Women’s empowerment has been a prominent subject in the media recently, but what does it mean for women to be empowered?
In light of the recent Aziz Ansari scandal
, there have been diverging ideas on what it means for women to be empowered. For some, empowerment has meant having the confidence to speak out against perpetrators of sexual assault like film producer Harvey Weinstein and USA Gymnastics Team physician, Larry Nassar. For others, like Bari Weiss of the New York Times
, empowerment has meant examining more nuanced cases, like the Ansari case, and negotiating their role in the #MeToo movement.
Up until this point, #MeToo has done an excellent job of providing a welcoming platform for women to speak up about their experiences of sexual assault. As a result of the movement, we have begun to rectify some of the wrongs committed by perpetrators of grievous sexual assaults; for example, the recent sentencing of Larry Nassar
. Moreover, the nuances of the contemporary sexual experience have entered the forefront of many young people’s minds. Unfortunately, there have also been some interpretations of the #MeToo movement that may be debilitating the cause rather than strengthening it.
Cases like Aziz Ansari’s scandal are taking away from more serious issues of assault against women. I hesitate to use the phrase “more serious issues of sexual assault”, because we have cowered away from putting a label on what is and is not sexual assault. It seems unfair to put labels on someone’s traumatic and emotional experiences. However, this extreme objective acceptance has lead us into a moment where a story like the one that has as protagonist Grace, the woman who went on a date with Ansari, is headlining the news for days, while cases of marital rape and domestic abuse in low income families continue to go unnoticed and unreported. This is not to say that the existence of violent rape automatically negates the seriousness of non-violent sexual assaults; yet, as a society, we do need to take a look at empowerment in more ambiguous cases. The eruption of disagreement about whether the Ansari case qualifies as sexual assault needs to be addressed. We should not blame Grace for not leaving an uncomfortable situation, but we should wonder why Grace felt that she could not leave.
Is feeling uncomfortable a justifiable reason for not leaving a situation? This is an uncomfortable question because it takes a seemingly anti-victim, anti-feminist approach of questioning the validity of the experiences of victims of sexual assault. Women never invite assault of any kind on themselves; any such assertion would be grossly disrespectful and inaccurate. Yet, we need to take a look at sexual encounters like that of Ansari and Grace with a more critical eye, in order to engage in a dynamic discussion about the role of women in their sexual activities. Does the #MeToo rhetoric arm women with the empowerment to speak up before a situation gets to the point of sexual assault? At the very least, it didn’t for Grace.
Bari Weiss’s New York Times article asserts that women like Grace have begun to trivialise the #MeToo movement. Weiss addresses many of the claims made in the original Babe article concerning the Ansari, and cites it as an example of a lack of female empowerment. Weiss explains that Grace was not forced, nor was she technically coerced into performing sexual acts with Ansari. It is largely undisputed that Grace had the physical ability to leave the situation at any point throughout the encounter. The more nuanced issue of feeling uncomfortable and coerced is the more complex issue of empowerment.
Coercion is complicated. In the Weinstein cases, for example, the women were coerced. Weinstein is an extremely powerful individual within their professional circuit, and was oftentimes even their boss. Introducing a power dynamic like the one present in the Weinstein cases provides evidence for substantial coercion that qualifies the encounters as sexual assault, even if there was not necessarily a violent element.
Conversely, the relationship between Grace and Ansari was neither professional nor coercive. Ansari held no power, physical or intangible, over Grace. The biggest issue between Ansari and Grace was that Grace didn’t feel empowered to speak up more adamantly or leave the situation. We should not blame Grace for lacking agency in the situation, however, we should be looking to our society for the reasons why women don’t feel that they can speak up on uncomfortable but non-threatening sexual encounters. The idea of women as passive, delicate creatures that should be pursued significantly contributes to women lacking empowerment in sexual settings. It is likely that Grace felt it would be embarrassing if she abruptly left. Moreover, she likely feared being called a tease, a prude or a bitch. As a society, we need to tell women that it is okay to leave. It is okay for men to think you are rude. It is okay to change your mind. You are under no obligation to maintain a feminine politeness in the face of an uncomfortable situation.
There is no single answer to the question of what it means for women to be empowered. However, we need to use the powerful momentum from the #MeToo movement to continue asking these probing, uncomfortable questions in order to grow our collective understanding of the incredibly nuanced subject of sexual assault and the modern women’s sexual experience.
Maya Morsli is Opinion Deputy. Email her at email@example.com.