To read the Tweets and comments on the Babe.net story about one woman’s horrible night with actor & comedian Aziz Ansari (read it here if you haven’t already), you’d assume there were only two possible, mutually exclusive conclusions to draw: either you believe that Ansari is a sexual assaulter who’s career should be over OR you’re convinced that the anonymous “Grace” is a weak woman who’s playing the victim card because their date didn’t go exactly how she had hoped. There is no potential for grey area, no possibility for overlap. And is it any surprise in this hyper-partisan political climate?
One thing is abundantly clear: everyone needs to learn that an enthusiastic, verbal yes is a requirement for any and all good, consensual sexual encounters. This is non-negotiable. No complaints about lost eros, no rueing the death of sexual game-play. Stolen kisses (i.e. sexual sucker punches) are now and forever non-starters. Deal with it.
But as we grapple with this new reality of sexual justice and hammer out the necessary rules of good sexual communication in order to significantly reduce abuse and assault, can we approach complicated sexual questions with some nuance, sympathy and generosity, no matter which side we’re coming from? Can we hold two ideas in our head at once?
If we assume that everything in the Babe article happened as described, it’s not necessarily a case of EITHER/OR — it may just be a case of AND. It’s possible for Grace to have felt genuinely violated while at the same time Aziz genuinely (albeit mistakenly) thought she was into it. Yes, Ansari’s behavior was unquestionably selfish, entitled, presumptuous, and clueless — it should be harshly criticized and all of us (especially men) should learn from it. But does this kind of bad behavior magically, surgically remove an adult woman’s sexual agency, her voice and her personal preferences? Should we be so quick to unequivocally call this “sexual assault” and Grace a “powerless victim”? Doing so risks infantilizing women and ultimately undermining the effectiveness of the critically important #MeToo movement.
The brunt of the blame should no doubt fall on Ansari, who had the bulk of the power in the situation: he’s rich, famous, older and should know better, especially as someone who publicly calls himself a feminist. But both participants should be expected to take at least some responsibility for their own respective actions. Suggesting she do so does not absolve him — it simply aims to make everyone better sexual communicators. Because there are important lessons we can learn from his behavior and hers:
What We Can Learn From HIS Behavior
1. Do not try to relentlessly wear down your date’s defenses. The lasting legacy of the “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” dichotomy stinks. Good girls mustn’t admit their desires while manly men must chip-chip-chip away at those feminine false fronts? Please. Those gender roles are stale, rotten, way past their sell by date. If you think a person is playing hard to get, assume they do NOT want to be gotten. Sex is not a game of peer pressure, cat-and-mouse, or psychological water torture. People who act unsure or uncomfortable are unsure and uncomfortable. For the sex to be good for everyone involved, participants need to be consistently confident and comfortable. Abort mission if this is clearly (or even just possibly) not the case.
2. Do not use alcohol to try to get the sexual outcome you desire out of a date. Proper consent cannot be given by people who are drunk — and it’s virtually impossible to tell when someone crosses the line from sober to sloshed.
3. Do not use the elements of surprise and speed to get what you want sexually. Stealing a kiss means you’re taking something not willfully given. And moving at hyper-speed before your partner has a chance to assess the situation or even protest is not only manipulative, it’s pathetic. If you have to rely on these kind of lame junior-high tricks to have sex then you’re not mature or responsible enough to have it in the first place.
4. When your partner says “Let’s slow down,” you need to let them be the initiator from then on. “Let’s chill for a sec” does not mean you take a two minute breather before you pick up exactly where you left off.
5. Do not take someone’s hand (or head) and put it on (push it toward) whatever you want touched. If they want to touch it, they will touch it of their own accord! The most you can do is ask nicely, no pressure.
6. Real life is not porn. You cannot act out a fantasy without negotiating the rules, the boundaries and the safeword first — especially not with someone you’ve just met, whose likes and dislikes and hard limits you can hardly guess. Two fingers in the mouth may be your RedTube turn-on, but they might also be your next partner’s deal-breaking “claw.” Take a genuine interest in your partner’s pleasure.
7. Be aware of your power and privilege. If you are a celebrity, a boss, or a person of great wealth/influence/experience/bodily strength, understand that your status as such may be incredibly intimidating to a romantic partner. Exerting anything that resembles sexual pressure — in other words, that is sexual pressure — can feel threatening, putting your partner in an uncomfortable position where they may feel like they can’t say no for fear of retribution or even violence. It’s your responsibility to set them at ease.
