Two years ago, a friend set me up on a date. I had seen the guy at a party and we made eyes at each other, but never spoke. Over the next week, he got my number, and we started texting. We ended up at a wine bar together. The banter was easy and the wine was good. When he invited me back to his place, I agreed to go.
At his apartment, things escalated quickly. Before I really had time to process, he had undressed and pulled me into bed. We began having sex ― foreplay was not on the agenda for the evening ― and “bad” is the only word I have to describe it. I felt like a human Fleshlight as he rammed into me, my head banging against his bedroom wall repeatedly. He didn’t notice until I put my hand up as a barrier, after which he mumbled an apology and kept going. My body went limp and I stared at the ceiling until he finished, rolled over and closed his eyes without touching me or talking to me. After a few minutes of silence, I got up, put my clothing on and left, barely exchanging a word with him.
About a week later, I got a text from him explaining that while he had a “great conversation (and a little more)” with me, he was looking for something “longer term.” But ― never fear! ― he’d make sure to check out my podcast.
About a year before that, I went on a second date with an accomplished book editor. He was smart and kind of nerdy, and I was excited about him. Our date happened to be near my apartment, which he knew, and he invited himself over after we finished grabbing food. I said yes, but made sure to tell him that I didn’t want to have sex yet. He agreed that it was too early and came up for a nightcap anyway.
We began hooking up and eventually it got to a point where I wasn’t into it any longer, so I told him I was tired and wanted to call it a night. He got up and went to the bathroom, and I assumed it was clear that we were done for the evening. When he came back to my room, I was still lying in bed, partially undressed. He stood over me and began masturbating. Ten seconds in ― though it felt like an eternity ― he asked, “Is this OK?” I felt frozen. I didn’t want to make a scene or embarrass him or end up looking “crazy.” It felt easier to just say “yeah,” so I did. I did counting exercises in my head until he came onto my stomach, got a paper towel, wiped my skin off and left.
I want to be clear: I do not believe that either of these encounters qualifies as sexual assault, nor do I think that the men involved were being intentionally thoughtless or harmful. But in both of these cases, I ended the night feeling gross and a bit violated. I wondered why I had let these men into my private space or entered theirs. I wondered why I hadn’t articulated my boundaries more clearly. I wondered why so little care or attention had been paid to my verbal and nonverbal cues of discomfort and disinterest. I wondered whether or not these men were rehashing these concerns, too.
I thought about the two encounters again when I read a 22-year-old photographer’s account of her date and subsequent sexual encounter with actor and comedian Aziz Ansari. The photographer, referred to only as “Grace,” described a night in which Ansari ― a famous man who makes woke TV and who wrote a whole book on modern dating ― repeatedly escalated a sexual situation, allegedly barreling past Grace’s verbal and nonverbal cues that signaled she felt uncomfortable. At one point she describes telling him, “I don’t want to feel forced [to have a sexual encounter with you] because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you.” A few minutes later, she says he instructed her to turn around and go down on him. And she did. (Ansari has called the encounter “by all indications completely consensual.”)
If the #MeToo movement is going to amount to sustained culture change ― rather than simply a weeding out of the worst actors in a broken system ― we need to renegotiate the sexual narratives we’ve long accepted. And that involves having complicated conversations about sex that is violating but not criminal.
It would be easy to look at the Aziz Ansari story and dismiss it as the #MeToo movement run amok. (Author Caitlin Flanagan has already written Grace’s feelings of violation off as mere “regret,” and described the published account of her experience as “3,000 words of revenge porn.”) The story is messier than most that we’ve heard since The Reckoning began in October. Ansari’s alleged misconduct is not the same as Harvey Weinstein’s ― or Matt Lauer’s or Charlie Rose’s or Kevin Spacey’s or Roy Moore’s or Louis C.K.’s. But if the #MeToo movement is going to amount to sustained culture change ― rather than simply a weeding out of the worst actors in a broken system ― we need to renegotiate the sexual narratives we’ve long accepted. And that involves having complicated conversations about sex that is violating but not criminal.
The sexual encounter Grace described falls into what I see as a gray area of violating, noncriminal sex ― the kind of sex that Rebecca Traister described in 2015 as “bad in ways that are worth talking about”; what Jessica Valenti described on Twitter as an interaction that the “culture considers ‘normal,’” but is “oftentimes harmful.”
This is a kind of sex that is not only worth talking about, but necessary to talk about. Behavior need not fall under the legal definition of sexual assault or rape to be wrong or violating or upsetting. And when nearly every woman I’ve spoken to about the Aziz Ansari story follows up our conversation with a similar story of her own, it’s worth thinking about why that is.
Judging from Ansari’s statement and the texts that he exchanged with Grace after their date, which were published on Babe.net, the actor was genuinely shocked to hear that Grace hadn’t interpreted their interactions the same way that he had. “Last night might’ve been fun for you, but it wasn’t for me,” Grace wrote to him. “You ignored clear non-verbal cues; you kept going with advances.”
