Long before people started talking about bad but noncriminal sex in the wake of the #MeToo movement, therapists were hearing about it in their offices: Marissa Nelson, a Washington, D.C.-based therapist, said female clients often shared stories of sex that felt weird, if not predatory.
“I’ve had many women tell me that they’ve been in sexual situations that made them feel awkward or uncomfortable, but that they didn’t say anything because they didn’t want to ‘hurt his feelings,’” she said. “In the process, they’ve stretched their comfort zones farther than they would have liked.”
Much like Grace (not her real name) ― the 23-year-old photographer who recently described an unsettling date and subsequent sexual encounter with actor Aziz Ansari ― Nelson’s clients gave nonverbal and verbal cues that their dates either failed to recognize or simply shrugged off.
“Sexuality and dating is supposed to be fun and exhilarating, but if you don’t feel safe or [you feel] like someone is not listening to you, then it makes sense that you shut down and stop communicating your needs in a way that is crystal clear,” Nelson said.
Ansari, who’s described in the Babe.net story as repeatedly dismissing his date’s discomfort ― and eventually, instructing her to perform oral sex on him ― has called the encounter “by all indications completely consensual.”
Therapists say the story paves the way for another, just-as vital point: Consent during hookups (and in relationships) needs to be enthusiastic, and the premium we put on men getting off needs to be extended to women as well.
“This really is a tipping point in the way both men and women talk about sexual consent and navigate the waters of power, personal boundaries, dating and sex,” Nelson said.
That conversation starts with women ― and men ― being comfortable talking about the male-centric sex that’s become the norm in 2018. As HuffPost’s senior reporter Emma Gray described it, these encounters, while not clear-cut sexual assault, are so one-sided and aggressive, you can’t help but “feel gross and a bit violated” when it’s over.
“It’s like women have toxic empathy for the male sex drive and sexual wishes.”
“Behavior need not fall under the legal definition of sexual assault or rape to be wrong or violating or upsetting,” Gray wrote. “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.”
Some of it has to do with our shared cultural script, which tells us that men are always ready for sex and relatively quick to climax. A man’s orgasm is the end game of most sexual encounters. Women, meanwhile, with their oftentimes elusive orgasms, come second, or not at all. Research shows that the orgasm gap is depressingly real: Straight women statistically get off less than any other demographic, including lesbians.
It’s not just endemic to singles and hookup culture, either, said Aline Zoldbrod, a Boston-based sex therapist and psychologist.
“Prioritizing male pleasure is a problem even in established relationships,” Zoldbrod told HuffPost. “I’ve described it as ‘the tyranny of the erect penis’: It’s hard for women to say ‘no’ to a man with an erection, even in relationships. Men need to learn to pleasure women first, but women have such difficulty in refusing their partners.”
As Zoldbrod described it, it’s like women “have a toxic empathy for the male sex drive and sexual wishes.”
And far too often, women risk more than offending a man’s ego by saying “no, I’m not comfortable with this,” or ― as Grace allegedly told Ansari on their first date ― “next time.”
“The vast majority of these modern dating encounters take place between two strangers who happen to find each other sexually appealing,” Zoldbrod said. “So often in hookup culture, you don’t know who the person is yet. You have no reason to trust him.”
The plan may be to protect yourself and keep your guard up, but it’s easy to freeze when confronted with someone physically larger than you who expects an orgasm.
The perfunctory sex that results from all of this usually isn’t exciting or satisfying for either party, but it’s especially lackluster for women, said Sarah Watson, a sex therapist in Detroit.
“I do often have conversations about consensual sex that is male-oriented, with individuals and those in partnerships,” she said. “My female clients describe it as a chore and that it isn’t pleasurable. That most of the time, they would like it to just be over with and often don’t have pleasure or reach orgasm, if that is their goal.
Pleasure for both parties should be the goal, and enthusiastic consent needs to be mandatory. Hopefully, those ideals will become near-universal in our bedrooms, Watson said. (And if men really do link their ego to their ability to get their partners off, as one study recently suggested, they’d be wise to step up their game.)
“I really hope this teaches men that consent is a must and it has to be obtained throughout each encounter,” Watson said. “For women, I hope the takeaway here is that pleasure is our birthright and sex isn’t just about one partner, unless that was negotiated beforehand with your partner.”
“Consent is always an ongoing process.”
Nelson, meanwhile, is instructing her clients to use their words during sex and to recognize their own agency and power. Nothing is sexier than having a vocal, enthusiastic partner, whether you’re a man or a woman. When that’s not the case, it’s imperative to check in with your partner to gauge how they’re feeling. If that proves a challenge, it may help to to adopt what Nelson calls a “stop and request” style of communication.
“With every kiss and every touch, know what your line in the sand is,” she said. “Know what your partner’s line is, too.”
When an act, sexual or otherwise, starts to feel uncomfortable or violating, say something.
“Tell the person, ‘I’m just not that comfortable with things going further than this,’ while requesting what does feel comfortable to you,” she said. “Consent is always an ongoing process.”