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#MeToo and the Myth of Millennial Fragility

How a movement to call out abusers became a debate about sexual agency

Illustration: Nadezda_Grapes/iStock/Getty Images Plus

MyMy first real use-case for the internet was asking Jeeves how to give a blow job. For those who have no bells ringing, Ask Jeeves was the Google of the ’90s. Back then, it was far too abstract to search for something on the “internet”—what even was the internet? Far better to ask a specific entity a specific question, even if that entity was an embarrassingly inefficient search engine with a curious name and a dopey cartoon mascot.

Born in 1982, I sit right on the cusp of Gen X and millennial—an X-ennial, if we’re being precise. Technology didn’t shape my coming of age, but it came close enough that I understand how it could have. And so I sit right on the fault line of a generational debate that has been bubbling with increasing frequency in the age of #MeToo. While millennial women are calling out men louder than ever, scrutinizing even the most minor of missteps, an increasing number of Gen Xers look on from the sidelines, aghast that women have become so fragile.

In the urban feminist circles I’m most familiar with, it usually starts with a shared sense of outrage, awe at the brazen ubiquity of sleaze. But when it comes to specifics around sexual assault, things inevitably slink into grayer terrain—maybe a guy inappropriately placed his hand on a woman during a date, maybe a celebrity made an objectifying comment in an interview. Not ideal, but not illegal either.

From there, things splinter.

“Women should just tell men to stop,” someone, older than me, will say with a shrug of her shoulder, so ready to move on to the next topic she’s nearly hopping out of her seat.

Every point I understand; every counterpoint I concede.

Another woman, younger than me, will look as if she’s seen a ghost. “Like saying ‘stop’ is ever that easy,” she’ll shout between a tight, practiced smile. If the wine is flowing, so will the buzzwords. “It’s impossible for women to say—or even know—what we want when internalized misogyny and patriarchy run rampant.”

The older woman follows with a pained effort not to roll her eyes. To imply that a woman is incapable of accessing her own wants—essentially stripping away her own agency—is, to her, the least feminist belief of all.

Meanwhile, I sit silently, nodding along like a bobblehead doll. Every point I understand; every counterpoint I concede. Each argument makes sense at the time it’s uttered, until the next one renders it senseless, and then again and again until it’s time to split the bill.

While baby boomers’ history is too shrouded in sexism to get nitpicky, and Gen Z is too woke to bother with old-timers, Gen X and millennials are fighting it out like siblings who overlapped in high school. We share just enough history to keep an eye on what the other is up to while being inevitably embarrassed at whatever it is we witness.

Generational claims have their setbacks. For one, they’re never entirely accurate. For each Gen X woman skeptical of today’s outrage, there are others cheering it on. And yet among feminists, Gen X appears to be the most divide—or maybe just confused.

Gen X author Megan McArdle asked, rather reasonably, of millennials: “How has the most empowered generation of women in all of human history come to feel less control over their bodies than their grandmothers did?” Responses typically come in the form of takedowns. When Sarah Silverman admitted she didn’t much mind when Louis C.K. asked to masturbate in front of her—while still conveying sympathy for those who did—she was quickly criticized and apologized immediately.

In a recent interview, Janeane Garofalo, a poster child for Gen X feminists, put a pin on this particular divide, defending Louis C.K.’s return to stand-up and arguing that he should be left alone. She said of women in his audience, “If you don’t want to listen to him, get up and leave the room.”

It sounds simple, and it is… if everyone is capable of asserting their needs. Whether this is true is at the heart of this particular divide, which on closer inspection, may not be a divide at all. Rather, millennials are responding to the unique culture they came of age in. While Gen X was arguably the first group of women to have their equality acknowledged, millennial women were the first to enter a world where their equality wasn’t questioned—which would have been great, were it not premature. Millennial women’s sense of self was so quickly assumed, many never had a chance to really develop it.

On the tail end of the women’s movement, Gen Xers were the first to climb the corporate ladder in earnest. Generally painted as defiant and a little bit gloomy, they’ve always had a tight grip on reality (even if it bites). Millennials, on the other hand, known as affirmation-seeking idealists, grew up being told the feminist fight had long been won. But aided by the explosion of the internet, the rise of porn, and the bubble of social media that would define their coming of age, an entirely different reality was unfolding.

At the turn of the century—my senior year of high school—a new trend started popping up at parties. In some corner of whoever’s house we were in, there’d be a large desktop computer playing porn. With the internet, sex could suddenly be viewed by teens without an “in” at the local video store. Among other things, this meant blow jobs were an increasingly hot commodity. I gave them regularly to my crush in attempts to win him over. It worked insomuch as he let me give him more blow jobs.

