The Current

Is there a generational divide in the #MeToo movement?

A backlash to the evolving #MeToo conversation shows a shifting dynamic, and rifts along the lines of age, class and race.
Margaret Atwood is among a number of older feminists whose recent reservations about the #MeToo movement have been met with criticism. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press )

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Aziz Ansari became the latest high-profile man accused of sexual misconduct on the weekend, after an anonymous woman wrote of a date and sexual encounter that left her feeling "violated."

Ansari replied to say he believed their encounter was "completely consensual" and that when he later learned how she felt, he took her words to heart.

The reaction to her story was not one of unanimous support however, with one commentator saying it was part of "a hit squad of privileged, white young women opening fire on brown-skinned men."

At the same time, an op-ed penned by Margaret Atwood in the Globe and Mail also came in for criticism. The writer, 78, drew ire after expressing reservations about the movement.

These polarized reactions have exposed a faultine in the movement, but does it fall between the generations? Will it fracture the progress made in battling sexual assault?

Rania El Mugammar is an artist and equity consultant who works on gender-based violence. She tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti that it's important to expand our understanding of sexual violence, and to realize that events ranging from "bad dates" to violent rape exist on a spectrum.

"Those are all part of the same culture that enables and fosters rape culture," she says. "There's room for both of these conversations to happen at the same time."

She says it's important to have those conversations simultaneously, because it "gives people the language to name a lot of their experiences."

Allegations made against actor and comedian Aziz Ansari have been met with a backlash about what constitutes assault. (Molly Riley/AFP/Getty Images)

As part of the backlash, some have voiced the idea that younger women don't seem to distinguish between awkward or unpleasant encounters, and sexual assaults.

Many women have been socialized to blame ourselves first, El Mugammar says, but younger women have a "lot more language to talk about this than maybe women in older generations."

"I think sometimes older women have been socialized so well to be quiet about it."

However, she disagrees that the divide is about age, as much as it is privilege. She says her greatest lessons about sexual violence have come from racialized, queer or disabled women — of all ages — who have shared their nuanced understanding.

Sharing the microphone

Elizabeth Renzetti, a Globe and Mail columnist believes there is a strong generational divide. She sees a challenge facing older feminists, of which she counts herself as one, in ceding space to other perspectives.

"I think sometimes we have real difficulty sharing the microphone, you know, or handing the megaphone over because for so long we've existed with this idea that we're oppressed, you know, we are the oppressed people," she tells Tremonti.

Otherwise you end up with all these weird cracks in feminism pitting us against each other.- Elizabeth Renzetti

"And it's very hard for us to see that there are different modes of oppression, and that we need to listen now — not just to younger feminists, but as you say women from traditionally marginalized communities."

She says it can be difficult to "just sit back and listen," but that it's crucial that this happens.

"Otherwise you end up with all these weird cracks in feminism pitting us against each other," she says, "which is not helpful at all."

Natasha Kornak is a Queen's University student who has been an advocate for consent education.​ She thinks there was also a different definition about what sexual violence entailed a few generations ago.

"If it's not hetero-, penetrative sex, it doesn't really count as sexual assault."

Demonstrators participate in the #MeToo Survivors' March in Los Angeles, Nov 12, 2017. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Now we're in this era," she says, "where we understand that people of all genders and sexualities can experience this kind of violence, and it can affect them the same way it would straight women.

"I think we're in a generational shift where we are realising that sexual violence is not a black-and-white issue," she says. "It's very multifaceted."

'Everything is assault now'

"We often try to say [consent] is not the absence of a no, it's the presence of a yes," Kornak says. "But there's also nuanced aspects of consent, which are things like body language, and verbal cues."

Building that culture of consent is critical for all of us, El Mugammar says.

"Consent doesn't look like: 'I can live with this,' it looks like: 'I want this'."

"There's been a lot of fear of 'Oh well, everything is assault now,'" she says. "Conversations about 'Oh, it's ruining romance," and a lot of those kind of ridiculous notions."

"To me, what's more romantic than having sexual encounters that you really want, and you're really enjoying?"

"I think this culture of violence, and the structures that enable it, and all the other power dynamics that play into it," she says, "are a conversation that needs to happen all the time, and that needs to happen at every level."

Listen to the full audio near the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's Idella Sturino, and Kristin Nelson.