Months ago, I sat in a classroom, fingers dug into knees, and uninhabited my body. I wrote about the experience immediately following it, but I reflect on it now with more understanding, and perhaps a clearer empathy, than I did then.
We were discussing the accusations against Aziz Ansari, by an anonymous woman known as “Grace.” “Discussing” is an improper word; dismissing feels more accurate. The quietness of the girls in the room compared to the outspokenness of the boys caused a revelation for me. A disorienting, somewhat traumatic revelation, but important nonetheless. The boys argued, largely, what most critics of the story did: this story is being blown out of proportion. It’s not really rape. It’s unfortunate, but it’s not worth ruining a man’s career over. He’s a feminist! We don’t even know who she is. Aren’t there more important things to discuss? It’s not like he’s Harvey Weinstein level.
That last idea—that only what we collectively consider the “worst of the worst” is worth talking about—is what scares me most. Roxane Gay edited an anthology of writing about sexual violence, in all its multifaceted forms, titled, fittingly, Not That Bad. The collection was recently released, and I dove into the discomfort of reading it, the self-recognition, the turbulence of emotion that swelled up in me and my memory. The title is what gets me, though: not that bad. What we were discussing, in that classroom, didn’t merit discussion, because in the scheme of things, it was not that bad.
That logic reflects the more intractable bruises of our societal comprehension of sexual violence. What is a culture that harbors so much sexual violence, so much terror, that we have allowed ourselves to create degrees of trauma? Perhaps because of its pervasiveness, we feel we have no time to think about the “lesser” experiences of violation and sexual abuse. Perhaps if we examine those “lesser” experiences too closely we will see too many faces we recognize.
Grace’s story perhaps felt more like whining to us. Such a story seemed trivial, more unfortunate than traumatic, to a culture as close to sexual abuse as ours.
If we want to change this shit, to spin these paradigms upside down, to rewrite power, we need to care, though. We need to know that “bad sex” matters too. Ansari did not deny the accusations. I want to acknowledge that while the journalistic integrity of the story, of the reporting, is up for scrutiny, I also want to offer the notion that publicly accusing a widely respected celebrity of anything is not a very fun experience. Remember how very infrequently we believe women. Think of what that must be like. Heterosexual sex, which is what I will be discussing in this article, is a uniquely strange thing in our culture.
So, yes, Ansari did not deny anything in his response statement, but rather, recalled the night quite differently: “We went out to dinner, and afterwards we ended up engaging in sexual activity, which by all indications was completely consensual.”
What are “all indications” in this culture? It seems that any lack of a “no” is, we believe, an indication of a “yes.” I don’t think Aziz Ansari is a bad person. I think he has perhaps exempted himself a bit, as a feminist, from self-examination. I think men are taught to think of many things that are not consent, that are not “yeses,” as yeses. I think that his actions traumatized a woman, but his actions are not uncommon or remarkable; that the mythology of a “bad man,” of anonymous hooded rapists in alleys as the only actual assailants, permeates most of our minds. I think that “good guys” can live in a society that teaches them that they can never be bad guys. That if it’s not rape, it’s fine. If she doesn’t say no, it’s fine. If she does, but “her body is saying yes,” it’s fine.
Women should always be up for sex. Women shouldn’t be sluts, though. Women should feel independent and liberated, and thus feminism means always saying yes to sex. Women should this. Women should that. Generalizations that I have been told. Generalizations that have no point of reconciliation, that I have believed, that I try every day to un-believe.
Grace’s experience, however, is unsurprising. I believe her because of how familiar the experience is for most women. As reported in Babe: “Ansari wanted to have sex. She said she remembers him asking again and again, “Where do you want me to fuck you?” while she was still seated on the countertop. She says she found the question tough to answer because she says she didn’t want to fuck him at all. “I wasn’t really even thinking of that, I didn’t want to be engaged in that with him. But he kept asking, so I said, ‘Next time.’ And he goes, ‘Oh, you mean second date?’ and I go, ‘Oh, yeah, sure,’ and he goes, ‘Well, if I poured you another glass of wine now, would it count as our second date?’” He then poured her a glass and handed it to her. She excused herself to the bathroom soon after.”
And: “Grace says her friends helped her grapple with the aftermath of her night with Ansari. ‘It took a really long time for me to validate this as sexual assault,’ she told us. ‘I was debating if this was an awkward sexual experience or sexual assault. And that’s why I confronted so many of my friends and listened to what they had to say, because I wanted validation that it was actually bad.’”