8. Be aware of your ego. If you are a celebrity, a boss, or a person of great wealth/influence/experience/bodily strength, that doesn’t automatically mean everyone wants to fuck you, even if they came back to your place for a drink. You may be used to being surrounded by “yes-people” and getting what you want, but that does not naturally extend to the bedroom.
9. If your partner stops actively engaging in the sexual encounter, you must stop. If they stop moving, stop kissing you, lie still, clench their fists, go limp, get that far-off disassociated look in their eyes, etc., you must disengage and check in with your partner to make sure they’re ok (even if you’re enjoying yourself, even if you’re “so close,” even if you’re afraid of blue balls!). And don’t try to convince yourself otherwise if their response is anything but authentic enthusiasm. In other words, don’t assume their mind just wandered off for a minute — assume they’re in distress!
10. If you are the sexual initiator, you must get an enthusiastic verbal yes all along the way. Ask for it. Continue to ask for it. Make it a part of the sexy talk. If you don’t get that enthusiastic yes, then for the god of love’s sake, don’t keep plugging along!
What We Can Learn From HER Behavior
1. Don’t rely on your non-verbal cues to do the talking. Use your voice. Be firm and assertive. Because when someone makes it clear they want to have sex with you (e.g. “I’m going to get a condom…” or “Where do you want me to fuck you?”), you have to make it clear, with words, if you don’t want to have sex with them (e.g. “I don’t want to have sex with you” or “Nowhere, because I don’t want to fuck”). If you do want to do sexual things with them, then give enthusiastic verbal yeses all along the way — don’t wait to be asked for them.
2. Be aware that sexually provocative questions may be a person’s way to ask for consent. They’re in the mood, they think you’re in the mood, and so as not to break the spell, they ask you — in seductive tones and with graphic language — what you would like to do: “How about you hop up and take a seat?” or “Where do you want me to fuck you?” Don’t interpret them as commands; assume they are sincere questions which should be answered sincerely. You might find such questions distasteful, embarrassing or difficult to answer, but if you’re not feeling it, break the spell.
3. When someone asks you to do something sexually that you do not want to do, do not cave to any pressure to do it. While you may have grown up learning to be agreeable, accommodating, pleasing, and/or low maintenance in order to be liked — especially common if you’re a woman — understand that asserting your sexual boundaries is not insulting, unfriendly, high maintenance or uptight. You are entitled to do as much or as little as you’d like with a willing partner. You owe them nothing — no matter how much money they’ve spent on you, how famous they are, how naked you currently are, or how much you’ve hooked up together previously. If a partner ends up not liking/dating/marrying you for establishing sexual boundaries, well then you’re better off without them (and they can go to hell).
4. Don’t acquiesce to a sexual request just to get it over with, appear cool, or relieve any pressure being put on you. Something like fellatio is not a throw-away move that doesn’t count. It is sex. Giving it with any reservations will only leave you feeling used and objectified.
5. While giving off mixed signals does not give anyone the right to abuse you, it can impede clear communication. When it comes to sex, people have different expectations, preferences, and assumptions. Again, one person’s go-to porn-move is another person’s “claw.”
While the sexual initiator should be clued in to their partner’s potential for discomfort, the pursued should try to see how their own behavior could be misinterpreted. For example: allowing someone to undress you could certainly be read as a non-verbal cue that you are in fact interested in sexual contact; honoring a request for oral sex could understandably be read as an enthusiastic non-verbal affirmative.
As social animals, we tend to project our own thoughts and feelings onto others. We assume they feel exactly the same way we do. And we interpret their actions in a way that makes sense with our own experiences and values: “I asked for a blow job and she’s now giving it to me — that must mean she’s enjoying this, because I would only go down on someone because I really wanted to.”
With sex (as with any interpersonal relationship), the potential for miscommunication and misunderstanding is extremely high. Erring on the side of hyper-clarity, by both the pursuer and the pursued, can only help.
As the Aziz Ansari case painfully illustrates, sex can be an amorphous fog; trying to delineate it is a difficult but important endeavor. The first step is for men to learn to wield their sexual power responsibly. The next is for women to learn not to give theirs up.