The Hunt For Female Agency In The #MeToo Era

I never posted a #MeToo story, and I’ve spent months trying to understand why.

It isn’t that I couldn’t think of anything worth mentioning or that I feared retaliation or even that viral hashtags generally awaken all of my most juvenile nonconformist instincts. (They do, but what a petty reason to sit out this one.) Although I agree with Daphne Merkin’s warning in a controversial New York Times op-ed that, “stripping sex of eros isn’t the solution,” I don't see that as a necessary byproduct of allowing women to publicly name their harassers. And I certainly don’t think less of those who participated in the outpouring. My attitude toward the movement changes as each new chapter is written, but my predominant emotion has been gratitude.

So, why did I still hold back? I can think of a few reasons but mostly what stopped me from speaking out was a visceral aversion to seeing myself as a victim or letting anyone else put me in that box. Let me be clear: I know this is fucked up. On an intellectual level, I realize that relationships and encounters I could not control do not define me. My failure to control them has nothing to do with my intrinsic weakness.

I could spend years in therapy digging to the root of this, and maybe I should, but my hunch is that it’s related to another concept that comes up in Merkin’s essay: agency. “What happened to women’s agency?” she demands. “That’s what I find myself wondering as I hear story after story of adult women who helplessly acquiesce to sexual demands. I find it especially curious given that a majority of women I know have been in situations in which men have come on to them — at work or otherwise. They have routinely said, ‘I’m not interested’ or ‘Get your hands off me right now.’ And they’ve taken the risk that comes with it.”

Clearly, another of feminism’s notorious intergenerational battles is brewing. Everyone is happy to see the rapists, the life ruiners, and the guys who lock women in their offices go down. But what about the ones who get handsy and pass it off as a joke or use professional power to lure women into saying “yes” or keep pestering them after they say “no” or exploit them in more vague, but still decidedly sexual ways? While there is substance and weight to this disagreement, a lot of the confusion seems to have arisen from the social media protest that has accompanied the public downfalls of many powerful men. #MeToo posts could, and did, recount everything from getting flashed on the subway to getting raped in the office.

Do the young feminists who populate Twitter believe that every #MeToo story represents a man who needs to lose his career? Or serve time? Or drop off the face of the earth? Merkin isn’t the only older commentator who worries the movement is devolving into a sex panic. Even Margaret Atwood recently took issue with what she sees as #MeToo’s “guilty because accused” attitude. Perhaps some of this alarm has come out of a misunderstanding of social media. Twitter thrives on the kind of hyperbole that says, “all men should die,” but means, “a large number of men should reflect earnestly on their actions.” I’m not convinced a hashtag is the same as a pitchfork, though.

Still, it’s obvious that this escalating battle concerns the wide spectrum of objectionable behavior #MeToo encompasses — and that we are about to find out where on that spectrum feminists of all ages and ideologies draw the line. Do all the men who’ve been fired deserve it? Should employers consider more moderate punishments for some offenders, like the two-month suspension and reassignment that New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush got for behaving inappropriately with young female colleagues?

And is there any room to suggest, as Merkin does, that women do have the agency to stand up for themselves when faced with aggressors who are more like Thrush than Weinstein? Merkin doesn’t seem to understand that harassment and abuse are often patterns of behavior that begin after women say, “I’m not interested” or “Get your hands off me right now.” But the situation she imagines, in which standing your ground is all it takes to foil a predator, appeals to me. While I am certainly aware that men wield power over women in this society, what I find more difficult to accept is that they wield power over me, specifically. I can’t stand that it’s impossible to make myself equal simply by behaving as though that were the case. Confronting the moments in my life when I’ve suffered because of gender-based power imbalances disturbs me on a bone-deep level.

