’m not going to budge this topic; sexual harassment and assault and domestic violence disproportionately affect certain people (women). I’m not going to cede ground to an argument that tells me I should be happy that people finally care about the worst things men do to women.

I want “least bad” to be the worst experience people have on the gendered violence spectrum. And if that’s the world #MeToo is working towards then sign me up because I’m tired of hearing about what are acceptable gripes for me to have from people who have never had to feel the fear of living under a system that sees you as less than human. I don’t care about shifting goal posts when the whole field needs to be burned down.

I can’t care when even the most serious allegations with photographic proof and evidence of a cover-up are still viewed as something up for debate. I can’t care that conversations about bad sex are viewed as “going to far” when an alleged rapist is president. I don’t have the energy to care about the feelings of men who want to flirt with women in the workplace when women are still being sexually abused in the workplace. And maybe this is my own relative privation hangup but at least it’s based in something that is happening rather than something that is nowhere close to happening. As soon as #MeToo gets as close to destroying civilization as rape culture has, I’ll be at the front lines shaking my fist about that too. But we have a long way to go.