The holidays are awkward enough without having to explain the definition of sexual assault to your relatives. Yet, my sisters and I found ourselves doing just that at the end of 2017, when the subject of #MeToo, a movement created by Tarana Burke to increase awareness about sexual harassment and assault, came up at a family gathering. My mother voiced her desire to support us no matter what, but seemed confused when we explained that unwanted sexual advances are harassment and that sexual contact without enthusiastic consent is assault.
“Don’t these attitudes lead to self-victimization?” my mother asked. “Whatever happened to women’s empowerment?”
These questions are central to the growing backlash against the #MeToo movement. Notably, there is a stark generational divide in the discourse. Many Generation X and baby boomer women resist #MeToo because they view it as a threat to women’s agency. Younger millennial and Gen Z women who believe in the importance of enthusiastic consent feel failed by the feminism of older generations, which frames empowerment as conforming to the worst tenets of toxic masculinity—“bite the bullet,” “don’t show fear or pain,” or, “boys will be boys”—rather than challenging them.
To young women, empowerment means actively resisting harmful norms, not tolerating them. This requires pushing back against inappropriate behaviour not only in the office, but in personal relationships as well. For example, no adult should expect sex, flirtation, or romance to magically occur without communication between partners. It’s not robotic, it’s respectful. If young women want allies in their quest to change norms, they must be open to talking with older generations in order to reconcile these different visions of empowerment.
One of the main concerns older women have with #MeToo is that it creates a culture of victimhood. The literary critic Daphne Merkin wrote in The New York Times, “We seem to be returning to a victimology paradigm for young women, in particular, in which they are perceived to be—and perceive themselves to be—as frail as Victorian housewives.” Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, wrote in The Globe and Mail that she does not believe “that women are children, incapable of agency or of making moral decisions. If they were, we’re back to the 19th century.”
Some older women also do not believe that “a bad night”—or any non-consensual sexual activity that is not technically rape—should be considered assault. Many people questioned whether “Grace’s” account of her date with Aziz Ansari—in which he ignored her verbal and nonverbal cues—constituted assault. In her Atlantic response piece, “The Humiliation of Aziz Ansari,” writer Caitlin Flanagan bemoaned the fragility of “the young,” dismissed the woman’s feelings of violation as “regret,” and attacked the allegations as “3,000 words of revenge porn.”
Other women have questioned what romance and sex would look like without the male behaviour young women condemn. Slate’s executive editor, Alison Benedikt, published an article about her marriage to a former boss who treated her in a way that, by today’s standards, would be viewed as harassment. He drunkenly kissed her at a work event and openly leered at her in the office while wielding power over her career. She viewed his advances as romantic and wonders whether the excitement of flirting will be able to withstand the standards of consent that #MeToo advocates.
These critics were fine when the #MeToo discussion was limited to the likes of Harvey Weinstein, but fail to recognize that the behaviours of serial abusers, local office creeps, and aggressive frat boys are linked. These behaviours are not equally morally depraved—no one is calling for Ansari to face the same legal consequences as Weinstein—but they all stem from the same culture of misogynistic entitlement.
As women continue to push back against sexual assault and harassment, notions of women’s empowerment must evolve past those of our mothers and grandmothers. My discussion with my older relatives about #MeToo was awkward, difficult, and frustrating, but young women need to keep having these conversations across generations in order to move forward with them.