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Opinion Women don’t have to agree, but we do need to fight fair

Women are people, and people disagree. To illustrate, here's a second-hand salacious anecdote.

The other day I was texting with a friend about her recent experience lying naked on the bed of a younger man.

She asked if he had condoms and he said, solemnly, "I'm very serious about consent. So before I do anything I want to make sure I'm clear on what you want to happen."

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Me, delighted : "Awwwww."

Her, coldhearted: "I literally burst out laughing."

This past week has been full of disagreements between women over sexual boundaries: how to articulate them, and how to respond when they've been breached. Some are famous, such as Catherine Deneuve, the French actress who apologized after signing a letter arguing that the caution sparked by sexual-harassment scandals was ruining the art of seduction.

Debates have swirled as to what exactly implies consent, and the usefulness of existing justice systems.

Actor Aziz Ansari became a topic of discussion after a young woman told a publication called about having an unseemly encounter with him. At that point, my friend conceded that her date was operating smartly by making sure her consent was vocal, not just implied. (NB: she'd like me to add that he was extremely hot and everyone left satisfied).

I've seen it put forth a number of places that disagreement between women risks "wasting" the #MeToo moment, which I don't think is true. Women – and feminists – have always disagreed and to suggest our differences are a tool of the patriarchy is another way of telling some of us (usually the less powerful ones) to be quiet.

Yes, I am disappointed by those who indulge in blame, shame, or scoring points with witty barbs.

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Take New York Times critic Daphne Merkin, for example, who wrote "grow up, this is real life" in a piece accusing women who wore black dresses to the Golden Globes of "victimology." Or take the 22-year-old writer, Katie Way, who hurled age-related insults at 50-year-old HLN host, Ashleigh Banfield, after she criticized Ms. Way's handling of the Ansari story.

None of that is helpful. But rather than stifle our disagreements, I think we need to make them respectful and constructive.

For advice, I turned to the New York-based novelist and playwright Sarah Schulman, whose book Conflict is Not Abuse is one of the best things I read last year. Spanning everything from family arguments to HIV criminalization in Canada, the book is firm that conflict is an inescapable part of the human experience. What we all need to learn is how to fight fair, and then make up.

Rude, defensive or unkind statements are a way to evade introspection, aspects of ourselves or our actions that make us uncomfortable, Ms. Schulman argues. "There's something about accountability that people think is shameful," she said on the phone this week.

Those who want real change have got to get over it. Because while some situations have clear predators – Ms. Schulman mentions Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer – "I think the vast majority of what we're looking at now is the grey zone," she said.

Every woman's boundaries are going to be different, and that's to be expected, and fine. What's not okay is cruelty, shunning (which to Ms. Schulman means branding someone unworthy of talking to, and maybe making your friends comply), cruelty, or escalating into hyperbole.

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Ms. Schulman's book outlines an illuminating concept that she calls "the duty to repair." She believes mending fences after a conflict is an adult responsibility, one shared by individuals and communities. It involves learning to negotiate differences, but also to be self-critical about one's role in a given conflict.

In the grey zone of consent, and related disagreements on what it means, fault lines are often muddled. Hurt feelings are everywhere, and different interpretations of the same event are the norm. Rather than finding one bad person to wear the blame, the goal is to address all of the pain that exists, which only happens when all parties are willing to be accountable. If both Ms. Banfied and Ms. Way are truly working toward women's sexual freedom, the older could have contacted the younger to give private mentorship, maybe, or the younger could have sat longer with the criticism before reaching out for a genuine exchange. "The grey zone is where we need to have the most amount of conversation," Ms. Schulman said.

She's adamant that such conversations happen face-to-face, since electronic discussions encourage explosions, or insults long-stewed to perfection. When I said that was sometimes impossible, she disagreed, using as an example the current division among Canada's literati over how the University of British Columbia handled sexual-misconduct allegations against former professor Steven Galloway.

"Twenty or 30 of the writers who are involved in the debate on both sides could get together and have a private conversation that was off the record," she said. Though I do think those with more established influence should extend the olive branch, Ms. Schulman does make it sound enticingly easy.

In any case, there are billions of women, and we're going to disagree. Difficult conversations will not delay justice – they're essential to imagining genuine equality.

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