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Men's #MeToo Rules
When consent means whatever men can get away with
This weekend, admitted sexual abuser Louis CK won the Grammy for best comedy album—a special in which the comedian joked about forcing women to watch him masturbate. I guess #MeToo didn’t end up “ruining men’s lives” after all!
When I wrote about Louis CK back in 2017, I predicted that the response to his behavior—defenses that labeled him pathetic rather than predatory—was the beginning of the end of #MeToo: “[The movement] won’t be smacked down all at once, it will be a slow chipping away of our confidence in women’s stories and the belief that the behavior of abusers is really that bad.”
That’s exactly what we’ve seen happen. Instead of focusing on women’s experiences—and the emotional, physical and professional harm that they’ve suffered—public discourse on sexual abuse and consent is dominated by ‘cancel culture’ complaints and hairsplitting over what actually constitutes misconduct.
Consider the reaction to Louis CK’s Grammy win: It’s been five years since the comedian admitted to the accusations against him, and men are still insisting that exposing your penis to non-consenting women and forcing them to watch you masturbate is not illegal.
It’s that quibbling over what’s legal—rather than what’s moral—that keeps me up at night. We live in a country where acceptable sexual behavior isn’t defined by what all the involved parties actively want—but by whatever men can get away with.
There’s a reason, for example, that when Rep. Matt Gaetz was accused of paying teenagers for sex, his associate insisted that upon finding out one of the girls was 17 years-old, they waited to consummate until after her 18th birthday. It’s the same reason so many states have laws allowing men to avoid statutory rape charges by marrying their victims.
No one is interested in changing the moral behavior of men. They just want them to follow the rules well enough that the culture has plausible deniability.
It doesn’t matter that it’s wrong and predatory for older men to have sex with younger women; so long as those men can wiggle their way through a legal loophole, their behavior is socially acceptable.
That’s why the 2018 accusations against Aziz Ansari infuriated so many people. Men looked at the interaction this young woman described—an older celebrity pressuring her for sex that she made clear was unwanted—and saw a normal, reasonable sexual encounter. Ansari hadn’t done anything illegal, after all. How dare any woman have expectations beyond that?
That women could want sex that isn’t just legally consensual, but ethically consensual, was a step too far.
In fact, the idea horrified many men. They called it the end of desire, the end of office romance—the end of hugs, even. It was a witch-hunt and an overcorrection, a way for women to manipulate and punish men.
These men wanted #MeToo to only be about violent serial rapists like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby—abusers who unquestionably broke the law. In part because their crimes were clear-cut and easy to condemn (though not everyone did). These were abusers who could be put in jail, men that the culture could point to and say, “see, we took women seriously!” As if they did us a favor. As if we should be grateful.
But Cosby and Weinstein also served another purpose: They became the standard by which all other men’s bad behavior was judged. He’s no Weinstein has become a catchall defense for abusive men, and—more importantly—a message to women about what kind of accusations might be taken seriously, and what kind will absolutely be diminished.
Cosby and Weinstein went to jail so that when a woman complains about Louis CK winning a Grammy, men can scoff at her greedy overreach.
What I want to know from these men is if that’s really the standard they have for themselves. Just don’t be a rapist? Anything else goes? Is their idea of good sex really just doing whatever they can legally get away with?
Most importantly: If they truly believe that men’s sexuality is inherently violent and immoral—why should we listen to anything they have to say about it at all?
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