The story on Babe.net about a sexual encounter by ‘Grace’, an anonymous 23-year-old photographer, had with Aziz Ansari, where Grace was coerced by Ansari well beyond her comfortable boundaries, left me with conflicted feelings. On the one hand it resonated deeply with me, but on the other I felt the article played into the hands of victim blamers. The article was poorly executed, and by focusing on small (insignificant) details, such as what she was wearing and drinking, it left the door wide open to criticism on ‘whiny, entitled millenials.’ However, the story did unearth issues surrounding rape culture which we seldom touch upon; namely consent and what it actually means.
Whilst I am aware Ansari’s actions are not on the same scale as Harvey Weinstein or Louis CK, they still uphold misogynistic culture which contributes towards rape culture and a culture of violence which hampers any possibility of gender equality. Readings around this issue all led to the same conclusion; it may have been technically ‘legal’ but there’s a difference between traumatic (or grey-area) sex and bad sex. And focusing solely on legality in this instance does not bring to light the bigger issues we need uncover; specifically consent.
We’ve been conditioned from an early age to believe there’s a power dynamic between men and women in dating, and that a man’s desires are more significant than a woman’s. This is so deeply entrenched within us that we don’t question it. We see it everywhere, starting with more subtle undertones in women’s magazines telling you how best to pleasure your man no matter how you may feel about it and with complete disregard for your own desires, not to mention excluding LGBTQ+ women. To the more overt pictures of female ‘love interests’ in movies, who are usually portrayed as not really into the guy until he convinces her, and she was really ‘playing hard to get’ all along. This sentiment also plays heavily into the idea that sex is a game to be won, and that women are always playing hard to get, so no is really ‘convince me.’ And it’s damaging. The Grace and Ansari situation shows us that even the ‘nice guys’ who have the mentality that ‘I would never rape anyone’ are still complicit in this dating power dynamic which keeps rape culture alive.
In order to undo this conditioning, we have to look at the issue of consent. Consent is not an absence of no; it’s a firm and enthusiastic yes. Too often you’ll hear ‘but she didn’t say no’ or ‘why didn’t she leave?’ Voices like these support the idea that in order for sex to be consensual, there will always be a moment where you want to say no, or where it will go too far and you’ll have to stop it. And this is not true; for sex to truly be consensual both parties are enthusiastically in it – there’s should never be a power dynamic where one person feels they have to say no at some point.
The backlash towards Grace also uncovered deep-rooted misogyny that keeps survivors from speaking up and diminishes attempts to dismantle unequal power structures. Caitlin Flanagan’s article in the Atlantic and Catherine Deneuve’s letter in Le Monde highlight just how ingrained sexism is within us. Caitlin’s article deemed modern feminists (specifically Grace) as weak, as her generation was told how to push men away, and they were strong enough to do so. Catherine’s letter claimed that men are just trying to seduce someone, and shouldn’t be punished for trying to touch someone’s knee or steal a kiss. Their underlying message was this; if it happens to you, it’s your fault.
Caitlin’s article focused on how women should be able to defend themselves against men. She played into the misogynistic structure that violence is a normal part of our existence and we should accept it, and operate within the structures to survive. That these structures are normal, and we should just ‘deal with them.’ But if we hope to have any hope of dismantling violent power structures, we have to address the perceived power dynamic where women have to guard themselves and where men are still entitled to do with our bodies as they like because we’ve been warned how to say no. There are plenty of situations I have been in where my no doesn’t count for anything, because my desires aren’t taken into account. No matter how many times I say no, it doesn’t get heard. And from my own personal experience, this is extremely damaging. To keep having your resolve broken down time and time again; you end up giving in because they subconsciously convinced you its ok. And then when you’re in a similar situation, you know how exhausting it is to keep saying no and you give in. And that’s when traumatic sex happens; when it’s implied consent but not a firm yes.
Which brings me onto my next point; the grey area between sex and sexual assault. What came up time again in the Grace and Ansari case is that she consented, and therefore she has no reason to come forward; she deserved what happened to her. As I was reading more, it became clear what constitutes as assault and what is traumatic sex. Traumatic sex is coercion, when you want to but it’s happening too fast and your partner is convincing you to go beyond your boundaries. This grey area is actually significantly important, and something that we can change in us and the world around us. Laws are there to guard rules to protect people, but if the society consciousness still deems it ok, then the law isn’t going to considerably change how women are treated. And within society where women are ‘supposedly’ sexually liberated (by men for men’s enjoyment – read this amazing article by Lili Lufbrow here), being able to enjoy sex without the fear that you will be coerced into something you’re not comfortable with potential violent consequences is something we can work towards. A bad date for a man is awkwardness; a bad date for a woman is potential rape or (worst case) death.
Finally, we need to stop putting the responsibility of uncovering sexual assault on women and victims. Simply put, it’s not women going out there having non-consensual sex with themselves! There’s someone causing those bad experiences, and a vast majority of them are men. But why are they doing it? Most of them (Aziz’s case) don’t realize they’re doing it. They’re just doing what they’re taught, what they’ve learnt – what no one has told them is wrong. That’s not condoning their actions; by not respecting your partner you’re also complicit. No matter how a woman dresses, walks, talks – it’s still the man that does the act. Whether it’s grey area sex or sexual assault; the woman doesn’t perform it on herself.
Jackson Katz put it brilliantly in this quote:
“We talk about how many women were raped last year, not how many men raped women…Even the term ‘violence against women’ is problematic…It’s a bad thing that happens to women, but when you look at that term, ‘violence against women,’ nobody is doing it to them. It just happens to them…Men aren’t even a part of it.”
It’s time we really address the grey area issues which contribute to the wider structures allowing men to be violent to women. And I realize it’s a bit reductionist to use men only as I’m aware violence is not perpetrated solely by men. BUT a large majority is. And that’s where we should start. We need to dismantle these perceived power structures in dating which contribute to the rape culture where men’s desires are deemed far more important, and women’s bodies are there to be conquered. Where men are taught they can have anything they want without asking without any repercussions. And we need to re-establish structures based on explicit consent and trust, where both parties can have a positive experience.
And if you’re one of the guys saying “Oh you can’t flirt with a woman anymore!” Maybe it’s time to re-evaluate what you call flirting and if you might be contributing to the violent power structures of rape culture.