I’m not alone in this. Anxieties about victimhood and agency have come up over and over again in conversations with friends and colleagues. (Yes, even the ones under 35.) In France, a group of 100 women, including the legendary actress Catherine Deneuve, recently issued an open letter complaining that #MeToo “chains women to the status of the eternal victim.” In her piece, Merkin worries that “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.” I share some of Merkin’s concerns, but I don’t think denying the epidemic of sexual misconduct in the workplace is the solution. So, what do we do instead? Is there a way to reconcile the knowledge that so many women have been victimized with our insistence that victimhood doesn’t define our lives as women?

The concept of “female agency” has been kicking around academia for decades. It does not refer to a Shonda Rhimes show about lady detectives or to a lesbian separatist ad agency (although, I kind of wish it did), but to the ability of individual women to exert power over their lived circumstances. Now that the internet has democratized jargon, the idea surfaces almost as often in mainstream conversation as other formerly niche words, like “problematic” and “triggering.” And, just as you see alt-right trolls mocking “triggered snowflakes” every day on Twitter, a top result when you google “female agency” is a men’s rights activist’s deranged argument that, actually, there is no such thing.

Female agency is no less fraught a subject for those of us who understand that it exists. All legitimate forms of feminism believe in equality of the genders, but they don’t necessarily agree on how women can become as powerful as men. When it comes to sex, is a woman sexually liberated when she’s free from porn, sadomasochism, sex work, and everything else that supposedly reinforces gendered power imbalances rooted in sex? Or when she’s free to choose porn tailored to her tastes, consensually indulge her least politically correct fantasies, or use sex to support herself financially? These questions are central to every significant conversation feminists have had since the ‘80s about women, men, sex, and power — including the one we’re having right now.

The history of how American feminists got to this ideological impasse is a history of evolving — and often competing — ideas about female agency. First-wave feminists of the 19th and early 20th centuries simply wanted acknowledgment of their basic personhood: suffrage, the right to own property, legal consequences for marital rape. Half a century later, radicalized by the overtly misogynistic anti-war and civil rights movements of the ‘60s, a second wave of feminists emerged. Their diverse agenda brought everything from abortion rights to workplace equality to domestic violence to women’s sexual pleasure into the public sphere.

Not that feminists have ever agreed on what constitutes female agency — or what “female” even means. The 19th-century African-American activist Sojourner Truth, who’d been born into slavery, was famous for beseeching well-off, racist white suffragists to fight for her agency along with their own. Middle- and upper-class white women dominated second-wave feminism, too. Rightly infuriated by a monolithic vision of female agency that centered on white-collar workplaces, heterosexual relationships, and privileged housewives, women of color, queer women, trans women, poor women, and sex workers pushed for a broader agenda. Although the tent has expanded since then, the assumption that we’re simply more inclusive feminists than our mothers’ generation is an oversimplification.

Meanwhile, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, an ideological debate known as the “sex wars” divided feminists of all identities. As a radical contingent led by activist writers like Andrea Dworkin, Susan Brownmiller, and Catharine MacKinnon fought to outlaw pornography and floated the idea that hetero sex was a tool of male supremacy, a coalition of free-love and free-speech advocates, feminist sex workers, and BDSM practitioners of all orientations and gender identities carved out a competing platform that came to be known as “sex-positive feminism.”

In the short term, at least, the sex-positive side won, partially because their opponents were unfairly marginalizing promiscuous, kinky, and poor women, but probably also because it was less threatening to men and more fun for everyone. The third wave, which broke in the ‘90s and crested around the turn of the millennium, reconceived feminism for a generation defined by its mistrust of conformity. A movement that celebrated (and infiltrated) pop culture as it championed diversity, pleasure, and personal choice was bound to embrace sexuality in all its flavors. For better and worse, the third-wave take on female agency meant giving women the power to be, do, wear, buy, and fuck whoever or whatever they wanted, without punishment or judgment. On TV and the radio, that meant scantily clad Spice Girls preaching “girl power” and the women of Sex and the City indulging their appetites for sex and shoes with equal lust.

