A Middle Path in the Me Too Era

Are mothers of sons the key to a solution?
Story by
Illustrated by Shonagh Rae

Mom.” My 25-year-old son looked up from his phone. “Have you seen this Aziz Ansari story?” It was a Sunday morning on a holiday weekend, which meant pancakes instead of headlines, a rare chance to spend the day untethered to the news. “No,” I said. “What’s up?”

In an online article, “Grace,” a New York photographer, described meeting the “Master of None” star at a 2017 Emmy Awards after-party — a glamorous moment of flirting that led to dinner at a restaurant near his New York apartment a week later. Afterward, they walked back to his place, where things escalated quickly: one kiss, two naked bodies and then oral sex.

There followed a series of moves that were, according to Grace, not at all sexy. There was more oral sex, but no intercourse because she told him she wasn’t ready. So they put on their clothes and watched an episode of “Seinfeld.” Ansari kissed her again, and that’s when Grace, 22, decided this was a horrible date. “You guys are all the same,” she told him in frustration. She sobbed the whole ride home.

Ansari texted Grace the next day, saying it was fun meeting her. She responded that he had ignored her nonverbal cues and made her cry. “I’m so sad to hear this,” he wrote back. “Clearly, I misread things in the moment and I’m truly sorry.”

My son stopped reading. “What do you think?” he asked me.

The two of us have been talking about sex — and love, girls, kindness, responsibility and smart choices — for years. I thought about what it was like to be a 22-year-old woman on a first date, with a celebrity no less. I remembered that emotional roller coaster of dating — the hope, awkwardness and then realization that this person was not Mr. Right or even Mr. Right Now. “I think,” I answered carefully, “that I would have said, ‘I’m not comfortable with this’ and gone home.” But that’s not what Grace did. After talking to friends, she concluded that Ansari had sexually assaulted her. She then shared her anger and hurt in an explicit, 3,000-word article that went viral.

In the midst of the Me Too revolution, Grace’s story created a firestorm. Supporters backed her with the fury of avenging angels, citing the selfishness and entitlement of men. Detractors questioned whether Ansari, who maintained that the encounter was consensual, really deserved a public execution.

In the torrent of words, there were few voices of women in the middle. Women who know what harassment, humiliation and obnoxious dates feel like because they’ve lived through that and much worse. But women who are also mothers — or sisters, wives and daughters — who believe that what happened between Grace and Ansari was a bad date, not a sexual assault. Women who are grateful for Me Too but worry that a movement intended to protect and elevate women can be contemptuous of, and indifferent to, what happens to men — in the same way that men have been contemptuous of, and indifferent to, the fate of women. I’m a woman; I’m the mother of a son. Why does it feel like I have to choose?

Our goal has to be real equality for men and women. And that means procedures that do not presume either side is innocent or guilty.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, president of the New America Foundation

During the past year, I’ve found myself on the sidelines of a war where the battles are played out with anger and tears and accusations, with cries for justice and due process. I’ve watched women and men belittle each other, all convinced they’re right. I’ve listened with hope and despair, and I’ve found myself agreeing with both sides for different reasons.

Through it all, I’ve come to believe that mothers of sons may be in a unique position in the Me Too revolution: We have experienced the injustices of living in the world as women. We also see our sons as individuals who deserve to be judged on their merits and actions, not merely on their gender.

Yet if mothers of sons are the tuning forks of this cultural moment, then the pitch is badly off. In the cases of Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Les Moonves, Kevin Spacey and Charlie Rose, justice was swift, decisive and, by most accounts, richly deserved. But what about someone like former senator Al Franken of Minnesota, who was pressured to resign before any investigation was conducted? Or the bitter fight over newly confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, where the truth was unknowable? And what are we to think of the millions of men — young, old and everything in between — who are afraid to say or do the wrong thing, even when they’re not exactly sure what that means anymore?

