What Means No
Content warning: sexual assault
On January 13th, Katie Way published a piece on Babe.net about a woman whom we know only as Grace. Last year, Grace met comedian Aziz Ansari, went on a date with him, and then engaged in a sexual encounter with him that left her profoundly uncomfortable – uncomfortable enough for her to later describe the experience to Way as “the worst night of her life”. Of all the stories of sexual misconduct that have been brought to light in the past few months with the momentum of the #MeToo movement, perhaps none have kindled as much controversy as Ansari’s, and perhaps none have seen the accused so fiercely defended in the media for actions deemed “innocuous” by men and women alike. Indeed, when compared with the odious crimes of Harvey Weinstein, Ansari’s conduct might appear exceptionally ordinary – but that is exactly what makes it so significant.
To a sizeable proportion of women who sleep with men, what happened on the worst night of Grace’s life is a tale all too familiar. The non-verbal cues gone unnoticed and the verbal cues ignored for the politeness with which they’re uttered. Visible discomfort interpreted as coyness, indecision interpreted as playing hard to get. I don’t have to imagine it because I can remember it. Grace coming forward has made me profoundly uncomfortable — not because I don’t believe her, and not because I think she was wrong to label the incident as a violation — but because she’s forced me to re-examine my own history, the history I watered down and censored in order to move forward. The framing of my comparable experiences simply as Bad Sex is now no longer possible.
Of course, sexual misconduct is not a monolith. Ansari is not a Weinstein. But a perpetrator needn’t be a monster for his actions to be reprehensible. A woman needn’t be held at knifepoint to be coerced. Sexual misconduct is too often seen as a strictly legal question in lieu of any real concern with improving the overall culture surrounding sex and consent. Even if we had the language to describe the misconduct that exists within this so-called “grey area”, the legal system would still be set up to fail victims. The concept of “utmost resistance” here comes to mind — an idea we still see reproduced in rape trials over and over — that unless the complainant resisted to her utmost ability, she must have consented. And the bar of utmost resistance is moving ever upwards. Why didn’t you say no? Why didn’t you fight back? Why didn’t you scream?
Perhaps we should be encouraging men to use their words, rather than the women being subjected to their unthinking bullishness. Words like “Are you feeling good about this?” “Do you want to keep going?” “Is this okay?”
If grown men can’t read verbal and non-verbal cues from their uncomfortable partners, then they should be actively seeking consent to ensure they’re on the same page — and they should not be allowed to shrug off culpability until they do so. Making sure your company is enjoying themselves is not an optional part of sex. These things should be a given, yet they remain overshadowed by the conception that sex is something that a woman withholds from a man. Something that a man must procure from her. Even nice, progressive men are not immune to such socialisation.
Rather than being the calculated predation of a monster like Weinstein, Ansari’s antics evoke a distressing situation into which women are placed by ordinary men – nice, progressive men — men who “wouldn’t hurt a fly”. Ansari built much his comedic brand upon an image of niceness, of likeable awkwardness — the polar opposite of the virile bro-types he would decry in his stand-up. He has eagerly and repeatedly aligned himself with the feminist cause in the press. Progressive, “feminist” men failing to understand the nuances of consent is the most marked sign to date that our culture at large desperately requires an overhaul in what it deems normal sex.