Updated: Jul 24, 2022
I haven’t been paying much attention to what’s going on in the world for what should be obvious reasons. With the daily barrage of outrageous revelations and disgusting conduct, it just seems to be the better part of valor to avoid the news and keep my sanity. I did recently become aware of a piece by one of my favorite authors, Margaret Atwood, published in Canada’s The Globe and Mail, that caused me to pop my head up for a few minutes and get a sense of my surroundings. “Am I a Bad Feminist?” is Atwood’s response to backlash from some members of the #MeToo movement as a result of her being a signatory of the now infamous UBC Accountable letter.
Reading Atwood led me down the rabbit hole of dozens of articles regarding the backlash, some decrying Atwood and her “tone deaf” piece, others explaining why “second-wave feminists” (which I am, apparently) had their time and now needed to step aside to let the third-wavers fix what we didn’t, and still others wondering how the movement went from focusing on the truly awful, serial behavior that has derailed countless female careers to bad dates with Aziz Ansari.
As a feminist, I have mixed feelings about all this. On the one hand, I was afraid this was where #MeToo was headed, but I’d held out hope that for once a truly positive movement that was focused on empowering marginalized voices wouldn’t be hijacked by extremists. I’d had the same hopes for the Tea Party, before it was overcome with birthers and assorted loonies. I supposed it’s inevitable that a powerful movement succumbs eventually to the loudest, sometimes most obnoxious voices.
On the other hand, I definitely identify with #MeToo and the conversation we’re FINALLY having about workplace harassment and sexual rules of engagement. Back when the movement started trending, I tweeted about it. I don’t think I’m unique in my experience as a woman in American society, and I have plenty of stories from when I was young, naïve, and uninformed regarding my right to say no, or yes, based on what I wanted. I grew up during a time when I think most people assumed that the women’s movement was over and that everything was fine. I could vote, I went to college and grad school, I had access to daycare and employment, and I had options for controlling my own reproductive health.
I was also a middle-class white woman completely unaware that women who weren’t like me had challenges I couldn’t have dreamed of, but that’s a conversation for another day.
At the time, it seemed like all those good things were worth putting up with a few ass-grabs, being passed over for promotions, earning less than a male colleague with half my education, or being subjected to locker-room banter. It was all just part of the price women paid to be admitted into the exciting world of serious bizness.
I read the article in Babe detailing the encounter “Grace” had with Aziz Ansari, and I had two reactions to it:
1. This sounds eerily like some of the terrible dates I had in the very distant past.
2. Why didn’t Grace leave?
That second reaction certainly makes me a bad feminist, but allow me to explain. Grace’s experience sounds terrifying and gross. It’s not sexy to be pressured into having sex. It’s demeaning and dehumanizing, and I’m more than a little disappointed that someone of Ansari’s generation would behave in such a way. Clearly we need to improve the messages we send boys and young men about the difference between consent and coercion.
But when I think back on my past experiences, I ask myself that same question: Why didn’t I just leave? It’s not like I was a shy, soft-spoken, delicate woman back in the day. I have a lengthy history of telling men to go to hell. In a nice, Southern way, of course.
I’ve always been unafraid to speak my mind…except when it came to sex. And I suspect this is the case with many women. It’s not like we have dozens of public role models of women who are in equal positions of power when it comes to sexual relationships. In literature, on television, in the movies, women are wanted, men want. Women are the prey, men the hunter. The woman’s job is to say “yes” or “no.” The man’s job is to get her to say “yes”…even when she’s said no several times and in several different ways.
I think it’s worth asking why Grace didn’t leave, but not to place the blame on Grace for her truly awful experience. If we really want men to start thinking of themselves as partners in their relationships with women, sexual or otherwise, then we’re going to have to be crystal clear about what’s acceptable and what is not. According to Grace’s story, Ansari was VERY clear about what he wanted. I suspect Grace didn’t feel like she had the power to be just as forthcoming and say, “I do not want to have sex with you, and if you continue to pressure me, this date is over.” I want a world in which women feel as confident in articulating what they do and do not want as do men because ultimately that’s going to benefit both women AND men.
In her “Am I a Bad Feminist?” piece, Atwood wrote, “My fundamental position is that women are human beings, with the full range of saintly and demonic behaviours this entails, including criminal ones. They're not angels, incapable of wrongdoing…Nor do I believe th
at women are children, incapable of agency or of making moral decisions.” This is what feminism means to me. Not putting women above men. Not valuing a woman’s experience over a man’s. Not assuming that women are always right and men are always wrong. It means recognizing that men and women have an equal stake in all our relationships with each other, and equal responsibility for speaking out about what we want and don’t want, what is acceptable and what isn’t.
I learned a lot from my terrible dating experiences. We all do, men and women. I hope that both men and women will learn from Grace’s story, and the stories of other women who are finally talking about what it’s like to be a woman in a society that is, frankly, really bad at sex. We can do better.