Veteran women's rights campaigners have accused #MeToo campaigners of whingeing. Some young women are wearing their anti-feminist credentials as a badge of honour. So is the movement in crisis? We asked Sunday Herald writers Vicky Allan and Angela Haggerty to explore those questions in a wide-ranging e-conversation. Here is what they said ...

VA: The scandal around the Presidents Club – an elite men-only event at which hired hostesses were treated like sexual playthings – encapsulated many of the issues that feminism is confronting today.

Right now, #MeToo – the anti-sexual harassment movement which gained momentum following the Harvey Weinstein allegations – is having a bumpy journey. The campaign has been accused of hounding men for the smallest of transgressions, and solidarity between women seems more broken than ever.

Of course, many will dismiss women's outrage over the Presidents Club as the gripings of deadly dull feminists who don’t like sex, and are jealous of young women who can wear short skirts and make a living by having their bottoms groped. Since the story was broken by undercover Financial Times reporters, the newspaper's comment stream has been full of complaints about the "puritanical" nature of their piece. "What a boring, self-righteous place Britain is becoming,” wrote one reader.

But reaction to the Presidents Club scandal is also fuelled by anger at the entitlement of a particular class, and the way socialising and entertainment linked to such power deliberately excludes women, placing them not just in service roles, but also as objects there just to satisfy male sexual desires. As with the Harvey Weinstein allegations, the Presidents Club reminds us that this is all about power. And while by and large, worldly might rests with men, there are industries where women are expected to work their sexuality, whether they like it or not.

AH: Amid all the media commentary over the Presidents' Club, the glaring omission was the class issue. Gentlemen's clubs like these don't only exclude women from membership, they also exclude working-class men. The history of this type of club tells us much about the clientele. Women were made to sign non-disclosure agreements. There's a sense of entitlement there that is frightening in 2018. A bunch of rich men groping female waitresses who'd been told to wear skimpy black outfits for the occasion: the cream of the British crop really thought it was OK to do this. But their derision doesn't stop at women. This kind of elitism sees many other parts of society as beneath it, and it means that working-class women are usually more adversely affected than upper middle class women. Yet, it's often women from these wealthier backgrounds who become high-profile commentators on issues like feminism. I have to wonder if that's why class hasn't featured more prominently in the analyses of the Presidents Club downfall.

We talk about identity politics a lot these days, placing people's opinions into a hierarchy of identity. The most adversely affected group should be the one we listen to most. They have a right to discuss these issues that others do not. By that logic, women should talk about #MeToo, but men shouldn't. Meanwhile, some women are criticised because they come from a more privileged class whereas women of a lower social class may find themselves in more danger of sexual violence throughout their lives because of poverty and social attitudes, and so it is those women whose views should be elevated. Women of colour face even further challenges. And so we create different tiers of opinion, and begin squabbling over who even has the right to speak, over who has the worst deal.

VA: The squabbling is relentless right now. I’m wondering what you feel about Germaine Greer's recent comments about the Weinstein allegations: "If you spread your legs because he said 'be nice to me and I'll give you a job in a movie' then I'm afraid that's tantamount to consent, and it's too late now to start whingeing about that." My heart sank when I read this – not just because of what it said about this iconic feminist's current thinking, but because it was another illustration of where we have got to in the media debate around #MeToo. What began last autumn as a solidarity response to Harvey Weinstein’s accusers, has become a battle that sometimes looks as if it might tear feminism apart.

AH: It's frustrating because the reports tend to focus on the most shocking things that she says, and I'm not sure that's the tone we need right now.

Some of what Greer says rings true for lots of women. Many women use their sexuality as a form of power or manipulation in the same way men use attributes like strength and privilege. I think these are quite human traits, utilised for survival, protection and advancement, that we've attached morals onto with the progression of society and civilisation.

We would like to live in a world of equality, but we're not there. In my mind it's strong, radical action that wins through. There is an element of #MeToo that has made me feel as though we women have a victim label being attached to us, and I'm not comfortable with that.

What women achieve despite the violence perpetrated against us and the structural power imbalance at the heart of society, is incredible. It's astonishing how strong women are. I don't want to indulge the weaknesses I've been left with so far in this life, I want to harness the power I have and use it to fight back. Sex belongs to me as much as it belongs to any man, and I really worry that female sexuality is going to slip into hiding amongst all the confusion.

When I see Greer's words, that's what I feel she's getting at, and I relate to it. Granted, she appears to have little sympathy for elements of the movement, but who am I to tear apart an older, wiser feminist than I? I need to keep an open mind at all times in case I've got something horribly wrong, but despite the brilliance of the #MeToo movement I don't know if the tone of the points and counter-points is as helpful as it could be.

