Last week, I posted a six-point treatise on what we could learn from the Grace/Aziz Ansari encounter first documented in the (in)famous Babe.net article written by Katie Way. I cheekily noted that no one would agree with all of the post, but hopefully most people would agree with some of it.
I was right.
But, also, I was wrong.
I wasn’t wrong about the agreement issue. I was wrong in the way that I wrote my second point, about the role of celebrity in the encounter. And perhaps I wasn’t quite wrong that celebrity played a role, or that there are important things to consider herefrom about the role of celebrity in our culture. But I was wrong to use a particularly polarizing and accusatory word in describing Grace’s decision to comply with Aziz Ansari’s suggestion she go down on him just after she’d asked for time and space in their encounter: inexplicable. This word was demeaning and blamey and mischaracterized Grace’s experience in the encounter and I am sorry for using it.
However, this is not just an apology, because the way I came to understand that this was a mistake and what I learned along the way I think is important and illustrative of not only this incident but a lot of sexual misunderstandings around consent in heterosexual encounters. So I want to take some time to dig into why I made this mistake and why I was wrong and what that says about men and women in their perceptions of and experiences with sexual encounters.
Five women independently took the time to set me straight on this issue. And, aside from a small note about the context of point #6, the use of this word and the way I characterized Grace’s decision in that moment were the only things that anyone directly took issue with in the post. There is a lot of critical data here: how much the word inexplicable and its context bothered people, that everyone who spoke up was a woman, and that many different women independently pressed me on this. Indeed, one was in what became a lengthy Facebook comment thread and I can reasonably assume that even more women would have raised this issue had that comment thread not been publicly viewable. And there was a lot of synergy in the response content too: (1) pointing me to articles about how women’s apparent consent is often de facto coerced by social pressure, male expectation, or desire to reduce discomfort and (2) observing that basically no women found her actions remotely inexplicable (and, indeed, that many of them had made similar decisions in similarly uncomfortable situations in their own past).
It is important to note here that my gut reaction when reading the post remains unchanged – I almost fell out of my chair when reading the original article when I read the sentence “And I did.” I found that to be the most profoundly unexpected and unimaginable thing in the article. But I have been shown since, by several patient women, that I only felt that way because I am a man who has never been in that sort of situation. I have certainly been pressured for sex or to go further than I’d like a number of times, but my reaction has never been close to Grace’s because I was never in fear for my safety, culturally conditioned to be compliant, or trained to gaslight my emotions in sexual encounters. I believe this disconnect is important and profound. On first reading, I think very few men understood what Grace was thinking in that moment and I think almost all women did. That matters.
It matters not only because it explains how Aziz Ansari could come away from that encounter thinking he’d a mutually agreeable and fully consensual time with Grace, but also because it illustrates how a well-intentioned obsession with consent as a minimum has transformed into the notion that “consent is everything” in sexual interaction, full stop.
There’s a really popular and well done viral video likening consent to sex to tea. I’m sure you’ve seen it, but just in case:
This is a great start, mostly. But the closing line, in big bold letters, Consent is Everything. actually seems to miss the boat a bit. Because consent is not everything, quite. Grace consented to go down on Aziz. But that was not everything that mattered, not by a long shot. Her consent was not only not enthusiastic and affirmative, but it was manufactured by Aziz’s persistence, obtuseness, and, frankly, maleness. In the absence of Aziz being a jerk, it never would have happened. And that’s the problem.
Of course, the fix for this remains the same as discussed in the prior post: affirmative consent as a standard, especially embraced by men. (And maybe less alcohol, but that’s way behind affirmative consent here.) In a world where affirmative consent – as opposed to mere (extracted) consent – were the standard, this encounter would have gone very differently and Grace would not have been hurt.
That said, one of the women added the following comment:
I think it just has to do with the fact that women are sort of conditioned to be compliant and to “just go with it”… and that men know this, or at least, expect this from them on some level, and are able to use this to their advantage.
And here, I think, is another critical disconnect. Because while I don’t doubt that it seems this way to women, I don’t think (most) men actually do know or expect this from women in sexual encounters. Maybe I disproportionately know better men, which is probably true, or maybe they’re dishonest about their feelings and activities, but I think most men I know well were shocked that Aziz would persist in asking for something sexual so soon after Grace asked for them to stop. And even more shocked that this request would be met with compliance. This is what led me to celebrity as the only explanation because it’s hard (for me) to imagine a man being so persistently expectant and tone-deaf to his partner. Of course, I know intellectually that there are unfortunately tons of men out there who behave this way, but I actually think a majority of men probably don’t behave this way. And I think some of them may inadvertently create these situations because of this disconnect in expectations manufacturing weak, extracted consent. This only underlines the vital importance of retraining everyone to use affirmative consent as the standard for their activities.
That said, it’s possible I just learned at a very young age (in an entirely unsexual context) that persistent asking was not likely to be rewarded. In one of the most formative moments of my early childhood, I was about five years old and had recently had a couple Oreos after lunch, perhaps for the first time. I spent the afternoon obsessed with Oreos, the flavor a joyous revelation for my young tongue. I started asking my mother when I could have another Oreo. She said “later” and I asked how much later and she said we’d see. I started asking repeatedly, over and over again, getting whiny and pestery and persistent. After about eight to ten requests which probably spanned all of fifteen minutes, my mother proceeded to the cupboard, got the Oreos down (imagine my momentary delight!), and dumped the entire carton’s contents into the garbage disposal and turned it on. When the whirring was over, she left me alone to contemplate the waste my impatience had wrought.
It’s worth noting that my mother insists she doesn’t remember doing this and that she’s kind of horrified by it in retrospect (I may have included this story in an earlier blog post or on Facebook sometime). I maintain that it was one of her great triumphs of parenting. In any event, it’s probably a lesson that should be included in everyone’s childhood in some format, though the level of drama necessary may vary.
Of course, many men are trained, a la the predator/prey complex I discussed in last week’s post, that no means “yes”, or “yes soon”, or “just try harder.” I remember a friend’s mother telling me the story, years ago, of how she met her husband. “He just kind of showed up and wouldn’t leave. He kept pestering me for a date and I said no but he kept hanging around and asking again. Eventually I said fine and here we are.”
They divorced a few years later.
I want to thank the five women who took the time and the energy to illustrate what I got wrong in my prior post and why it matters. And thank all of you for your patience with me.