The Trap of being a “Strong Woman”

Reading parts of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa or The History of a Young Lady (1748) this weekend has been surprisingly mind blowing to me in light of the #metoo movement. I’m referring not only to the allegations against Aziz Ansari that I’ve read about this weekend, but also how some people have lamented that his accuser Grace, in her account of that night, didn’t “fight back” or didn’t more clearly and, more importantly, forcefully resist any unwanted advances. Why didn’t’ she leave? Why did she proceed to engage in several sexual acts even if she initially resisted? When are we going to teach women, our sisters and daughters to fight back and to say “no means no”? How is this anything but a bad date if she engaged in sexual acts with him and continued to stay? Anecdotal as this all is, these are just a few of the responses I’ve read online, and I went from tentatively agreeing with them to being shocked at their similarities to Richardson’s 250-year-old novel.

According to these responses, there is virtue in being able to resist a man’s advances. This is an old-fashioned concept to be sure, and it is a sentiment straight out of Clarissa itself. Lovelace, betrayed by one woman, seeks to avenge his broken heart on all women by using, abusing, and assaulting and even raping them to reclaim his power over them. Though he claims to both love and admire Clarissa, he will only think of marrying her and reforming his ways if she passes his final test: his attempt at raping her. If she is unable to fight him back, she, like other women he has raped, will be ruined and will have no choice but to marry him. If on the other hand she is able to resist him, she will have proved her virtue and have redeemed her gender in general. After conspiring to deceive and confine her and ruin her reputation, he later rapes her while she is drugged, after which Lovelace realizes that, nevertheless, “her will is unviolated.” Unconscious, Clarissa is in no condition to resist him, so she is both ruined and yet still virtuous. Her continued ability to resist Lovelace’s advances and his proposals of marriage, as she even tries to kill herself to protect her honor and avoid a second rape, prove her inviolability. Her eventual death exemplifies her purity is beyond reproach.

Despite the centuries separating this plot from the world we live in now, we still judge women who don’t fit the mold of the self-possessed, virtuous, kickass heroine who clearly articulates “no means no,” and when confronted by continued unwanted advances, even the threat of rape, still somehow fights back. This ideal ignores the fact that there are countless examples of women who have fought back and have been raped and/or murdered, which shows that, when it comes to confronting unwanted advances, the choices are not black and white.

It leaves me wondering how debates around #metoo are based on the continuation and embeddedness of more supposedly antiquated ideas about women’s virtue and how we measure a woman’s power and worth by her ability to successfully resist. For many of us, the final test remains how well women can resist unwanted advances, threats of rape or other means of physical and emotional harm rather than how well men limit making these advances and threats in the first place. What options are we leaving women who are learning to articulate themselves, who struggle to assert their boundaries or are fearful about the repercussions of fighting back?