VA: I thought Greer's comment was a pretty coarse way of putting down women, some of whom had shown great bravery in coming forward, and I can see why it upset a lot of people, myself included. A lot of these women hadn’t even “spread their legs” – many had actually walked away – but they had felt that their ability to get a job, or even their whole career, rode on this.

Often when we complain about the tone of debate on social media, it’s Millennials that are accused of making it so polarised. But Greer does that style too, and it cascades all over the internet.

This struggle within feminism is nothing new. There have long been tensions, over how we feel about sex and sex work, and to what extent trans women can be part of the movement. There’s also a great deal of soul-searching going on about where class and race fit into this.

The tone of debate bothers me too. What saddened me was that these Greer quotes seemed like yet another example of the way current social-media-age debate is causing deep rifts in the feminist movement. It is also furthering antagonism, rather than understanding, between the two sexes. And those who think this is just an internal problem for feminism, should take a second look, because this is about what’s happening in all politics, especially the debates around Donald Trump in the US, and Brexit here in the UK.

For there’s something in the nature of the way stories are surfacing, becoming caricatured and spreading, that exaggerates difference. It often seems within #MeToo coverage there are now only two stories, two memes. One is of the young #MeToo victim whose experience amounts to little more than bad sex, or a bungled flirtation, and who is, in many people’s eyes, making too much of a fuss, a whinging snowflake. The other favoured story is of older feminists, like Germaine Greer or Anne Robinson, who are dismissing those whingers, and saying – stop behaving like victims.

Both of these accounts serve feminism badly, each drawing attention away from the more serious stories of abuse or humiliation. And on social media, misogynists pile in, using these stories to argue that women should shut up. So, when I worry about the future of feminism, what I’m really worrying about is how everything is propagandised in this digital age. I’m worrying that we get stuck in this one argument over how bad a grope is.

One story that comes to mind is the furore around the #MeToo story published in the online magazine, Babe, titled, “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life.” It was a report about the experiences of a young woman, who went back to the actor's flat on a date in which she says that he did not pick up on “the verbal and non-verbal cues” indicating “how uncomfortable and distressed she was” with what he did to her. Some read the description as broadly consensual.

Many people were upset that the story had been published in the first place. Television presenter Ashleigh Banfield even delivered an on-air open letter to the accuser saying: “You had an unpleasant date. And you didn’t leave. That is on you. And all the gains that have been achieved on your behalf and mine are now being compromised by allegations that are reckless and hollow.”

AH: I wondered why on earth it was a story. When I read it, I felt I was reading the story of a young woman who'd gone on a date with a famous actor, gone home with him and engaged in a sexual experience that she didn't particularly like. She seemed unsure throughout of how far she wanted the experience to go, and from Ansari's point of view the signals may have seemed very confused. He didn't rape or assault her. She felt pressured, but I wondered what the cause of that pressure was. Was it Ansari? Or was it partly an internalised pressure? Was sex something she felt like she should engage in rather than something she really wanted to engage in? Did some of this represent a deeper, internal conflict women are trying to grapple with in the aftermath of #MeToo?

I felt that it was very unfair to name Ansari. Within feminist circles these days, any discussion of the impacts on men is met with derision. But men are our fathers, our brothers, our sons. I am not at war with men. Yes, I recognise the deep problems of ingrained privilege, but the way these things manifest themselves in day to day life is extremely complex, and we simplify too much of it.

I wonder if this is partly what makes feminism so unattractive to a lot of young women – some of whom wear their anti-feminism values with pride. They want everyone to know they don't associate with all these mad, political women. And I relate to that in a lot of ways. It feels as though we've separated men and women into bad vs good camps. This instantly conjures an image of purity: women are victims, we have things done to us, we shoulder burdens, we earn less money, we face inequality throughout our lives. We are the innocents. Meanwhile, men are the privileged. Men get to do what they want to others, to offload their burdens onto others, to earn the most money, to enjoy sailing through life. They are the villains of the piece.

Except, I don't recognise that portrayal of women. We are extremely capable of being nasty, manipulative, hurtful, devious beings who acquire what they want or reach successful heights by outsmarting the opposition. We are not pure, we are not innocents. We're strong, practical and we get things done. Our minds and bodies are often bedazzling to men. Most women will tell you how easy it can be to get what they want by weaponising their sexuality. But in some feminist circles this is met with great negativity and moral judgement.

Arguments about the sex industry exemplify this. Some feminists believe that the sex industry is entirely about men abusing women, of holding power over women, about objectification. Others believe that making the choice to sell your sexuality is an incredibly powerful and empowering thing; it's clever. The accepted wisdom that men tend to want a lot of sex was identified as a weakness in them and women exploited it to gain financially. Yes, that does sound a little devious and manipulative, doesn't it? And perhaps modern feminism doesn't want to face these uncomfortable ideas. It's much easier to make your argument when you're saintly and angelic, with exemplary morals.

