Post-#MeToo: Let’s Empower Women to Avoid the Gray-Zone of Sexual Consent
Through what has become an overzealous and blindly reckless effort to avoid “blaming the victim”, we’ve stolen from women the ability, or at least the incentive, to take control of their own sexual encounters and to guide those encounters in a comfortable direction.
Situations like those outlined in the story of the Aziz Anzari allegations and in the viral New Yorker story “Cat Person” have served as an advantageous bridge between explicit Harvey Weinstein-esque sexual harassment and the current conversations surrounding “gray-zone” sexual encounters, which The New York Times defines in a recent call for essays as “a particular kind of encounter, one that may not be viewed as sexual assault, but which constitutes something murkier than a bad date.”
“Let’s encourage women to behave more like they naturally feel as individuals and less like they feel society and/or men are pressuring them to behave.”
We’ve finally done an acceptable job of acknowledging sexual harassment and identifying its perpetrators. We’ve pulled back the shameful curtain that once provided sanctuary for predatory monsters who used their power, position, and influence to pressure women into unwelcome sexual situations. There are undoubtedly still offenders lurking out there, but we’ve clearly voiced our collective opposition to their historical tyranny.
We are failing, however, to begin taking the most crucial step in combating the disturbing reality of women engaging in sexual activity with which they are not comfortable. In fact, if anything, we’ve essentially opposed that step, albeit through our own best intentions. We’ve been so careful to avoid implicating women as being complicit in their own victimization that we’ve now inadvertently discouraged them from feeling responsible for the outcomes of sexual encounters in which they participated willingly.
To be clear, we’re not talking about situations that include rape by physical threat or force. In this discussion, we’re focused on situations in which a woman feels helpless in a non-physical way due to social expectation, professional circumstances, or her own discomfort with the awkwardness of telling a guy she’s “just not that into him.” We’re talking about situations in which women actually are, and should feel, empowered to make their own choices about their sexual activity.
Instead of steadfastly refusing to acknowledge a woman’s role in a one-on-one encounter, let’s actively support the agency of women in asserting themselves. As the father of a young woman in her early twenties, I hope she has the confidence to communicate with clarity during sexual situations and to act on her own desire, or lack thereof, rather than to go along with an interaction she doesn’t want and will later regret. I hope she’ll end an evening prematurely if her date doesn’t accept her first clear and confident communication regarding the level of intimate interaction with which she is comfortable.
Empowerment of women in difficult situations doesn’t only extend to the “gray-zones” of consent while dating, though. Let’s commit to reassuring women that we’ll stand behind each of them when they decide to walk out of and report a job interview the moment the interviewer acts inappropriately or makes an inappropriate suggestion. Let’s emphasize to them that it will be not only acceptable but admirable to decline and report a thinly-veiled “professional meeting” in a private location. Let’s change the entire environment so that no woman has to retrospectively say, “I didn’t want to say anything…” when she endures a situation she shouldn’t have to.
I wish all women could feel comfortable speaking openly and honestly even in awkward situations. Let’s encourage women to behave more like they naturally feel as individuals and less like they feel society and/or men are pressuring them to behave. Let’s teach our daughters that they should feel and be treated like equally powerful individuals in the arena of sexuality, and that they should explicitly and unapologetically insist upon it when they are not.
Obviously, it would be ideal if everyone always shared the same level of desire in an intimate situation, but that’s just not reality. In those times when the feelings are not equal, we should support women in ensuring that the power balance is. Instead of feeling trapped in “gray-zone” situations, women should feel comfortable altering or exiting those situations with clarity and confidence. We all want individual women to prevail against sexual harassment, assault, and “gray-zones” of intimate consent; let’s display that to those women by reassuring them that they always have our support, especially in those moments and ways in which they momentarily find themselves alone.