This past weekend, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that while she believes the #MeToo movement is a "good thing," people also need to be "a little bit careful" in how they talk about it — otherwise men might start not to want women around in the workplace.
On Thanksgiving, my parents and I were sitting around the dinner table talking about, what else, Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement. I listened as my dad decried the "witch hunt" and my mom, while more sympathetic, wondered whether hurting "innocent men's careers" is worth it in order to bust a few perpetrators.
I don't think it particularly helps to arrange people along neat generational fault lines amid a debate that's already divisive. How we respond to moral questions is often influenced by our values and upbringing, not our age. But, even judging by how many people criticised Rice's "infantilising" comment, it's apparent that much of our language around sexual politics has changed over time.
Older women have had very different experiences in the workplace, and their perceptions of what's acceptable seem to differ. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that among women 18 to 49 years old, 78% say "sexual harassment happens in almost all or most workplaces." But among those 50 or older, only 64% agree with the statement. Recent research by YouGov found that younger British women are more likely to view certain behaviours, like catcalling, inappropriate.
Brenda Russell, professor of applied psychology at Penn State-Berks, a baby boomer who has studied sexual harassment for 30 years, says her early research indicates that boomers often declined to report sexual harassment or rape. The term sexual harassment itself wasn't coined until 1975, and not widely discussed until 1991, the year Anita Hill testified against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
"How many in our generation would never report harassment because, to some extent, it was expected, and you just dealt with it," she tells Refinery29. "If women did report, they were considered overly sensitive, a problem to be dealt with, or a liar."
Russell says part of her agrees with Rice's statement, and she echoed it. "I think we need to be careful about deciphering what is...sexual harassment and what is just bad dating etiquette. I worry about how far we are going... If we perpetuate a stereotype that women are victims in need of special assistance, this can actually generate further inequality."
The account of a 23-year-old photographer's alleged date-turned-nightmare with comedian and actor Aziz Ansari in Babe had some crying "bad date," while others saw it as nauseating, toxic privilege. Bari Weiss, a millennial staff writer at The New York Times, dismissed it as "bad sex," criticising Grace, the subject, for not allowing herself any "agency" in the situation. Caitlin Flanagan at The Atlantic (a boomer) went further, calling the story "revenge porn."
From the account, many agree that while Ansari doesn't deserve to be locked up, this wasn't a garden-variety bad date. "It was 30 minutes of me getting up and moving and him following and sticking his fingers down my throat again. It was really repetitive. It felt like a fucking game," Grace said. And then: "I know I was physically giving off cues that I wasn’t interested. I don’t think that was noticed at all, or if it was, it was ignored." At the end, she describes feeling violated, which shouldn't be the result of any date.
Grace's story suggests there's an important — intergenerational — conversation to be had around "bad sex" and sexual power dynamics. Alyssa Peterson, policy coordinator of Know Your IX, a youth-run organisation to end gender violence (and a millennial), stresses the need to continue talking about sexual ethics in light of this story and others.
"I think Condoleezza is paying lip service to #MeToo; you can't say women who are asserting their rights are being infantilised," she tells Refinery29. "It's super-infantilising to say that women and men don't know the difference between a bad date and that," she continues, referring to Grace's story.
Just because stories like Grace's are common doesn't mean they're not serious, and getting hung up on legality leads people to ignore the insidious power dynamics at play. "There's nothing more demoralising, it's so utterly soul-sucking and degrading," Peterson says of the account. "I think people have been bogged down in the legal distinction. Even if it's not sexual assault, I think we need to know...this type of sexual behaviour is unethical."
There are bigger conversations to be had than "old vs. young," says Jennifer Nash, PhD, associate professor of African-American Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies at Northwestern University.
"I don't think feminists should consider this a generational debate. We can look at this moment differently. What we are seeing is part of a much longer feminist debate about sexual ethics, coercion, consent, and the place of law in women's sexual autonomy," she says.
Sure, let's not frame this in generational terms. But let's find a way to move forward the conversation around sexual experiences that reek of inequality and make women feel smaller as they take their cars home — not just in Babe, Jezebel, or among younger women, but in the mainstream, maybe even around the kitchen table when we're visiting our parents.
So many of us have had these experiences, no matter what age we are, but we're still stumbling to find the language to talk about them.