This is important in the #MeToo debate. We need to recognise that some women are happy to have no moral judgement around sex. For some women it means absolutely nothing to them to sleep with someone to get ahead. Some women are completely unashamed of selling sex. Some women like to have one-night stands, they have high sex drives, they cheat on their partners. I've even known women to have sex for revenge, to perhaps hurt a former friend by seducing their partner. These women don't fit in safe-space feminism, but if they're not included in the #MeToo debate then I'm not sure what the point of it is. It can't be raw and energising, fuelling a fresh burst of effective feminism, if feminists keep sticking their fingers in their ears and screaming "misogynist" at anyone who deviates from the line.

Yes, Germaine Greer and co may seem outrageous – but welcome to the real women's world. Greer's comment about women spreading their legs is mild in comparison to the way women regularly talk about one another. Part of that culture stems from internalised prejudice and the effects of systemic inequality. But some of it stems from the fact that women know women; we know how incredibly powerful and capable and threatening we can be. We aren't all pretty little flowers who don't want men to touch them.

A fresh wave of feminism needs bad-ass, confident women who realise the value in what are presently considered to be negative and troublesome qualities. I want to see what that kind of feminism looks like. I don't want a safe space, I want something to smash.

VA: I also think it’s great to celebrate bad-ass women, but #MeToo is about that too. The actor Rose McGowan seems like one bad-ass woman to me; as does Asia Argento. Both are Weinstein accusers who kicked up a fuss. Or if you want to see the kind of bad-ass I really like, look no further than Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, who sentenced doctor Larry Nassar to 175 years for sexual assault of young gymnasts, while warning others against contempt with the words: “I told you I’m not nice.”

“Sir,” she said. “I hope you are shaken to your core. Your victims are clearly shaken to their core.”

Bad-ass was what my generation of feminists were supposed to be all about. Back then we had Julie Burchill as our journalistic icon of empowerment. We were the ladettes, or even the grrrls, who drank like the men, got high, and got the sex that we wanted.

Except that didn’t happen for everyone – even those who wanted it. Or maybe it did happen for a while, until we had kids, got older, and realised that a great deal of female life isn’t really about weaponising our sexuality. And while I’ve long been on the sex-positive side of feminism, one of the problems I feel with where young women and girls are now, is that we’ve ditched the part of female sexuality that was about us being the agents of our own desire. And instead we focus entirely on the part that is about our own desirability. You only have to read a book like Peggy Orenstein’s Girls & Sex, which documents attitudes among young women in the US, to see that too often, that desire to be hot becomes about what men want.

You wrote earlier of not wanting to feel a victim. I’m with you there. I can’t think of a time when I have felt I was a victim, though I call that luck – the kind that comes along with a load of other pieces of good fortune, such as a stable family upbringing.

But in my life, and particularly my work as a journalist, I’ve met many women who haven’t been lucky, and covering rape and domestic abuse cases has convinced me that the system – call it the patriarchy, blame capitalism if you like – is stacked against women. I used to wonder if there was a biological element to men’s violence against women, but the more I’ve found out about it, the more I’ve thought it’s at least in part about culture – it’s about power and the hierarchies we are trained in as children, and most of us – men and women – are its victims.

I don’t blame men, or hate them for it. We’re all part of it. That’s why feminism needs all of us. It needs male allies, including stars like Matt Damon, who was disparaged for saying there was “a spectrum of behaviour … a difference between patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation”.

But I honestly don’t think #MeToo has been entirely about victimhood. The idea that the accusers are “fragile” victims has been exaggerated. What could be more brave than standing up in the media and making such accusations, particularly against someone in power?

Germaine Greer said she would like to see women reject men in the moment, rather than calling men out further down the line. She'd like them to say clearly: “Stop.” I think we all would. But what if the way we’ve been brought up sometimes makes that hard? What if, as Nigella Lawson said recently, women are actually trained to “mollify” men? What if it takes something like #MeToo, to get us to a point where women find it easier to say "stop" – and men take it more seriously when they do.

It’s not fragile to call out the abuse of power. It’s not victimhood to talk about the things that you have found difficult. That’s a shame-lifting process, and it’s important.

After decades of fighting the shaming of our own sexuality, we seem to have reached a point where we want to shame individual men for behaving as the culture has taught them – even though we know shame only breeds anger, resentment, self-hatred, and retaliation.

