It's time for the #MeToo movement to splinter into two distinct conversations, one on sexual misconduct and one on what actually constitutes sexual misconduct. Both conversations are legitimate and helpful, but keeping them separate is important to combatting the broader problem. The impulse to place allegations like those made against actor Aziz Ansari — described as "sexual assault" by his accuser — into the first category rather than the second illustrates this.
Ansari stands accused by one woman of ignoring "clear nonverbal cues" during a September date, pressuring her, once she was undressed in his apartment, to engage in sexual conduct with him, then breaking it off when she said "no." Many have argued that the behavior described was not assault, nor even it newsworthy.
A celebrity committing sexual assault is, of course, worthy of news coverage, but note the publication in which Ansari's accuser told her story, Babe, did not defend the account's news value by pointing to the assault charge. "It's newsworthy because of who he is and what he has said in his standup, what he has written in his book, what he has proclaimed on late night TV. Her account is pointing out a striking tension between those things and the way she says he treated her in private," the editor-in-chief of Babe's parent company contended in an interview with CNN.
Presumably if you believed the story described a legitimate sexual assault, or a credible allegation of one, that would be central to your argument in favor of its news value.
But since the genie is out of the bottle, we might as well debate whether Ansari's behavior constituted any form of misconduct. David French wrote an excellent story analyzing the comedian's impulse to aggressively and automatically pursue sex on a first date as a consequence of the sexual revolution. At the New York Times, Bari Weiss wondered why his accuser only seemed to assign agency to Ansari, casting herself as powerless prey rather than a person with the ability to resist pressure from a man who wielded no professional power over her. That Ansari's behavior, as French and Weiss both seemed to agree, is not a dramatically uncommon experience for millennials is well worth considering.
In some ways, it almost makes sense that one of the most instructive #MeToo conversations was sparked by one of the most questionable accounts of alleged misconduct. That discussion, along with the discussion about when alleged or admitted behavior rises to the level of a fireable offense, has flared at times, like when it came to former Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush.
The #MeToo movement first exposed the persistent pervasion of workplace sexual misconduct. Secondarily — and inevitably — that conversation was muddied with legitimate questions about what actually constitutes misconduct in any given context. The Ansari story makes it clear that if we are to honor the experiences of victims who have shared credible accounts pertinent to the original conversation, we must clearly do so outside the confines of that conversation.
But how is that possible?
Perhaps it's accomplished by talking about the Ansaris and the Frankens and the Thrushes in a new context, one in which we ask questions and respectfully exchange perspectives, rather than moving immediately to banish people from public life.
Based on evidence and admissions of guilt, we know certain men, think Louis C.K., have subjected far too many women to unacceptable mistreatment. Muddying that conversation — first sparked by the highly credible, clear-cut allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein — by lumping in accounts that provoke a discussion about the nature of sexual misconduct itself is no longer productive.
The more predators and their enablers see the Ansaris implicitly equated with the Weinsteins, the more opportunities they will take to discredit the entire conversation.
Let's talk about Aziz Ansari. Let's talk about Glenn Thrush. Let's talk about sexual politics and try to discern where the lines are. But let's not do it in a way that blurs those lines we all agree were definitively crossed.