I grew up during those years, so it was that version of feminism I learned first. In some ways, the third-wave platform wasn’t so different from that of the second wave. We still marched for reproductive rights, took self-defense classes, and volunteered at women’s shelters. But, as a teenager I listened to riot grrrl bands that wore slip dresses, and could rail against sexual violence and defend women’s right to pleasure in the same song. I bought BUST magazine, where I could read about women’s history alongside interviews with female celebrities, body-positive fashion spreads, and knitting projects. My scrappy college feminist group sponsored sex-toy seminars.

Those influences made me more confident, adventurous, and hedonistic — all good attributes to have when you’re young. They made me less judgmental too. And they introduced me to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s worldview-shaking concept of intersectionality, the idea that our overlapping identities (like “Black” and “female” or “Jewish” and “queer”) bring us into contact with complex forms of oppression that can’t be considered in isolation.

But third-wave feminism also blinded me to the downsides of the “I choose my choice” school of female agency. Sure, it’s gross to trash stay-at-home moms or women who wear lipstick or take their husbands’ names; that doesn’t mean patriarchy doesn’t unfairly reward those who conform to traditional gender roles. And my early feminist education left me more confused than I realized about sex and power. I didn’t judge women who used their sexuality to pay bills or get ahead, but I wasn’t thinking about how fucked up it was that many of them felt pressure to do so, either.

In other words, my feminist views were hopelessly compartmentalized. Of course I was against rape and abuse! But, on some level, I also wanted to believe that women could prevent those horrible things from happening by being fun and free and powerful and in control of our sexuality, whatever that was supposed to mean.

I don’t think I was alone in that self-delusion, which may explain why so-called “dissident feminists” were so popular in the ‘90s. Female writers bent on becoming maverick public intellectuals took issue with a new movement against rape on college campuses. After making waves with a 1991 Times op-ed titled "Date Rape Hysteria," Katie Roiphe solidified her brand with The Morning After, a book that diagnosed campus activists as hysterics abandoning feminism's empowering legacy in favor of their own victim narratives. Camille Paglia, who praised gender stereotypes in her doorstopper of a manifesto, Sexual Personae, seized every possible opportunity to paint young women who spoke out about date rape as brats and fools. In a polemic called Who Stole Feminism?, Christina Hoff Sommers proclaimed that “American feminism is currently dominated by a group of women who seek to persuade the public that American women are not the free creatures we think we are.”

All of those books were published before I was old enough to participate in any kind of cultural conversation. My ‘90s feminist heroines were Jessie Spano, Salt-n-Pepa, Kathleen Hanna, Gwen Stefani, Alanis Morissette, Courtney Love, and Daria — not all flawless role models, maybe, but not exactly a list of date-rape skeptics, either. Still, when I did encounter the work of Sommers, Paglia, and Roiphe (who later became my grad-school professor) in my early 20s, I found it oddly seductive. If young women had simply gaslighted ourselves into obsessing over our oppression, then all we needed to do to reclaim our agency was admit that we were wrong.

Now, of course, all of us in the reality-based community know that “dissident feminism” was largely wishful thinking. In an excerpt from The Morning After that ran in The New York Times Magazine, Roiphe took issue with the statistic that one in four college women had been the victim of rape or attempted rape. Reflecting on her own undergrad years, she mused, “If sexual assault was really so pervasive, it seemed strange that the intricate gossip networks hadn't picked up more than one or two shadowy instances of rape. If I was really standing in the middle of an ‘epidemic,’ a ‘crisis’ — if 25 percent of my women friends were really being raped — wouldn't I know it?”

Luckily time has made most cultural critics less myopic. Broadsides like Daphne Merkin’s now contain assurances that the author has no desire to vindicate egregious predators like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Matt Lauer. Yes, there are still those who think the sexual misconduct problem has been inflated, but as #MeToo reveals ever more awful secrets, even those people are no longer denying that the problem exists. Roiphe is still making headlines with "controversial" stories — most recently when a rumor circulated on Twitter that she planned to unmask the woman behind the notorious Shitty Media Men list in Harper’s — but most would agree her views no longer seem relevant.

