The exposure of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein as a serial harasser and alleged rapist in October 2017 was the tipping point in an unprecedented outpouring of sexual coercion and assault disclosures.

As high profile women spoke out about the systemic misogyny of the entertainment industry, they have been joined by women around the globe using #MeToo to make visible a spectrum of experiences from the subtle humiliations of sexism to criminal violation.

The #MeToo movement has exposed not only the pervasiveness of gendered abuse but also its accommodation by the very workplaces and authorities that are supposed to ensure women’s safety. Some women (and men) have been driven to name their perpetrator via the mass media or social media, in frustration over the inaction of their employers, industries, and police. This has sparked predictable complaints about ‘witch hunts’, ‘sex panics’, and the circumvention of ‘due process’ in the criminal justice system.

Mass media and social media have a critical role in highlighting institutional failure and hypocrisy. Sexual harassment and violence are endemic precisely because the criminal justice system is failing to deter this conduct or hold perpetrators to account. The friction between the principles of due process (including the presumption of innocence) and the current spate of public accusations is symptomatic of the wholesale failure of the authorities to uphold women’s rights or take their complaints seriously.

Public allegations are one way of forcing change, and often to great effect. For instance, the recent Royal Commission into child sexual abuse was sparked by years of media pressure over clergy abuse.

While ‘trial by media’ is sometimes necessary and effective, it is far from perfect. Journalists have commercial as well as ethical reasons for pursuing stories of abuse and harassment, particularly those against celebrities, which are likely to attract a significant readership. The implements of media justice are both blunt and devastating, and in the current milieu, include serious reputational damage and potential career destruction.

The implements of media justice are both blunt and devastating.

These consequences seemed fitting for men like Weinstein, given the number, severity and consistency of the allegations against him and others. However, #MeToo has also exposed more subtle and routine forms of sexual humiliation. These are the sexual experiences that are unwanted but not illegal, occurring in ways that one partner would not choose if they were asked. These scenarios don’t necessarily involve harmful intent or threat. Instead, they are driven by the sexual scripts and stereotypes that bind men and women to patterns of sexual advance and reluctant acquiescence.

The problem is that online justice is an all-or-nothing proposition. Punishment is not dolled out proportionately or necessarily fairly. Discussions about contradictory sexual expectations and failures of communication require sensitivity and nuance, which is often lost within spontaneous hashtag movements like #MeToo. This underscores the fragile ethics of online justice movements which, while seeking to expose unethical behaviour, can perpetrate harm of their own.

The Aziz Ansari Moment

The allegations against American comedian Aziz Ansari were the first real ‘record-scratch’ moment of #MeToo. Previous accusations against figures such as Weinstein were broken by reputable outlets after careful investigation, often uncovering multiple alleged victims, many of whom were willing to be publicly named. Their stories involved gross if not criminal misconduct and exploitation. In Ansari’s case, the allegations against him were aired by the previously obscure website, who interviewed the pseudonymous ‘Grace’ about a demeaning date with Ansari. Grace did not approach Babe with her account. Instead, Babe heard rumours about her encounter and spoke to several people in their efforts to find and interview Grace.

In the article, Grace described how her initial feelings of “excitement” at having dinner with the famous comedian changed when she accompanied him to his apartment. She felt uncomfortable with how quickly he undressed them both and initiated sexual activity. Grace expressed her discomfort to Ansari using “verbal and non-verbal cues”, which she said mostly involved “pulling away and mumbling”. They engaged in oral sex, and when Ansari pressed for intercourse, Grace declined. They spent more time talking in the apartment naked, with Ansari making sexual advances, before he suggested they put their clothes back on. After he continued to kiss and touch her, Grace said she wanted to leave, and Ansari called her a car.

In the article, Grace she had been unsure if the date was an “awkward sexual experience or sexual assault”, but she now viewed it as “sexual assault”. She emphasised how distressed she felt during her time with Ansari, and the implication of the article was that her distress should have been obvious to him. However, in response to the publication of the article, Ansari stated that that their encounter “by all indications was completely consensual” and he had been “surprised and concerned” to learn she felt otherwise.