Like most women, I view Me Too as a huge, overdue win for equality. The right to pursue a career without gender discrimination, the right to receive equal pay for equal work, the right to call out unwelcome and inappropriate sexual overtures, the fact that women feel able to openly talk about these issues without fear of retaliation — all this is groundbreaking and important, a gift to the next generation, both our daughters and our sons.

But over the past year, amid all the justifiable anger and solidarity, I find myself unsettled by the undercurrent of intolerance and resistance to anything that doesn’t neatly fit narratives of men exploiting their privilege and power. That women are always victims and men always oppressors. That women are universally to be believed and men are inherently untrustworthy. That feelings are more important than facts.

“I’ve had conversations with women who say, ‘Okay, maybe he’s innocent. But they did it to us so we’re going to do it to them,’ ” says Anne-Marie Slaughter, president of the New America Foundation. “And I’m like, ‘No. No.’ That’s not how I raised my children. Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

Slaughter rocketed to fame with her 2012 essay for the Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” about the difficulty of juggling her high-powered career, marriage and two teenage boys. She’s watching them, now college-aged, in this Me Too moment — keenly aware of both its strengths and its weaknesses.

“There are institutional structures of power, and I’m very attentive to them,” she told me. “But our goal has to be real equality for men and women. And that means procedures that do not presume either side is innocent or guilty.” As women, she and I emphatically agree, we want to be treated fairly. As mothers, we want our daughters and sons to be treated fairly. Whether that’s possible is the question that keeps us awake at night.

When my son left for college eight years ago, I fussed about time management, grades, girls, alcohol and calling home once a week; I told him to have fun but be careful; I was a wreck. We both survived that first year, then tackled a more sobering subject in the fall of 2011: A freshman and an older student at his university hooked up, and the next morning the man was arrested for rape. His name and all the details were reported in the local and campus papers; the woman’s name was withheld. The man denied the charges, and prosecutors ultimately dismissed them for lack of evidence. Over long phone calls, my son and I concluded that it was impossible to know what had happened between those two people that night, but we agreed that the combination of sex, alcohol and strangers was dangerous. And I worried a little more.

In the ensuing years, I’ve watched the tortured debates about sexual assaults on campuses, the attempts to squeeze some form of justice from the extrajudicial hearings installed at colleges and universities as required by the Obama administration in 2011. It’s heartbreaking and maddening, because these campus assaults are notoriously difficult to prosecute in the criminal courts: Legally, the accused is presumed innocent and, without witnesses and evidence, it’s almost impossible to determine whether the sex was consensual. The bar for college hearings is much lower: Universities are allowed to decide a case based on a slim preponderance of evidence. But there are no national standards, no consistent rules for witnesses, testimony or legal representation. Schools are regularly sued by both women and men who believe they were denied justice. To me, as a woman and a mother, these feel like terrible options unlikely to fairly determine whether a crime has been committed.

I recently spoke to Sherry Warner Seefeld, one of the founding mothers of Families Advocating for Campus Equality. As a feminist, she was a proud member of the women’s movement in the 1960s and ’70s. As a mother, she was horrified at what happened to Caleb, the second of her four sons, who was accused of sexually assaulting a freshman classmate in 2009. Caleb contended that the encounter was consensual but was quickly expelled from his university. It took 20 months for him to be reinstated, even after a detective determined that his accuser had lied to the police and a warrant was issued against her for filing a false complaint.

In my world, justice and fairness and doing the right thing is my life. It’s how I operate.
Sherry Warner Seefeld, a former high school teacher

Warner Seefeld, a former high school teacher, told me that she had some long, embarrassing conversations with Caleb. “In my world, justice and fairness and doing the right thing is my life. It’s how I operate,” she says. “I asked a lot of questions.” Ultimately, she concluded that her son was telling the truth, as did the police. But not everyone agreed. “I had a woman say to me, ‘All men are rapists,’ ” she recalls.