That same year, a new after-school activity entered our rotation. Hooters, the restaurant literally named for waitress’s breasts, became a once-a-week social event. If you refused to go, you were considered uptight, uncool. Everyone went.

At the same time, the kids I’d been babysitting for years—four boys, between ages four and 10 (true millennials)—were constantly watching the music video for Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time,” in which she dons a scandalously sexy schoolgirl uniform. “Why don’t you look like that?” they’d ask. Every woman on cable was starting to look like that, and I didn’t know how to respond. I wasn’t angry or even amused. I was embarrassed.

Despite the excess boobs and unrequited blow jobs, I now consider myself lucky to have escaped the age of internet porn by the skin of my teeth (there’s a joke in there somewhere, but I’m not in the mood). Unlike real millennials, who generally got the internet before they got their period, porn sex, for me, was more a suggestion than a way of life.

It wasn’t until after college that I noticed things were really starting to change. The TV-show-turned-media-empire Girls Gone Wild was everywhere in 2004, the year I graduated. Basically made up of raw footage of seminaked women shouting, “Woo!” the 30-minute episodes followed mostly drunk vacationers dancing and stripping for the camera. If this sounds disgusting, it was. But back then, many women—enough of them, at least, to make GGW a national sensation with nearly no pushback—considered being a sex symbol empowering. The rest considered their ability to laugh at these women empowering.

The ultimate form of empowerment was not saying “no,” but saying “yes”—to everything.

This wasn’t a niche genre. Television was full of bouncing breasts posturing as liberated. Take The Man Show, a staple of my college experience. Co-hosted by Jimmy Kimmel (now a household name) and Adam Carolla, the show was a cesspool of dude jokes, with every episode culminating in busty women jumping on trampolines. It’s worth noting that Carolla’s gig before this was hosting Loveline, a mid-’90s call-in show offering sex and relationship advice that was certainly racy but also, frankly, fantastic. Carolla’s transition is an almost perfect representation of the cultural shift at large: By the turn of the century, we went from sincere sexual liberation, in which people finally talked openly and honestly about sex—which, deep in the AIDS crisis, wasn’t always sexy—to fetishizing women’s ability to display sexual openness.

This otherwise horrific objectification was coated in irony, the ultimate shield from criticism and a staple of Gen X humor. The contrast between over-the-top sexualization with the feminist fight of earlier days was meant to be laughable, and sometimes it was. Except there was little space for “sometimes.” To not like these jokes was to not get them. To take these bits seriously at all was to be out of touch.

This all gave rise to what Ariel Levy calls “raunch culture” in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs. According to Levy, breast augmentations increased by 700 percent between 1992 and 2004. Pamela Anderson and Jenna Jamison were household names. By 2005, Levy writes, less than 25 percent of women called themselves feminists. No one wanted to be aligned with a dated movement. In an effort to demonstrate our equality, women bent over backward to align ourselves with men.

I came of age with Gen-X women as my models for admirable adults. I spent hours, years, decades studying the fearlessness of Dana Scully, the humor of Elaine Benes, and the attitude of—you guessed it—Janeane Garofalo. There is something so fundamentally cool about the sincerity of that generation’s toughness; their ability to stare into the ugly eyes of reality with no shield other than the power of their own indifference. Though I regrettably just missed Riot Grrrl, at least I had Alanis Morissette screaming in my ear for a year or so as a teen, before anger in women became the ultimate offense.

It’s easy to forget that younger women—millennials—saw Christina Aguilera and Pamela Anderson paraded around as model women as soon as they hit puberty. For them, the irony was lost; for many, it was all they knew. They weren’t appropriating raunch as rebellion. They were learning it as truth.

The ultimate form of empowerment was not saying “no,” but saying “yes”—to everything.

“I thought I raised you to stand up for yourself,” my mom says, a bit aghast when I admit, for reasons that are now unclear, that I’d had sex with at least half a dozen men I didn’t want to have sex with in my twenties. It feels harsh, but she means it as a compliment. She’s struggling to understand how I, a “strong” woman by all accounts, the daughter she—a tough single mom if ever there were one—could be so easily pressured by men, could let them take what I didn’t want to give when I was more than capable of telling them to buzz off.

It’s an echo of the same argument: “Men can’t be mind readers; why don’t women just say no?” The implication being that strong women say “no.” And that I am both strong and incapable of doing so is confusing—to both of us.

