#Metoo… We Are Having the Wrong Conversation

A couple of months ago I wrote an article about the issues swirling around regarding the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the new and better awareness of the level of sexual harassment and abuse that women have endured.  Since then, the #Metoo movement has taken off, and raised more awareness about some very important issues regarding abuse of power and the societal norms that put certain groups at a disadvantage.

But along with what I see as positive and necessary changes, such as the sentencing, for example, of Dr. Larry Nassar after what appears to be decades of abuse of women and girls, and the speaking up that’s going on (see, for example, Salma Hayek’s op-ed about how she was treated by Harvey Weinstein), there has been, unfortunately, some collateral damage that maybe didn’t need to occur (see: Al Franken, Chuck Close).  Unfortunately, if there is too much collateral damage, a movement that is based on good intentions can lose support – both from men and women – because there is the risk of seeming hysterical, rigid, and having a double standard (e.g., the woman who accused Al Franken of misconduct was photographed doing many of the same things to men who also did not ask to be touched).

What I think is most important, and what has been floating around my head as this has all unfolded, is that we are having the wrong conversation.  There is no doubt in my mind that women have suffered discrimination, as have many minorities and those without power.  There is no doubt in my mind that women can be more easily victimized physically because of a size differential, as well as harassed and victimized sexually, economically, and otherwise due to power and wealth differentials.  However, and I stressed this in my last article as well, taking on only one role, the role of victim, is not helpful in empowering women.  I am not the only one who has commented that if we continue to send the message that we can’t take care of ourselves and everything that happens is victimization, we will be treated as such – unable to be trusted with jobs, finances, property, the vote, the list goes on.

Being a member of an oppressed class and acknowledging that oppression, as well as working to empower oneself, are not mutually exclusive.  To use an example from Sheryl Sandberg that has to do with pay and not sexual harassment, we have to ask for what we want and need, not wait for it.  Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook, and she wrote a book a few years ago called Lean In, a book I think every young woman should read before she launches her life.  Ms. Sandberg talks about the challenges women face, as far as glass ceilings, discrimination, condescension, etc.  But rather than blame all the differences in income, professional standing, and success on discrimination, she talks about what women do to sabotage themselves and what they can do to better help themselves.  Case in point: let’s say there are two identical jobs available at a company, and a man and a woman apply for the jobs.  Both are excellent candidates and both are hired.  Same position, same title.  They each meet with Human Resources, who informs the new hires that the job pays $50,000 a year and provides X benefits package.  The woman, often socialized and advised not to make trouble or ask for too much, is afraid that the job offer will be rescinded if she asks for anything additional, so she takes the package, so as not to appear demanding.  The man, on the other hand, socialized to go for what he wants and needs, tells the HR representative that he is very interested in this job, but that he really needs a bit more of a raise to make it worth leaving his current job, and was hoping that the job might pay more in the area of $55,000.  In addition, he asks if the benefits package is negotiable, as he would like another week of paid time off and was hoping to cap his out-of-pocket expenses for health insurance premiums at a lower number than HR is quoting him.  He is not likely to get everything he asks for, but he is likely to end up with a better package than the woman, hired for the same job, at the same time, with the same experience, with the same offer on the table.  Guess who is more likely, also, to ask for a raise and a promotion when the time is right.  Guess who is more likely to take on a new task, even if it is challenging and anxiety provoking, and assume he will learn as he goes, proving to his boss that he is a quick learner and a risk taker.  Guess who is more likely to stay at work late, go on business trips, and in some professions, get hazard pay for being willing to do things like climb utility poles, go on difficult assignments, or face danger.  Now guess which new hire is more likely to stay home with a sick child, try to balance work and family, and end up taking care of an elderly parent.  Guess which employee will not ask for a raise, out of fear of seeming pushy or greedy, and will not go for the next promotion out of the anxiety that she is not proficient enough to do the job.

Even though more women than men are going to college today, and even though in some younger couples women are starting to out-earn their partners, we still have these problems and will continue to have problems.  Studies have shown that even when children are engaging in the same type of play, with the same risks of harm, we tend to tell girls more often to “be careful” and “watch out” and “don’t get hurt” while we let boys skin their knees and take risks.

