#MeToo Movement Shows Sexual Assault is Pervasive Under Patriarchy
In recent months we've seen a huge number of people come forward with accusations of sexual harassment or assault against men in the entertainment industry, in politics, and well-known business leaders. And in many cases the exposures have encouraged more people to come forward, and the ending of careers. This has been integrated with a #MeToo movement of wimmin stepping forward to say that these highly publicized cases are not just isolated incidents. The point of #MeToo is to show all wimmin experience unwanted sexual attention at some point in their lives, often repeatedly. This movement has progressive aspects, and here we will try to take readers to the logical conclusion of all this exposure of sexual assault.
The Aziz Ansari sexual assault allegations perhaps most clearly illustrate where the #MeToo movement must go if it is to really address the root of these problems. Ansari is a famous actor, comedian and filmmaker. In January, a womyn came forward anonymously with a detailed account of her sexual encounter with Ansari. The womyn "Grace" described a very awkward and unpleasant evening in which Ansari repeatedly made sexual advances while "Grace" attempted to indicate her discomfort with what she called "clear nonverbal cues." When she finally said "no" to one of his sexual propositions, Ansari backed off and suggested they dress and just hang out.
Ansari claims he thought the encounter was entirely consensual. Grace claims Ansari ignored all her attempts to put a stop to the sex. This case has led to a useful debate over where to draw the line in terms of what we call sexual assault. This case has led some (Grace supporters and Grace opponents) to point out that calling her experience sexual assault means we've all been sexually assaulted. Or maybe not everyone, but most wimmin at the very least. Because most wimmin can point to a situation where they were uncomfortable or unhappy but pressured by a man to proceed with sex.
Ansari was oblivious to Grace's lack of enjoyment, and her inability to clearly verbally express this points to a power inequality. In a truly equal relationship between two people, each would feel totally comfortable walking away at any point. And each would be carefully listening to what the other said (verbally and non-verbally). Whatever it is that stopped Grace from walking away, whether it's Ansari's fame or wealth, or just her training as a womyn to do what a man asks, it's undeniable that she was not able to just walk away.
This is the crux of the problem with attempting to reform away sexual assault while we live in a patriarchal society. Rape is non-consensual sex. And, as the Ansari case demonstrates, there are many situations in which wimmin aren't giving consent even though men think the encounter is totally consensual. We call this non-consensual sex what it is: rape.
When there is a power difference in a relationship, the persyn with less power is limited in their ability to consent. You can't freely consent when someone is holding a gun to your head. And similarly you can't freely consent when you fear economic consequences. Those are obvious inequalities. Someone who says "yes, please" in those situations simply can't be freely consenting. The Ansari case gets at more subtle inequalities, but ones that have a very real impact on people's ability to consent. In a society where inequality is inherent in every interaction, we can't expect people to have sexual relationships that are equal and consensual. The problem isn't that Ansari raped Grace. The problem is that all sex under the patriarchy is non-consensual. Grace just wrote about one of the more subtle cases of non-consensual sex.
All this sexual assault in Amerikan society isn't the fault of the men who are being called out. It's the fault of the patriarchal society. Grace proponents point out that it shouldn't be wimmin's responsibility to help men learn how to read their discomfort. Grace opponents complain that wimmin need to empower themselves and speak up and demand that their consent (or lack of consent) be respected. This is a good debate, and we actually agree with both sides. But it's the wrong debate to be having, because neither side can achieve their goal under patriarchy. A lifetime of training to respect power (the power of men, the power of money, the power of fame, the power of a teacher, the power of looks, the power of skill) can't be overcome with an assertiveness training class. And educating people to ask for consent at every step of the way won't help when someone feels they have to say "yes" to their teacher/priest/benefactor/mentor/idol.
Some might hope that other changes in Amerikan society will move us towards abolishing the patriarchy. People fighting gender oppression argue that having a womyn president who speaks out against sexual harassment, and getting in judges who will prosecute people aggressively, and the broad education and exposure of the #MeToo campaign will eventually break down the gender power differential in this society. But even this level of reform won't change a fundamental system that is based on power differentials. We don't believe the patriarchy can be abolished under a system that is set up to help the rich profit off the exploitation of the Third World peoples. The #MeToo movement is trying to show people how pervasive sexual assault is. That's important. We need to take that further and show the link between power differentials in relationships and sexual assault. And we must be clear that these power differences will always exist under a capitalist patriarchy. We can't reform our way to pure and equal sex. Just as many wimmin are now dramatically calling out #MeToo, we dramatically call out #AllSexIsRape. Sexual assault is everywhere; revolutionary change is needed.