Like so many women of our generation, Warner Seefeld, 62, doesn’t view men that way. “We had a sexual revolution,” she explains. “A part of that sexual revolution was that we had the power to say yes or no. We had the power to sleep around if we wanted to because we didn’t have to fear pregnancy. I don’t know if that makes us equal or not, but women in that second wave of feminism felt they could be fully sexual beings in any way that they chose. We engaged. We explored. We took responsibility for our part of it. But we owned it.”

Warner Seefeld and I understand that sexual assaults go unreported and unpunished. But we also agree that what we saw as a normal part of sex growing up — drunk sex, uncomfortable sex, sex we regretted — has been all but criminalized. “What we do now is completely infantilize women,” she says.

In September, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos moved to expand the rights of the accused on college campuses, making the process more like the criminal legal system. The effort was characterized as a return to a higher standard of proof. Or, according to some critics, a return to rape culture. Pick your poison. “I identify emotionally with many arguments, I really do,” says Warner Seefeld. “I understand the women. I understand why they’re upset. I just don’t understand why it’s okay to destroy somebody and be dismissive of the fact you’ve done it.”

Of course not all mothers agree. In a 2016 Washington Post essay, Seattle writer Jody Allard stated: “In this broken system, anyone who isn’t with us is against us. Particularly, and especially, men. Even my own sons — even yours.” The language seemed so harsh, so unforgiving, that I called Allard to understand more.

[My teen boys are blind to rape culture]

Allard, a 40-year-old rape survivor, believed that if she was clear and honest, her two sons, now 18 and 20, would grow up in the feminist ideal. “I thought, ‘My boys will be different,’ ” she says. “I was arrogant and young and full of confidence somehow that I had the power to change everything.” Instead, she discovered that they wrestled with the same cultural influences and stereotypes as other men.

She doesn’t think what’s happening on campuses is “necessarily a witch hunt. I don’t think it’s so out of hand that boys’ lives are being ruined,” Allard told me. “I can’t argue that there isn’t a single boy who’s innocent who won’t be expelled. I’m sure there will be. But why are we okay with thousands of women being raped, being sexually assaulted, but so upset about a few boys?” And I thought: I’m not okay with women being raped. But I’m also not okay with men being punished for crimes they didn’t commit.

There’s a wing of Me Too women who tell mothers that the solution is simple: Don’t raise rapists. Worse, they ridicule the idea that mothers are capable of objectivity or reason when it comes to their sons. That the mere fact of giving birth to a boy renders women like me complicit with the patriarchy, unwilling to believe their children are guilty of anything more than harmless high jinks. The British have a term for it: “Not my Nigel.” I find it unbelievably condescending to suggest that mothers are not intellectually able to hold two truths at once: that women should not be assaulted and that some men are predators, but not every man.

Since that Sunday morning when my son read the Ansari story to me, we’ve talked about dating, assumptions and the minefield that is sex in 2018, where an accusation is tantamount to a conviction. Every woman I know has a story; every man wonders whether he ever crossed an invisible line.

Some feminists argue that victims have the right to name their experience, so it’s an assault if they say it’s an assault. Former New York prosecutor Linda Fairstein, the pioneering head of Manhattan’s sex crimes unit for three decades, takes exception to this argument. “Somebody needs to slow them down, correct the language, and correct the facts,” she says. “Sex crimes police and prosecutors all over this country are the shoulders that the Me Too women are standing on. We carved that path so people can prosecute. But that doesn’t mean every case is criminal. It can be horribly offensive. It can be morally offensive. It can be harassment with a civil remedy. But not every [instance] of this is a crime.”

On the day after the Ansari news broke, HLN journalist Ashleigh Banfield penned an open letter to Grace that she read live on the air. “Let’s take a moment to reflect on what you claim was the ‘worst night of your life,’ ” Banfield said. “This was not a rape, nor was it a sexual assault. By your description, your sexual encounter was unpleasant. … So I have to ask you: What exactly was your beef? That you had a bad date with Aziz Ansari? Is that what victimized you to the point of seeking a public conviction and a career-ending sentence against him? Is that truly what you thought he deserved for your night out?”