What does this have to do with the sex abuse scandals blaring from the front pages?  Everything.  That woman not asking for a better employment package is the same woman not putting a man in his place when he is rude or disrespectful, not sensitive to her needs, or otherwise not treating her in a way she deserves to be treated.  Let me make what might seem a loose association at first, but bear with me.  Two words.  Aziz Ansari.  Mr. Ansari is a comedic actor and writer who was recently outed in an online magazine article as an insensitive clod by a woman using the pseudonym “Grace.”  Grace and Mr. Ansari met at a party.  She pursued him as she was interested in getting to know him and maybe dating him.  He did not seem particularly interested at first, it seems, but eventually they exchanged numbers and set up a date.  The article in question calls this date “the worst night of my life” and proceeds to make Mr. Ansari sound like as bad an abuser as Harvey Weinstein.  I read the article; here is a summary of the date:

Grace arrived at Mr. Ansari’s apartment before the date and he poured her a glass of wine.  It was white; she prefers red.  She saw this as evidence that he didn’t care about her needs and tastes.  It’s possible he had no red wine in the house.  Who am I to say?

The couple went to dinner on a boat docked in the Hudson River.  It sounds like the date was uneventful and nothing to write home about.  Grace took pictures of the food to post on social media.  They drank some more wine.  When dinner was over, Mr. Ansari seemed in a rush to leave, even though they hadn’t finished the bottle of wine.  Grace still had wine in her glass.  She interpreted his behavior as him being in a hurry to get her back to his apartment for sex.

They go back to his apartment, and indeed, start kissing and petting.  He makes some suggestive comments.  They end up naked.  They engage in oral sex.  Grace claims that she did say things such as wanting to slow down and not feel forced.  But they continue fooling around naked, both in the kitchen/living area and the bedroom.  Eventually, she tells him she does not want to have sexual intercourse, and they sit down, still nude, on the couch to watch television.  A little while later Mr. Ansari again tries to get frisky with her, and she gets annoyed.  They both get dressed and she asks him to call her a cab.

This was the worst night of her life.

When Mr. Ansari reached out the next day and said it was nice to meet her, Grace responded that she was very unhappy with how the date went, and he apologized.  He claimed that he felt everything was mutual and felt terrible for any misunderstandings.  But now we all know that he was a clumsy and selfish lover, a boring date, and in the mind of Grace, an abuser, at least of power, if not of her body.

There is so much wrong with this narrative, and for those of us who deal with teenage girls on a regular basis, we need to pull this situation apart and see what really happened and why this young woman was so upset.  First off, and I said this in a comment on an article, and it became a New York Times Pick – perhaps a one night stand is not the place to be looking for intimacy, love, and someone who will read your mind and know what you want.  Sex with someone you just met is not going to be the same, for better or worse, as someone you are having a more three-dimensional relationship with.  Men seem to know that better than women, and many women do not feel satisfied with one night stands.  Then maybe one night stands are not for you.  If one night stands are your thing, then be realistic about what they are and are not.

Second, let’s be clear that at no point does it seem that Grace was held in the apartment against her will, overpowered physically, threatened, or forced into anything.  At the first clear indication that she wanted to stop, they stopped and watched television.  Yes, Mr. Ansari pursued her again later, but to be fair, they were both still naked.  Nudity on a stranger’s couch after engaging in oral sex may send a message.  Girls (and boys), be clear of the message you are sending.  If you don’t like the response, change the message.  That goes for all of us in every situation, sexual or otherwise.

Third, at any point in the evening, presumably, Grace could have made her preferences known.  “Oh, thanks for the wine.  Do you have any red open by the way?  No?  OK, I prefer red, but I’ll have the white, thank you.”  “What’s the hurry to leave?  I’d like to finish my drink and maybe get a cup of coffee.”  “I’d like to fool around, but I don’t think I want to have actual intercourse on the first date.  But we could have a PG-Rated makeout session if you want.  Kissing is so underrated!!” (it is!!!)

We have to stop being afraid to ask for what we need.  What’s the worst that can happen?  Maybe Mr. Ansari was unaware that he was rushing his date out of the restaurant.  We have no idea how much she may have been flirting and getting him aroused, and maybe he thought she was eager to leave too.  We don’t know what went through his head.  But unless he is a real jerk, are we to think that he wouldn’t have stayed in the restaurant a little longer to finish the wine and give his date a moment to relax after her meal?

