Enthusiastic, mutually pleasurable sex? I’m into it.
The sexual misconduct allegations against Aziz Ansari, published on Babe.net over the weekend, have turned into the worst kind of Rorschach test. In the piece, a woman who is called “Grace” alleges that Ansari attempted to coerce her into sex. Since its publication, many women have responded to the piece as a clear-cut account of sexual assault. Others have insisted, often in the harshest possible language, that Ansari is not the problem, and that Grace is venting about a “bad date” in a highly public forum.
As the vehement responses to the piece make clear, our culture still doesn’t understand what good affirmative consent does, let alone the fact that it’s essential. Those who see Grace’s account as a mere case of “bad sex” insist that Grace didn’t sufficiently protest or don’t understand why she didn’t just get up and leave when she felt uncomfortable. Those who see it as assault point out that she never said “yes”—and it’s this second standard, the presence of clear, enthusiastic consent, that feminists have begun to demand in order to define an encounter as consensual.
The Ansari allegations have been rehashed many times over, but the crux of it is that Grace alleges Ansari attempted to coerce her into sex despite multiple verbal and non-verbal cues to slow down or stop. In a statement, Ansari did not deny any of her specific claims, but he didn’t validate Grace’s experience, either. He insists that the encounter “by all indications was completely consensual” and that “everything did seem okay to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned.”
But Ansari is not quite the point here. The point is that the affirmative consent standard scares us (or at least some of us) because it requires that we totally rethink sex — and because it condemns many interactions we now think of as “normal.” If the reactions to Grace’s account are any indication, lots of us aren’t ready for that more radical change. Caitlin Flanagan, in a thinkpiece for The Atlantic, is vitriolic in her criticism of Grace’s experience. She calls the account “3,000 words of revenge porn” from a scorned woman and, in one paragraph, refers to Grace as “shallow,” “desperate,” “cruel,” and stupid. “This has happened to her many times before,” Flanagan asserts elsewhere, based on no factual proof. “What led her to believe that this time would be different?”
Shaming women who report sexual assault by calling them promiscuous, or gold-diggers, or otherwise awful people, is a practice as old as rape culture—and, for that matter, so is referring to rape as “a bad date.” Yet Flanagan’s wider point that #MeToo is diluted or derailed by allegations like these, and that “the revolution… is starting to sweep up all sorts of people into its conflagration: the monstrous, the cruel, and the simply unlucky,” is one I’ve heard from other women. Nor is it uncommon to hear people worry, as Flanagan does, that young people are changing the definition of sex and consent, in a way that will eventually outlaw or at least stigmatize many of the interactions we now take for granted.