At the same time, a generational shift in how we address this epidemic is taking place. That much is obvious when second-wave “anti-sex” thought leaders like Brownmiller, the author of a classic text on rape titled Against Our Will, is giving 21st-century campus rape activists essentially the same advice as Slate's Emily Yoffe about excessive drunkenness. (Critics accused the latter of victim blaming and promoting “rape culture.”) For these writers, the point isn’t that young women should be allowed to drink as much as they want — it’s that doing so is more likely to put them in danger. This, too, is a conversation about differing conceptions of female agency. Is a woman powerful when she can party as thoughtlessly as men do, or when she takes active measures to ensure her safety, even if that means denying herself pleasure?

Another difference between old-school and new-school feminists, one that may be even more contentious, is the constantly expanding definition of “sexual misconduct.” Merkin may be naive to suggest that a simple “fuck off” will always be enough to defuse any situation less grave than rape, but is she wrong to wonder whether “kissing someone in affection” or “showing someone a photo of a nude male torso [is] necessarily predatory behavior”? As someone who’s navigated professional settings where kissing on the cheek was considered a standard form of greeting and passing around nude photos was sometimes part of the job, all without any residual trauma, I’d be irritated to see careers destroyed for those reasons. Merkin could stand to acknowledge that practically all of the high-profile #MeToo cases have concerned more serious violations than those. But I’ll admit that I’ve seen young women obsess over equally innocuous behavior — and I’m worried about how many of them might spend their lives feeling powerless because of one tiny moment.

Is a woman powerful when she can party as thoughtlessly as men do, or when she takes active measures to ensure her safety, even if that means denying herself pleasure?

What do we do, then, those of us who believe deeply in this movement, but worry that it could have the side effect of making people of all genders fixate on women’s vulnerability to the exclusion of our personhood? What about those of us who don’t want men to feel they can’t make a harmless but inappropriate joke at the office? Who crave the freedom, pleasure, and agency that Merkin and the dissident feminists are trying to convince us we’ve needlessly surrendered, but recognize that “epidemic” and “crisis” are in fact the right words to describe what millions of women have suffered? How do we wrap our minds around the enormity of this problem and still believe in something called female agency?

The history of feminism offers some answers to those questions, too. As these painful, intergenerational debates drag on, we’ll end up with newer, stronger, battle-tested feminist platforms. By having the courage to speak up, regardless of the likely consequences — which is, in itself, a way of asserting agency and resisting Victorian notions of female frailty — we’ll make measurable (if slow) progress. We’ll remember that, as difficult as it has been to reckon with the patriarchy’s power in these past few months, the movements for sexual and professional equality are not new. Two generations ago, the gender pay gap was more like a chasm. Many careers were entirely closed to women. Hollywood's reckoning has already yielded Time's Up, a new organization that, along with fighting for gender parity in the entertainment industry, is raising money to fund lawsuits by working-class women in all industries and pushing for legislation to penalize companies that tolerate sexual misconduct. In 2058, assuming America hasn’t been sold to Russia or plunged into nuclear winter, it will likely seem obvious to college girls that a complex person who had a few fucked-up things happen to her doesn’t have to be defined by those things.

Feminism may be notorious for its infighting, but that combative spirit has ensured its quick evolution. Each wave has represented new ways of defining female agency — and sometimes those young feminists go overboard in atoning for the sins of their mothers. Just as a necessary backlash against the sexual exploitation of women went too far and sex-positivity came along to balance it out, in this era when we have seemingly moved beyond well-defined waves, the limitations of that chill ideology have now become all too clear. It turns out that shedding our denial might do more than deluding ourselves that we’re as powerful as men to make us feel like complete people. We can’t know how our generation’s version of feminism will look in 20 years, but the way we resolve this latest paradox of female agency will surely help shape that legacy.

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