Fourth, and this is extremely important – this was a bad date.  This does not reach the level of sex assault or rape or even the type of coercion that people suffer at the hands of their bosses who withhold pay, promotions, etc., until sexual favors are performed.  To equate the two is disrespectful to those who have been assaulted, and making such comparisons turns many people off of these types of movements.

Grace did have control in this case, but she did not use it.  She perpetuated the narrative that if she was not satisfied, if she felt used, if she felt cheap, if she didn’t get her needs met, it was someone else’s fault.  People will treat you as you let them treat you.  As far as we know, the fact that she was given white wine rather than red had nothing to do with a male/female power differential or a lack of caring for her tastes, but was simply because that was what was open.  How was a stranger to know, without her speaking up, that she didn’t like white wine?  Maybe he only buys white wine.  I have never had a cup of coffee in my life, though I often keep some in the house for guests.  But they have to ASK for it, because it never dawns on me to take out the coffee pot otherwise.  Doesn’t make me a jerk.  Makes me someone who doesn’t drink caffeine.

Perhaps #Metoo should not be carrying the message of, “Me too, I’ve been a victim too,” But should be, “Me too, I get to be heard.  Me too, I get an orgasm and other pleasure from this encounter.  Me too, I get to have my feelings be respected.”  The conversation we should be having with girls should be about that, not about how many of us can recount chapter and verse how many cat calls we’ve suffered, how many pinched rear ends, how many times we felt like sex objects.  Maybe we need to have more conversations with young girls about sex that aren’t just about what it feels like to have sex in the context of a loving relationship, but what the reality is of a one night stand, or of a one sided oral sex encounter where only the guy goes home satisfied.  Maybe we need to talk to girls from early on that they should ask for what they want and need, whether that’s a better benefits package, a raise, dessert, or an orgasm.  Maybe we need to have very different conversations.  The #Metoo movement has opened the dialogue as well as the flood gates. Now let’s talk about why it was so easy for Harvey Weinstein and others like him to abuse and take advantage of young women.  Why was Dr. Nassar able to molest girls as young as six and not get caught?  Why does a woman like Grace, who seemed to go after what she wanted when she approached Aziz Ansari at a party, then turn into a shrinking violet when she’s naked in his apartment and feeling that she has to consummate a relationship she’d rather not?  And how many men, like Mr. Ansari, are well-meaning and not at all predators, and truly feel sorry when there is a miscommunication about something as delicate and personal as sex, and if was only told how the woman was feeling, they would have done an about-face and been more responsive to the woman?  You can’t expect your boss to know you want a raise, and you also can’t expect your partner to know what you want if you don’t tell him. Stop saying “Nothing” when asked what’s wrong.

The best thing that can happen from the current news cycle about these issues is that we empower all people, men and women, to demand more respect and empathy.  That we nurture mutual respect and more connection.  That we talk more freely about issues that often go unmentioned and therefore not addressed.  I talk to so many young people about sex, boys and girls, in the hopes that their work with me can help them to find themselves sexually, romantically, and in how they interact with other people.  I want to help them figure out what type of relationships work for them and to find those people who meet those needs and desires so that they are satisfied on every level as much as possible.  It’s important to highlight systemic problems.  But it’s also important to empower people to take the next step and start to fix the problems without hysteria, without blame where blame is not appropriate, and with taking responsibility for ourselves and our actions and the messages we give to others.

To this end, I’ll be starting a counseling/support group for high school girls.  Day and time to be determined, but it will be late evening one night, possibly Wednesday.  If you are interested in signing up your daughters, please reach out.  This is an amazing opportunity to have real open dialogues with these young people, and to change the dynamics of relationships in the future.  Session one will start with Dr. K’s assertiveness lessons (though they’ve been called other things in my office that I won’t print here).

It’s time to say, “Me too, I have a voice.”

Barbara Kapetanakes, Psy.D. practices psychotherapy in Sleepy Hollow.

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About the Author: Barbara Kapetanakes Psy.D.