Whether descriptive or aspirational, the #MeToo moment of 2017 onward posits a distinct before and after: the past, when men got away with crude behavior and worse, and a more enlightened present, where even if feminism has not won all battles, at least women feel empowered to put male misdeeds in the spotlight and to reassess past encounters and public controversies in terms of contemporary understandings. In the moment’s current variation, major media outlets in North America and Britain are engaged in an ongoing feminist reckoning with the bad old days of the early 2000s, before, it supposes, women knew to call out not just abuse but objectification.

It can feel as though a consensus exists on these matters among intellectual women today, but opinions vary. Among those criticizing #MeToo in terms of women’s agency is the Canadian law professor Heidi Matthews. Matthews, an assistant professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School, sees limits in “consent” as a framework for understanding sexuality, distinguishing consensual sex from wanted sex. She also questions the currently popular idea that where any power differentials exist in relationships between adults, ethical sex is not possible. According to Matthews, #MeToo has functioned as, among other things, an over-correction, addressing the sexism of an earlier era—but also the revival of infantilizing interpretations of adult women’s sexuality. She emphasizes the importance, in law and in life, of questioning frameworks themselves.


Phoebe Maltz Bovy: You’ve written about #MeToo as a “sex panic.” While there have been concerns about overreach, conventional wisdom on #MeToo still seems to be that it was a much-needed development, saving future generations of young women from unwanted sexual situations, in the workplace and elsewhere. In your view, what’s missing in that understanding of #MeToo?

Heidi Matthews: The thing that strikes me in your description is the idea of wantedness in sexual situations as the thing that marks good sex as distinct from bad sex. Part of what it does is conflate the notion of consensual sex with actually desired or wanted sex. And those two things are not the same, at all.

So I think there’s value in thinking carefully about sex, or just sexual situations, that women willingly participate in but yet might not describe as wanted or desired. Consent is a legal category that has taken on colloquial meaning in the discourse, and it’s thought to be the same thing as wanting. And I think that sexual interactions have value as things that shouldn’t be decried either legally or socially, even where they’re not enthusiastically wanted by the parties engaging.

Bovy: Wanting to go to work and not be harassed is probably a more common view than wanting to go to a bar and being sure nothing there gets sexual. Do you think that with #MeToo, there’s a workplace element and an interpersonal element that can be conflated?

Matthews: I don’t think it’s coherent to think of #MeToo as having distinguishable silos or interventions. What started in terms of workplace harassment very quickly became a much larger discussion about sex, desire, and consent, and also law.

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