Banfield then leaned into what she considered the real offense: Grace had undermined what women had spent decades fighting for: “If you’re lucky, there’s a really good chance that you’re not going to experience the toxic work environment that the rest of us have endured. And that is because of the remarkable progress being made against the Harvey Weinsteins and the Kevin Spaceys of the world.”

Other journalists quickly echoed Banfield’s remarks. The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan called Grace’s essay “revenge porn.” New York Times columnist Bari Weiss called it “arguably the worst thing that has happened to the #MeToo movement” since its inception, trading female empowerment for female passivity and retaliation.

“The pendulum needed to swing, but it didn’t need to decimate everything in its path,” Banfield, who is 50 and has two adolescent sons, said when I called her. The white-hot certainty of her 20s — cooled by marriage, divorce and the birth of her boys — has changed into something more nuanced, tempered by life experience.

Banfield invited Katie Way, the 22-year-old writer who interviewed Grace for the story, to appear on her show. Way declined and instead released an email slamming Banfield as “that burgundy lipstick bad highlights second-wave feminist has-been. … She disgusts me.”

I was taken aback by the smug cruelty of Way’s response, and I wondered if it had anything to do with her age and inexperience. (She declined to comment for this story.) I remember that heady belief in absolute right and wrong when I was a young woman, a certainty that — like Banfield’s — was challenged and altered by time, love and loss. And I realized that this Me Too revolution exposed not just the vast disconnect between women and men, but the widening philosophical gap between older and younger women, specifically second- and fourth-wave feminists.

I fall into the former camp, a feminist who grew up in the 1960s and ’70s. Most of us were educated, entering the workplace in large numbers for the first time; we chipped away at the institutional sexism and discrimination we found. The fourth wave — our daughters and granddaughters — are young millennials who demand equal rights, organize via Twitter and see Me Too as an overdue correction to an inherently unfair system.

The war between these two worldviews never looked starker than this past spring, when writer Katie Roiphe was labeled “pro-rape,” “human scum” and other choice names because she questioned the fairness of an anonymous list of offensive men in media, which chronicled infractions ranging from “rape” to “flirting.” Her much-feared Harper’s essay was blunt: “The need to differentiate between smaller offenses and assault is not interesting to a certain breed of Twitter feminist; it makes them impatient, suspicious. The deeper attitude toward due process is: don’t bother me with trifles!”

Once again, I found myself stuck in the middle. I didn’t agree with Roiphe on everything, but some of her positions were provocative and well-argued. Her opponents, however, weren’t interested in the finer points of the debate. A man losing a job, they argued, is not the same as going to prison. They summarily dismissed Roiphe and other second-wave feminists as complicit, obsessed with maintaining their position and influence. We middle-aged women are, apparently, too stupid to realize that we’re being used to protect and preserve male privilege.

I don’t know whether this line of attack should make me laugh or cry. Growing up poor, I didn’t have position or influence. The men around me were not privileged — in fact, many of their lives were hard. Our mothers’ lives were harder. I didn’t think about protecting male power. I thought about finding my own.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the women’s movement to girls of my generation. We were the first to believe a career was a possibility, not just a holding pattern until we got married. Birth control allowed us to understand the difference between love and lust, between good sex, bad sex and, if we were lucky, great sex. It allowed us to make smarter decisions about whom we married and when we had children. It meant having choices and taking chances, learning and stumbling and getting back up when we fell. And teaching our daughters — and also our sons — to do the same.

“I was lucky. I was not raped,” said actress Rosanna Arquette, describing the day she refused to have sex with Weinstein in his hotel suite. That stopped me cold. As a woman, I know that what happens to you doesn’t necessarily depend on where you go, or how much you drink, or what you wear. Sometimes it’s just about timing and luck.

The idea that anyone feels “lucky” not to be raped is the searing legacy of domestic abuse, rape and violence against women that continues to this day. I grew up with domestic violence; I knew how that scars women and their children. Behind the heated debates about victim-shaming and personal responsibility is the reality that women still live in a world where they are less safe than men.

