This past weekend, over takeout and then later texts, some friends and I were discussing the Louis C.K. allegations. (Talking about sexual misconduct, assault and rape has become regular cocktail party conversation these days, which is a good thing.) One friend shared the following social media post by the writer Emily Bracken:
As a feminist sex writer myself, I’m as outraged by these allegations as the next sentient woman. I’m inspired by the wave of survivors speaking out publicly. And I’m gratified by the overwhelming (albeit incomplete) public response of women finally being believed and their perpetrators being shamed and ousted. I totally get the clever “passive-aggressive rape” sentiment: C.K. used his position to force unwilling participants into a sexual scenario without any physical contact. My initial reaction was to give it a thumbs-up.
But ultimately, I don’t think we should be conflating what C.K. did — gross sexual misconduct, harassment, indecent exposure — with forced bodily penetration.
In an effort to get out of my liberal bubble, I sometimes read more moderate, libertarian, and even conservative online forums. And time and again, I’ve seen fairly thoughtful, well educated people — people who are interested in intelligent philosophical debates on politics and religion — become apoplectic over earnest Internet memes like “Stop eye raping me!” Much to my dismay and chagrin, they take the letter of these feminist memes (the thought police are one step away from instituting blinders for all men), instead of the spirit (women don’t like to be ogled and harassed). Viral tag lines specifically designed to provoke and challenge often have the opposite effect of alienating exactly those moderates we need on our side to elect progressive politicians and pass legislation that ensures women’s equality (or at the very least, to not elect more Donald Trumps and Roy Moores).
So I sometimes worry that declarations like these, which blur lines for dramatic effect, only help convince these people to reject all feminist critiques as extreme and unreasonable.
Feminist writer Jessica Valenti wrote recently, “I’ve heard male friends express relief that C.K. wasn’t accused of rape; as if on the spectrum of harassment and assault, what he did wasn’t as horrific as other kinds of assault.” It was horrific, to be sure, but let’s be honest: it wasn’t as horrific as, say, Weinstein’s alleged rapes. Yes, both are horrendous abuses of power which should absolutely be prosecuted, both in a court of law and the court of public opinion: but one is a misdemeanor, the other is a felony. You wouldn’t wish either to happen to anyone, but in a twisted game of “Would You Rather,” nobody is picking Weinstein over C.K.
What the comedian did was definitely a product of society’s vast “rape culture,” but it wasn’t rape. All the crimes being revealed of late are bad, but they’re not equally bad. Admitting that doesn’t diminish our moral authority, nor does it absolve any of these criminals. Maybe calling everything “rape” is what it’s going to take to shame and scare men out of all sexual misconduct, from catcalling to sexual harassment to acquaintance rape. But in doing so, I fear we only feed the inevitable backlash against the progress of the last few months — which Valenti herself prophesizes.
Just look at what happened with the well-meaning but inaccurate “1 in 4 college women will be sexually assaulted” meme: critics ripped it apart, citing it as yet another example of irrational, unreasonable harpies with their hair (and pants) on fire crying wolf, despite all the evidence that there is a serious wolf epidemic. This is how we end up with Betsy DeVos reversing Obama-era policy on campus sexual assault investigations.
While we continue the fight to bring sexual harassment, misconduct, assault and rape out of the shadows and into the light — with shame only for the predators, not the victims — it’s important to speak accurately about the facts of each case, avoid generalizations, and acknowledge nuance. Let’s not give those less sympathetic to the feminist cause any reason to dismiss these kinds of charges as unbelievable, statistics about assault as exaggerated, or our justified outrage over them as misguided. That will go a long way in preserving the goodwill brave women coming forward have right now, helping to ensure this wave of justice becomes not just a trend but the norm.