“I’m so sad to hear this,” Ansari texted back. “Clearly I misread things in the moment and I’m truly sorry.
I believe that Ansari didn’t realize in the moment that he was ignoring Grace’s cues, nonverbal or otherwise. And that’s part of the problem. “When you have a sexually harmful behavior, we have the assumption that people view these behaviors in the same way,” Maia Christopher, executive director of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, told HuffPost last year. But, oftentimes, we don’t. We step into interactions, sexual or otherwise, with different ideas of what constitutes a violation.
As our culture shifts to acknowledge the kinds of violations women have been too scared or discouraged to report, we need to not only make space for more discussion, but update our shared sexual scripts, as well. We need to introduce new language and ways of talking about gray areas that help us to make public the awkward and messy conversations we’ve been forced to have in private.
The language we currently use to talk about consent is, admittedly, complex. Research has shown that in their daily lives, both men and women employ verbal cues to indicate “no” that don’t explicitly contain the word “no.” For example, if someone extends a social invitation that you don’t want to accept, instead of saying “No, I don’t want to do that,” you might say, “That sounds great, but I think I made plans with a friend,” or “Not sure I’ll make it.” These same kind of communication tactics come up in sexual situations. Language like, “It’s getting late,” or “maybe later,” or “next time,” often serves as a stand-in for a hard “no.”
However, in a 1999 paper by Celia Kitzinger and Hannah Frith, the authors conclude that that “both men and women have a sophisticated ability to convey and to comprehend refusals, including refusals which do not include the word ‘no’,” positing that when men claim to not understand these types of refusals, they may actually be employing “self-interested justifications for coercive behavior.” A 2008 analysis reached a similar conclusion ― that “young men share the understanding that explicit verbal refusals of sex per se are unnecessary to effectively communicate the withholding of consent to sex.”
So, what’s going on here?
Women are socialized from a young age to cater to the comfort of those around them ― especially if those around them are men. As Christopher said, girls are simply “taught from a younger age to be more concerned about their environments, about potential threats.” Conversely, many men are taught that they are entitled to women’s time, attention and physical affection ― and that if those things are not readily offered to them, they should be aggressive and take it. This creates a dynamic where women often defer to men’s needs in an effort to avoid embarrassment, verbal conflict or physical violence, and where it may not even occur to men to check in with women’s needs.
Acknowledging this dynamic doesn’t require us to label all men monsters or all women “helpless” weaklings in need of a fainting couch. It means that we’ve all grown up with a fucked-up sexual script ― governed by questions like “Did he/she/they say yes?” ― that ultimately works for no one.
There’s a reason that so many feminists have championed affirmative consent models, also known as “yes means yes.” I don’t know any men (or women!) who want to leave a sexual encounter unsure of whether they’ve crossed a line or made their sexual partner uncomfortable. Most of us enjoy sex more when we’re sure the person we’re having it with is into us and into the sexual interaction. Enthusiastic consent isn’t just about avoiding criminality. It’s about making sex better ― for everyone.
“No one’s saying that sex can’t be complicated and perverse, its pleasures reliant — for some — on riffing on old power imbalances,” wrote Traister in that same 2015 piece. “But its complications can and should be mutually borne, offering comparable degrees of self-determination and satisfaction to women and men.”
There is a fear among some women, often Gen X and Baby Boomer women who pushed back against “sex negativity” in the ’90s, that to use Grace’s story as a jumping off point for these messier, more complex conversations will only do “real” victims of “real” assaults a disservice. If you have experienced these small violations, professionally and personally, and emerged relatively unscathed with a few “bad sex” stories, you might balk at women who have the audacity to question these “normal” encounters. But rather than rushing to denounce the excesses of #MeToo and the imaginary band of millennial feminists eager to lock Aziz Ansari in prison, perhaps this is a moment for listening.
The backlash against Grace’s story has already begun, as media outlets rush to give women who are willing to denounce other women prime space to do so. And admittedly, beginning these conversations is difficult. It will require more than a few think pieces with bold headlines.
We need to engage women and men of varying ages without jumping to bad faith arguments or overgeneralizations. We need men to jump into the fray and reach out to other men, the way Justin Baldoni has begun to do with his “Man Enough” series. We need to push for complex conversations about sexual dynamics and affirmative consent to be included in sex ed programs. We need to, as Christopher explained to me, encourage preschool teachers and parents to practice “skill building” with their children around consent, making it as basic as teaching toddlers to look both ways when they cross the street.
Young women like Grace have the freedom to push for a renegotiation of terms within their sexual and professional lives, because those lives are just beginning. That is how culture works ― it shifts and changes and is pushed forward, often by the youngest and most imaginative among us.