As someone who worked late nights for decades, I once explained to my now 6-foot-4 son the extra steps I took to simply get home safely. “I walk near the curb — or in the middle of the street if it’s empty — with my car keys in my hand,” I told him. “If I’m in a parking lot or garage, I try to park under a light or close to the exit door. I pay attention. I don’t have the luxury of staring at my phone, or walking with ear buds.”

I listened for footsteps behind me. I didn’t sleep with my ground-floor windows open in the summer. I never went to a date’s house for “drinks” if all I wanted was a drink.

For 15 years, I was a waitress. The job suited me; I was chatty and upbeat, a night owl who didn’t mind late shifts or long hours. Once, a longtime customer — someone I waited on several times a week — offered to lend me a rare book from his collection for a project I was working on. Thrilled, I made plans to pick it up later that week. It never occurred to me, not for a moment, that this was anything but a kind gesture.

The details are hazy: I don’t remember the year — I was in my early 20s — but I remember stepping into his foyer. I remember the ugly yellow uniform and white shoes I had on. I remember taking the book and turning to go. He darted behind me, threw the deadbolt and said quietly, “You’re not leaving.” I stared into the eyes of a stranger.

In a split second, I realized that I had drastically, dangerously misread the situation. My mind raced through the options: I didn’t think I could overpower him and yank open the door. I wasn’t sure if anyone would hear if I screamed. I decided to pretend that everything was normal until I could figure out a way to get out.

And so I talked. And talked and talked for what seemed like hours, perched on the edge of a chair. He barely said a word. He never touched me. After about 90 minutes, I said, “I really have to go,” and he got up and unlocked the door. I fled, terrified, into the night. He never came into the restaurant again. I was lucky. I was not raped.

The pendulum needed to swing, but it didn’t need to decimate everything in its path.
Ashleigh Banfield, HLN journalist

It took me three years to get pregnant with what, as it turned out, would be my only child. After our first visit to the obstetrician, my husband asked, “What does it feel like?” It felt amazing. Overwhelming. Humbling. But mostly, I answered, it felt like a very specific kind of letting go. So much about this baby was beyond our control, and our job was simply to be the best parents we could be to him or her. Because of my age, this was considered a high-risk pregnancy. I prayed that fate would be kind.

A few weeks later, we discovered that we were expecting a boy. “A boy?” I thought, surprised. I’d always assumed that I’d have a daughter. What did I know about raising a boy? Then this tiny little human arrived, and the fact that he was a boy was just one of many things that delighted me. I wanted what every parent wants for their child: To be happy and healthy. To love and be loved. To be good and kind and thoughtful. To do the right thing, even when it’s the hard thing.

And, as his mother, I wanted him to understand what it means to be a woman — at least, this woman — with all my hopes, shortcomings and strengths. And in doing so, teach him to see the complexity and humanity of all the women in his life: his friends, colleagues, girlfriends. And maybe someday, a wife and daughters.

Revolutionaries think about history. Mothers think about their children. The swift and absolute justice that seems fair and reasonable for strangers can be harder to accept when the accused is a father, a brother, a son — in exactly the same way that pervasive sexism or violence toward women is harder to accept when it’s you, your mother, your sister or your daughter. If I’m forced to choose between a movement or justice for individuals — to the degree justice is possible — I’m always going to choose a process that seeks truth rather than retribution.

“I actually think mothers can play an important role here,” Anne-Marie Slaughter told me. “Mothers of sons talking to mothers of daughters talking to mothers of both. As women of our generation, maybe we could have the conversations that get institutions to a better place or reform systems that aren’t working for anyone anymore.” I want all that and more: a humane world for our daughters and our sons.

Roxanne Roberts is a Washington Post staff writer.


Credits: Story by Roxanne Roberts. Designed by Twila Waddy. Illustrated by Shonagh Rae.