BEHAVIOR VERSUS CONTEXT: Thoughts on the #metoo Movement

The #metoo movement has so far been a powerful cry for accountability from women, who every day experience the systemic and personal effects of misogyny - sexual predation, harassment, coercion, and violence. The incidents that have surfaced have ranged from the blatantly reprehensible - Harvey Weinstein, for example - to the more complicated and nuanced in terms of consent and responsibility - Aziz Ansari, for example. While it might be asserted that the former are worse (morally, socially, legally) than the latter, what isn’t different from one incident to the next is the need for accountability.

The above point about accountability is important in order to underscore our commitment to that fact, which we believe overarches any conversation about the movement’s features and ambiguities. The focus of this post, however, is on the language that gets used to describe the offenders and, more specifically their behaviors. To frame this discussion, it’s helpful to start by drawing a distinction between behaviors and their context. In broad strokes, certain behaviors are suitable to certain contexts and highly unsuitable to others. Shouting excitedly, for example, is considered largely appropriate if one is attending a professional soccer game, especially after a goal is scored. Shouting excitedly in a quiet restaurant, on the other hand, is almost always inappropriate. The point here is that there is nothing inherently appropriate or inappropriate about shouting excitedly when evaluated apart from context. It is the context, rather, that determines what we make of someone engaging in that behavior.

Shifting back to the #metoo movement, this distinction helps provide more precise language for talking about offenders of sexual violence and assault, and their actions. For example, it isn’t Louis C. K.’s desire to masturbate in front of women that is reprehensible nor his behavior in doing so. In a different context - one where all parties were capable of and freely consenting - that behavior could be sexy, fun and fulfilling. Instead, when we hold Louis C. K. accountable, we hold him accountable for his failure to evaluate (or perhaps to care about) the inappropriateness of the context - the lack of consent, the undiscussed and imbalanced power dynamics, the setting.

The danger of focusing on and moralizing about his behavior - it’s weird, it’s disgusting, it’s pathetic - is that we reinforce sex negative attitudes about certain sorts of sexual activity apart from their context. With these attitudes, sexual behaviors become bad or monstrous or gross regardless of how they happen and with whom. Instead, we should celebrate the many different ways that people connect with themselves and with each other sexually. These connections can encompass sexual proclivities - including (but certainly not limited to!) rough sex, public sex, role play, power play - that, while regrettably underrepresented (and misrepresented) in mainstream media, are not only tremendous fun, but also important and healthy forms of self-expression and self-care when done with intention, communication, and consent.

In this sense, the distinction between behavior and context is an integral aspect of a sex positive perspective, celebrating the many exciting and unusual sexual behaviors that people engage in with themselves and with others while evaluating whether the context for those behaviors is appropriate. Here at G&STC, we work with all our clients from a sex positive perspective, supporting them in finding fun, safe ways to achieve sexual satisfaction.

Blog authors all hold positions at the Gender & Sexuality Therapy Collective (G&STC). For more information about our therapists and services please contact us.