Sexual humiliation and responsibility

Responses to Grace’s story were mixed in terms of to whom, and how, responsibility was attributed. Initial reactions on social media insisting that, if Grace felt she had been sexually assaulted, then she had been, gave way to a general consensus that Ansari was not legally responsible for what occurred in his apartment with Grace. Despite Grace’s feelings of violation, there was no description of sexual assault in the article. Even attributions of “aggression” or “coercion” seem exaggerated. Ansari appears, in Grace’s account, persistent and insensitive, but responsive to her when she was explicit about her discomfort.

A number of articles emphasised that Grace’s story was part of an important discussion about how “men are taught to wear women down to acquiescence rather than looking for an enthusiastic yes”. Such encounters may not meet the criminal standard for sexual assault, but they are still harmful and all too common.

For this reason, many believed that Ansari was morally responsible for what happened in his apartment that night. This is the much more defensible argument, and, perhaps, one that Ansari might agree with. After all, Ansari has engaged in acts of moral responsibility. When Grace contacted him via text the next day to explain that his behaviour the night before had made her “uneasy”, he apologised to her with the statement, “Clearly, I misread things in the moment and I’m truly sorry”.

However, attributing moral responsibility to Ansari for his behaviour towards Grace does not justify exposing him to the same social and professional penalties as Weinstein and other alleged serious offenders. Nor does it eclipse Babe’s responsibility for the publication of the article, including the consequences for Ansari or, indeed, for Grace, who was framed in the article as passive and unable to articulate her wants or needs to Ansari.

Discussions about contradictory sexual expectations and failures of communication require sensitivity and nuance, which is often lost within spontaneous hashtag movements like #MeToo.

For some, the apparent disproportionality between Ansari’s alleged behaviour and the reputational damage caused by Babe’s article was irrelevant. One commentator said that she won’t be “fretting about one comic’s career” because Aziz Ansari is just “collateral damage” on the path to a better future promised by #MeToo. At least in part, Ansari is attributed causal responsibility – he was one cog in a larger system of misogyny, and if he is destroyed as the system is transformed, so be it.

This position is not only morally indefensible – dismissing “collateral damage” as the cost of progress is not generally considered a principled stance – but it is unlikely to achieve its goal. A movement that dispenses with ethical judgment in the promotion of sexual ethics is essentially pulling the rug out from under itself. Furthermore, the argument is not coherent. Ansari can’t be held causally responsible for effects of a system that he, himself, is bound up within. If the causal factor is identified as the larger misogynist system, then the solution must be systemic.

Hashtag justice needs hashtag ethics

Notions of accountability and responsibility are central to the anti-violence and women’s movements. However, when we talk about holding men accountable and responsible for violence against women, we need to be specific about what this means. Much of the potency of movements like #MeToo come from the promise that at least some men will be held accountable for their misconduct, and the systems that promote and camouflage misogyny and assault will change. This is an ethical endeavour and must be underpinned by a robust ethical framework.

The Ansari moment in #MeToo raised fundamental questions not only about men’s responsibilities for sexual violence and coercion, but also about our own responsibilities responding to it. Ignoring the ethical implications of the very methods we use to denounce unethical behaviour is not only hypocritical, but fuels reactionary claims that collective struggles against sexism are neurotic and hysterical. We cannot insist on ethical transformation in sexual practices without modelling ethical practice ourselves. What we need, in effect, are ‘hashtag ethics’ – substantive ethical frameworks that underpin online social movements.

This is easier said than done. The fluidity of hashtags makes them amenable to misdirection and commodification. The pace and momentum of online justice movements can overlook relevant distinctions and conflate individual and social problems, spurred on by media outlets looking to draw clicks, eyeballs and advertising revenue. Online ethics, then, requires a critical perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of online justice. #MeToo is not an end in itself that must be defended at all costs. It’s a means to an end, and one that must be subject to ethical reflection and critique even as it is under way.