Where there has been solidarity and safety in numbers in the #MeToo movement, there is now also an increasingly apparent generational divide. And it’s not just among women.
Compared to their elders, younger women are seen as generally more willing to speak out about being sexually harassed, and bring a new set of expectations to their sexual relationships. There are also generational differences in approach to dating relationships, and in expectations that, if spoken, their concerns about sexual misconduct would be received without repercussion.
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Baby Boomer women “took it for granted they wouldn’t be heard” by men, especially in sexual situations, said Amy Lynch, a Nashville-based consultant who helps employers navigate generational relationships in the workplace. Millennial women — those in their 20s and 30s — are more likely to have grown up in environment supportive of gender equality, with the expectation — not always fulfilled — that they’ll be attentively listened to in those circumstances.
“I have sometimes joked that my generation is feminism’s Frankensteins,” said Courtney Martin, 38, an author and blogger. “Our mothers raised us to believe we deserved sexual equality, but now that we’re actually demanding it, it can seem overly entitled or sensitive to them.”
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Debra Katz, a Washington lawyer specializing in cases of sexual harassment and sex discrimination, says younger women make up the bulk of clients bringing complaints to her firm.
“Women historically felt they would immediately lose their job if they came forward with sexual harassment complaints,” Katz said. “Among the younger generation, people are not suffering in silence… The advice they’re getting now is to come forward and report it.”
Generational differences surfaced in two highly publicized offshoots of the #MeToo movement earlier this month.
In France, there was a notable backlash — led by younger women — in response to an open letter signed by 74-year-old movie star Catherine Deneuve and dozens of other women about men being unfairly targeted by sexual misconduct allegations. Among those assailing Deneuve were feminist Caroline De Haas, 37, and France’s gender equality minister, 35-year-old Marlene Schiappa.
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In the U.S., some perceived a generational gap in reaction to the detailed account by a woman identified as “Grace” of a sexual encounter with comedian Aziz Ansari that left her feeling disrespected and abused. Among older women, there were suggestions that Grace should have been more vocal and assertive in dealing with what amounted to a bad date. Among younger women, there was blame for Ansari and suggestions he had pressured Grace without heeding her words and body language.
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Among millennial men such as Ansari — who is 34 — there’s a cultural contradiction at play, according to sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.
“There’s a public embrace of more egalitarian, feminist sensibilities and ideas,” he said, but that often doesn’t carry over to their private approach to sexual encounters.
As for millennial women, Wilcox said, “there’s a tension between what they’re expecting in terms of men being more egalitarian, and then finding in private that things don’t match their expectations.”
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At a crowded coffee shop in St. Petersburg, Florida, Lauren Caplinger, 20, said this moment in gender relations is an “overwhelming” and “ambiguous” time for both sexes.
“The set rules and lines, things that we thought were rules, are kind of dissipating, and everything is becoming blurry,” said Caplinger, a public relations major at the University of South Florida.
On one hand, she felt comfortable enough to go up to a guy at a club and offer to buy him a drink — something her mother chided her for — and on the other, is curious about some of the dating rituals of old that she’s heard her mother and grandmother talk about.
“I haven’t been picked up for a date in like, pfft, ever,” she said. “I’ve always wanted my way out in case I want to leave.”
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A few seats away, Kelsey Stephenson, 28, discussed the differences she sees in how older and younger women view the #MeToo movement.
Older women look at the some of the troublesome incidents and assume, “that’s the way men are, and we had to deal with that,” Stephenson said. “Younger women have the vocabulary and tools to describe it… These are conversations that are uncomfortable but are important to get to a better place in society.”
Millennial women “think that men should be more in tune with the way a woman says things,” said Nicole Slaughter, 31, a freelance journalist. “The culture has changed so much, so quickly. We’re still feeling out where the line should be drawn on these kinds of behaviors.”
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A former president of the National Organization for Women, Kim Gandy, is heartened by the increasing willingness of younger women to speak up about workplace harassment. She recalled working for a telephone company in Louisiana in the 1970s where a district manager remained on the job long after word spread among female employees about his predatory behavior.
“There was an expectation of rotten behavior being something that went with the territory,” Gandy said. “Today there would have been a much quicker response.”
Yet Gandy is cautious about predicting a generational sea change. She’s now CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, and says the age group of 18-to-24-year-olds has one of the highest levels of dating violence and domestic violence.
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Jeremy Fischbach, 39, a New Orleans-based entrepreneur who has written about “redefining masculinity,” says he’d like to be hopeful about the future of gender relations, but sees a worrisome void on the male side.
“Who are the younger generation going to emulate and follow?” he asked. “Where are the good ideas and the good men? How do we get young men on that path, so they’re not bragging about how many women and girls they slept with, but how many they supported?”