“You did,” I assure her. And it’s the truth. I watched her fix our broken-down house when the ceiling leaked and the pipes broke. I saw her go back to school on top of her full-time job, so she could find something with health insurance when we had none. And with her negative time, she somehow took me to soccer practice, to the library. She even secured a scholarship for me to attend “women in engineering camp” after my fascination with gadgets grew undeniable, but before either of us knew what engineering meant.

To leave the room would be to risk never being invited back.

I did, in fact, become an engineer. I studied the most male-dominated discipline at a top engineering school. I entered a workforce of almost all men at a large consulting firm. I considered myself nothing if not tough. My co-workers and I frequented strip clubs and regularly played a game in which you had to spot the difference between two uncannily similar photos of naked, large-breasted women. I stayed late at the bars, tossing back as many drinks as they did, but paying for it more because I was also starving myself to stay thin. I hooked up with colleagues to prove my desirability, which seemed interchangeable with my respectability, though it was a fine line. If you tried too hard, if you were too hot, you lost respect. So mine was a hidden effort. I needed to convey the same cool indifference as men, but look as hot as any woman doing it.

I wore makeup but never enough to look like I wore makeup. I dressed in slacks, never dresses—dresses would expose me as different—but I always unbuttoned an extra button on my J. Crew blouses. I judged women the way men judged women. If something was offensive, I barely noticed; I laughed off everything with irony and indifference. No joke was too crude.

“If you don’t like how a man is behaving, just leave the room,” my mom says, mindlessly pouring us tea, like it’s the simplest thing in the world. Repeating Garofalo’s words exactly.

I nod, taking in the weight of our differences. To me, going with the flow was the whole point. My power, essentially what I spent my whole life perfecting, was how to stay in the room. To leave the room would be to risk never being invited back.

This down-for-anything attitude wasn’t confined to the workplace. If my early adulthood was defined by anything, it was the rise of so-called “hookup culture,” which most millennials came of age in. Pre-online dating but post-cellphones, we existed in a world of instant accessibility without the social norms in place to regulate that kind of thing.

Though my college dating experience was a string of sloppy but relatively respectful landline planning like a real Gen Xer, cellphones had taken over by the time I graduated into the real world and dating apps shortly after. With everyone reachable with the click of a button, the effort that once went into dating was not only useless, it was fundamentally uncool. Meanwhile, with porn more ubiquitous than ever, men’s expectations became starkly excessive compared to my college days and even entitled. If I wasn’t in the mood, I’d face disappointment and even anger. Desperate to appear “chill”—not demanding, hysterical, or god forbid, needy—I’d concede. If men could have a lot of sex, we could, too, was the tit-for-tat reasoning. Whether we enjoyed it was less important; we could do it because we could do anything.

Through my twenties, there was something essential to proving I could have the fun expected of a young woman. After a night of rarely pleasurable sex with whatever guy I hoped would text, but seldom did, I’d feel a pinch of excitement in my stomach. Coffee in hand, watching the sunrise as my cab sped back home, I’d feel a dull sense of pride—the thrill of being wanted. For a long time, I interpreted this thrill as sexual pleasure, as if sex were the cornerstone of my worth, a crowning achievement. But more often, I felt pain. Never hearing from a guy again, a lack of interest so definitive it made clear I must not have been anything to be interested in. Starting each day with a hangover because it was impossible to be comfortable at night without alcohol. Slinking to get the morning-after pill because interrupting sex to request something as standard as a condom would “ruin” the night.

Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

It’s the voice that crystallized a generation. In 2012, the year I turned 30, Gillian Flynn’s novel, Gone Girl, became a phenomenon. It acknowledged what everyone was starting to realize: The most enviable woman—the woman down for anything, the woman men loved and women wanted to be—was not only miserable, she was furious.

“Why are women getting so fragile?” a role model, a mentor, a friend asks from across the table. She’s a decade older and assumes we’re on the same side because, in 2018, I’ve reached a point where I can, very clearly and even with a bit of joy, tell men to buzz off. I don’t mind that she’s mistaken. Hers is the side I want to be on, after all—the side of “tough.” It’s why I’m drawn to her and so many other women firmly rooted in their Gen X sensibility, not teetering on the cusp of a generation, of an entire identity.

“I don’t think they’re fragile,” I say, asserting my dissent but maintaining the third person like a coward. It’s impossible to align myself with one side or the other. I’ll spend months wondering how to defend myself in a way that doesn’t throw me on the wrong side of the divide before I realize that maybe it’s not a divide at all but staggered battles of the same fight. And if the next generation of girls learns about feminism before they learn about blow jobs, I’d say we’re on the right track.

Writer and founder of Chorus, the matchmaking app where friends swipe for friends. More at getchorus.co (or emjsmith.com).

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