So I don’t think we should be hounding individuals – particularly around this tricky territory of our sexuality. Shame breeds too easily there. I don’t think we should be looking to topple heads – either because of bad behaviour on a date, or because of the uncovering of sexist tweets issued several years ago. Back in 2011, the new England women's football team coach, Phil Neville, obviously thought it was pretty good banter to joke about domestic abuse and laugh at women’s equality. Then he got his new position and learned that today’s climate doesn’t tolerate such comments. I wonder if Neville would send those tweets in today's changed culture. In this fast-moving world, we need to be wary of presentism, or holding people to the values of today rather than those current when they committed the behaviour.

AH: I worry about that, too. In my experience, men fit broadly into three categories when it comes to their relationship to women. One contains the real bad apples: nasty, abusive, ultra-misogynists. Another contains what I'd consider to be most men, and a lot of casual sexism. This is your old dad or uncle with outdated ideas about how we should all live our lives. These men are often ignorant and uneducated about feminist thought. They're the men who'll give their seat up for you on the bus, open the door for you and want to rescue you if you find yourself in trouble. This group also includes men who think they're feminists, and talk endlessly talk about it. They, too, think they're rescuing women by displaying such public understanding and often speaking over them.

The final group contains actual feminist men: the men who really get it, who've taken time to understand the issues and who actively alter their behaviour and thinking to play their part in countering inequality.

Some of the most important gains from the #MeToo movement could be in educating the men who fall into my ignorance category. And the guys in the feminist category have an important role to play there. But must stop shutting men out of the conversation. If they're part of the problem, they have to be part of the solution.

But it's important to separate those truly dangerous men from those who are just idiotic. I don't want to see men publicly shamed or ousted from jobs over stupid comments or actions that can be dealt with in other ways. I know plenty of good, kind men, who would walk in front of a bus for their families. Yes, I cringe at the things they sometimes say, but they are not dangerous or malicious, and I don't like the pressure we often feel on social media to join in on the shaming. Can't we be mature adults and figure out a better way?

VA: I think that better way is already out there. It just sometimes gets drowned out in all the shouting. Change is already happening because men are parenting their children more, getting involved in caring roles – and that passes down. It’s happening because there already are more women in power – our female First Minister being one. And for all #MeToo may have created rifts, there is more energy in feminism now than at any point I can remember. I can’t think of a time when it seemed more OK – cool, even – to be a feminist, despite what you say about young women who reject it.

I can’t see that energy going away but there are many issues left to resolve. How do we forge an anti-harassment culture alongside what Ariel Levy describes as a "raunch culture”, in which women work their sexual desirability? #MeToo also needs to work with its male allies, because they have to be on board for the change. As with all politics, we need to work out how to debate without tearing each other to pieces. And ultimately, we need to shift from shaming individuals to creating the kind of systems and structures in schools and workplaces that mean abusive behaviours are not accepted or swept under the carpet.

In a way, #MeToo – a movement that speaks not just to our puritanism, but also our cultural obsessions with fame and sex – can distract us from equally important but less sensational feminist issues: domestic violence, the undervaluing of traditional women’s work, the way poverty impacts more on women. The best kind of feminism has always been about seeking of equality for all, though what that equality actually looks like, and how we get there, is a whole other topic.

AH: Watching women squabble with one another does not make feminism appealing – especially when there's such a striking lack of self awareness. The very women saying we need to pull together are often the ones pointing all the fingers at other women's opinions being the problem.

That's why I sometimes find myself craving an environment that isn't what we now call a "safe space". I want somewhere where women can be free to say whatever they like, to throw their worst ideas and prejudices out there and not face a howl of outrage. I want to be challenged, I want someone to really make me think. I want to have robust conversations with men about how they view all of this stuff, and I don't want them to be fearful of offending me. It's a brutally frustrating environment at the moment. Outrage has become a tool used by people trying to control the narrative – people who often, let's be honest, have the luxury of that position.

This is why I want an unsafe space. I want to get in a room with other women and see some real passion. I want to hear their anger, their emotions, I want all that rawness. I want a fresh wave of feminism that can handle the fight. The feminists on the frontline of a battle for equality can't afford to have a safe space. We desperately need a feminism that appeals to the women you speak of – survivors of violence, low-paid workers – because we have to recognise that we don't live in a safe world with safe spaces. We need to be able to work together, protect one another, while realising that we don't all have to be the best of friends, skipping our way to equality hand-in-hand. We need focus and radical action. We need young women, rough around the edges, who say things they're probably not supposed to say, because they're the ones we're not reaching any more. We've built our walls of safety around us.

Like I say, Vicky, it's time to smash it down. What a legacy it could be for the #MeToo movement – a new wave of bold feminism rising from the tears we've shed for the survivors who broke the taboo and stepped forward with their heads held high. Bring it on.