Grace also recalled repeatedly giving Ansari “verbal and non-verbal cues” of her discomfort. He relented once, saying, “It’s only fun if we’re both having fun,” until, after sitting on the couch, he sat back and pointed to his penis and motioned for Grace to go down on him.
Men shouldn’t be expected to be mind readers. She needs to say no clearly.
But how do you say no clearly and assertively when you have been taught that politeness is far more important than your own comfort? How do you say no when even the word isn’t enough to convince; that your body tells him what you want, not your own mouth? How do you say no when this is what sex is supposed to feel like for women, what we tell ourselves all sex is: awful, violating, something to grin and bear?
Why is it that we have to so clearly and assertively say “no” in the first place? Why is it that we hold men to such incredibly low standards, that perhaps our silence, our hesitation, our clear lack of enthusiasm shouldn’t be thought of as a yes? Why is our no never enough?
Feminism is not immutable; feminism is a constant, complicated evolution. What much of my experience in mainstream feminist discourse has lacked is nuance when it comes to sex. But rape should not be the only act of sexual violence we talk about. Bad sex—hetero sex, in this case—shouldn’t be so ubiquitous throughout women’s lives. We cannot only focus on the clear-cut cases of sexual assault, but the quieter, messier kinds of sexual discomfort that most of us have experienced.
Backlash to the #MeToo movement has seemed rather widely monotonous and all too familiar: oversensitivity, a witch hunt, a persecution of pleasure and sexual ambiguity, men will be terrified to even look at women, going too far, rape is confusing, etc. I appreciate critique, and know that there is room for it within the movement, but that—the notion that women are asking too much of men—is ludicrous to me. I do not find it absurd that men should have to control their sex drives, just as anyone else should. I do not find rape to be a very difficult thing to understand, for those who insist the “rules” have become too complicated: consent is necessary, consent is not something assumed and not equivalent to silence or even an unenthusiastic “yes.” I do not find it hard to understand that no one is responsible for sexual assault but the assailants themselves, that no, victims do not ask for it. I do not believe it logical or acceptable that we ought to accept sexual violence as a natural consequence of our gender or our sexuality.
And so yes, I do believe, fervently, that we need to expand the conversation, that in fact perhaps we have not yet gone far enough. We ought to discuss what we like to refer to as “bad sex.” When consent may be there, but pleasure, enjoyment, enthusiasm, isn’t. When a woman’s pleasure is negotiable, supplementary. When we cultivate a culture that presses women, people, into “yes” and allows men to get off the hook for coercion, aggression, self-absorption.
We prioritize male orgasm as the end goal of sex. Too rarely is a woman’s pleasure ever considered a necessity within sexual culture, and that is a problem worth talking about. What Aziz Ansari’s behavior exemplifies about our culture is how normalized this kind of discomfort is. How entrenched this idea is, that women should expect bad sex, should expect unwanted aggression, and to expect a prioritization or even a consideration of their own pleasure is quixotic, a fantasy, a bout of wild dreaming. I know that sex is a vast, highly individualized realm, and that one’s kinks are personal. I know that sex is complicated, but what should be universal is respect.
Silence is not consent. What unnerves me most is the belief ingrained in our cultural psyche that accepts a woman’s passivity as consent, as encouragement. If men could approach heterosexual sex differently, if they could be taught to recognize and value their partner’s enjoyment rather than simply focus on their own, and if women were taught that they too are just as entitled to pleasure, what world would we live in? If a man would pause during sex, understand that his actions aren’t doing anything pleasing for his partner, and accordingly try to change course. If sex wasn’t something women tolerate, but were entitled to fully enjoy.
If if if.
If I were in that classroom today, I would try to squeeze down my anxiety and speak. I would look at the boys and say, “How sad it is that we have taught men that sex is nothing more than masturbation? That sex is like this? That this aggression and ignorance and violence are what sex should look like?”
How sad. My sadness, though, doesn’t overrun my rage, or exhaustion, or fear. I want more. I want more for me, for anyone who is sexually active of any gender. I want to not think less of myself if I don’t want to have sex, or think less of myself if I do. Sex positivity should leave space for us to say no, to engage in sexual activity only when we want to, when we feel comfortable and safe. Sex positivity must give us room for self-agency of all kinds, without shame. Every experience with sexual violence, with violation, is that bad. Every experience is a symptom of our treacherously nonchalant rape culture, and we deserve more.