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Forget the #MeToo backlash. Stay focused on changing how sex and power work

Mashable with Charlene Senn 20 January 2018

After months of condemning pervasive sexual harassment and assault, we’ve arrived at the #MeToo backlash.

Back in October, when the allegations against Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey made it relatively easy to find your place on the battlefield, few could’ve predicted that a young woman’s account of a painful sexual encounter with comedian and self-proclaimed feminist Aziz Ansari would eventually create a deep schism in the conversation about #MeToo.

That divide, which came into full view this week, emphasized something that the movement’s critics have difficulty grasping: Sexual coercion, whether subtle or explicit, is designed to exploit the fact that girls and women are taught from the earliest moments of their lives that other people’s happiness and comfort is paramount to their own.

#MeToo demands that we reimagine the way power and gender work in relationship to sex, even if people disagree over how a victim should’ve responded to unwanted sexual advances. The complex revelations of #MeToo point us toward the difficult work that lies ahead — teaching girls and boys new skills and values that champion mutual respect and physical autonomy.

Some critics, however, have hinted that modern feminism has encouraged women to think of themselves as victims first. They worry the #MeToo debate is turning women into “snowflakes” who are overly sensitive or cannot assertively reject a man’s persistence. But feminism doesn’t make women vulnerable to victimhood; we, collectively as a society, have long done that work by insisting in small and large ways that girls and women must be soft and compliant. And we further sabotage women when we insist that their routine victimization is somehow their fault, and not the revolting product of cultural norms and expectations.

Charlene Senn, a professor of applied social psychology at the University of Windsor, has studied male violence against women and girls for many years, focusing on developing an effective education program that would provide women with knowledge, confidence, and skills to detect risk early and defend their sexual rights.

What other research has shown, and Senn has noticed herself, is that women experience “emotional obstacles” when confronted with men who use pressure and persistence in sexual encounters.

Even the most confident and assertive women, she says, can still struggle with the prospect of making a scene, appearing impolite, or seeming downright hostile. Many women are taught to maintain social relationships or not hurt people’s feelings, and they feel friction unique to their personality and circumstances when required to defy expectations of stereotypically feminine behavior.

“Some women have a lot of these obstacles, some have few, but very few have none,” says Senn. “Those [obstacles] seem predominant over the other parts of your brain saying there’s something wrong here, this isn’t what I want. How do I get out of here? How do I stop this?”

Senn developed a program for college-age women that teaches them how to overcome those barriers using a variety of techniques. The point of the EAAA Sexual Assault Resistance Education Program, known more recently as Flip the Script, isn’t to put the burden of rape prevention on women. Instead, it reflects the reality that women urgently need tools that help them advocate for their own safety and physical autonomy — something pop culture and brand-driven interpretations of women’s empowerment simply can’t teach.

Flip the Script is a 12-hour course designed to help college-age women improve their ability to assess the risk of being sexually assaulted by an acquaintance, partner, or stranger, and develop evidence-informed strategies to deal with that threat.

The program encourages women to trust themselves and more quickly acknowledge danger while helping them explore ways to overcome the emotional barriers that make it difficult to reject a man’s unwanted advances. It includes self-defense training so women know how to fight against assailants, including acquaintances, who are larger or more powerful. Finally, it does what many educators and parents will not: offer science-based information about sex, sexuality, and safer-sex practices, with the goal of helping women communicate about their desires.

“We need to normalize that women are allowed to ask for what they want,” says Senn. “Men’s desires, their wishes for sexual activity, are expected to drive the whole show, and we need to seriously undermine this.”

A 2015 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the risk of rape was significantly lower for women who participated in Flip the Script than it was for those who were just provided access to brochures about sexual assault.

While the program is designed only for college-age women, its success suggests that it takes far more than self-righteous lectures about personal responsibility and empowerment to help women break free from a lifetime of learning that others’ needs — especially men’s sexual desire — should be met first.

“I really think that one of the challenges for doing any of this work in a very deep societal way,” says Senn, “is we have to imagine a world in which little children are not forced to kiss people they don’t like … or hug people that their parents want them to hug … and that making a fuss would be negatively received.”

The basic act of consistently supporting girls (and boys) when they express their discomfort or anger, instead of chiding them for being rude or impolite, could instill in them a courage far more powerful than tossed-off instructions to defy, by any means necessary, a man who’s using pressure or force.

We could also stop portraying, in television, film, sex ed, and our personal conversations, girls and women as the coy gatekeepers of sex who secretly want nothing more than for a man to whittle away at their defenses. Some women may harbor that fantasy, and that’s fine, but making that our collective benchmark for healthy, pleasurable sex is practically criminal.

Julie Lalonde battles such myths and stereotypes constantly in her work as an educator who focuses on ending sexual violence. Lalonde, who is based in Ottawa, says the most discussed subject when she talks with girls and women is their feelings of being coerced, manipulated, and shamed into sex. Often they try to engage in the least amount of sexual activity with the hope that they can safely escape the situation.

If that strikes you as the definition of bearing a torch for victimhood, remember that gently declining or even forcefully saying no to a man’s wishes, sexual or otherwise, can come with emotional, physical, and social consequences.

When women, for example, become accustomed to men calling them a bitch on a busy sidewalk because they won’t respond to catcalls, you can’t blame them for carefully calibrating their exchanges with men to avoid gendered humiliation — even if it means experiencing another form of degradation. Part of what we need to teach boys and men is how not to punish a woman when she disagrees with or rejects them.

When Lalonde speaks with men, she tries to reach them with the message that the status quo is an insult to their emotional intelligence, with its characterization of men as hapless because they’re not mind readers.

Aziz Ansari, for instance, actually heard his date express her discomfort with his advances because he acknowledged that she said she didn’t want to feel forced into sex and “hate” him. After pausing in his pursuit of her, he started up again by kissing her and allegedly saying, “Doesn’t look like you hate me.”

In other words, he heard her objections and decided to keep pressing anyway.

“Men need to be talking to men and boys about power,” says Lalonde. “You push until you get told no is a fundamental lesson that we give young men.”

It’s no wonder, then, that women’s sexual encounters with men often leave them feeling helpless, exploited, or victimized. #MeToo demands that we take those women and their grievances seriously; their experiences are a reflection of the culture we have created around gender, sex, and power, not the product of hysteria and weakness.

Now it’s up to us, critics and supporters alike, to do our part in radically transforming that culture. No man should believe he’s justified in pursuing a woman against her wishes, and no woman should gaslight herself into believing that’s something to simply be endured.