Women will never be safe from criticism

Women are both aggressive and not assertive enough, apparently

17th January 2018

In case you hadn’t checked recently, the irony of using the term “witch hunt” to describe the #metoo movement still hasn’t dawned on its detractors.

Just yesterday, Liam Neeson was the latest in a long string of public figures to suggest that yeah, the really bad men like Weinstein deserve it – but let’s not let those pesky feminists take it too far.

They’ve used some impressive gymnastics to conceal it, but the objections made by those who’ve sought to discredit recent allegations fall broadly into one of two divergent categories. Both converge, unsurprisingly, in their focus not on the perpetrator but on the woman’s response to them, both during and after the event.

The first retort has been the most familiar. It rests on the theory, spouted by the likes of Neeson, that women have become far too aggressive and merciless in their pursuit of justice against hapless, innocent men who just didn’t pick up on the signals. This logic refuses to draw a line at any harassment or assault, and instead proposes that we draw it somewhere in the vague area of a cheeky slap on the arse.

Women, these critics claim, have become vengeful in their disproportionate reactions to minor sexual infractions

According to one particularly incensed phone-in caller on Radio 4, poor, ordinary men have become so confused about the line between harassment and flirting that they fear losing their careers over asking for a date. Women, these critics claim, have become vengeful in their disproportionate reactions to minor sexual infractions.

Yet if the aftermath of the Aziz Ansari allegations this week has taught us anything, it’s that for the detractors of the #metoo movement, women are simultaneously too assertive and not assertive enough. In this case, there was no explicit, verbal “no” uttered by Ansari’s date. There were non-verbal cues and signals, yes, but for those on Ansari’s side, this wasn’t enough. This time, the questions took the opposite tack. Why didn’t she say something? Why did she fail to set her boundaries? How was Ansari supposed to intuit that she wasn’t into it?

Ansari’s statement about the event touches on this sentiment. Revealingly, he states that he was “surprised and concerned” by the feelings his date expressed about the evening. No apology, of course. Instead, he plays unflinchingly into the role of bumbling male idiot, placing the liability for how the evening’s events turned out solely on his date for failing to take control, for being too polite.

For the women who find themselves at the centre of these scandals, it’s become increasingly clear – there is no winning

Meanwhile, we know from other recent scandals — notably Weinstein — women who confront men about their behaviour can be ostracised.

For the women who find themselves at the centre of these scandals, it’s become increasingly clear – there is no winning. Whether they respond assertively, or by freezing up and staying quiet, the age-old message is the same as it’s been for centuries: the onus is on you, not him.

While the threat of male violence forces women to constantly be alert to body language and non-verbal cues in any given situation, the same is never expected of men. The excuse gives them an easy get-out, a way of throwing up their hands and feigning ignorance while their victim is left wracked with guilt, burning with shame as they reflect on what they should have done differently. Yet for the men, as Ansari made so painfully apparent in his “surprise”, it’s all water off a duck’s back.

We can have open conversations, and implement safeguarding measures, but a totally harassment and assault-free world takes much harder work.

It will only truly begin when we shift our attention from a woman’s response to inappropriate behaviour back to that behaviour itself. It will begin, in other words, when we finally start applying our high expectations of women to men too. And if that isn’t equality, I don’t know what is.

17th January 2018