The world is full of grey, hues and distinctions that we aren’t always taught to navigate with poise and ease. Perspective is a huge part of how we regard the encounters that we negotiate, and how we gain such viewpoints comes largely from what we see and hear, what is modeled for us day in and out by our families, friends, and the media that engulfs us in the present day. It is a tricky business to watch the world around you project certain images and notions, yet then be told that you are responsible for ignoring what they teach. Yet, I feel like this is what we ask women to do over, and over, and over, again.
We are surrounded by films and books that show romance and love as almost violent forces that we may or may not be able to control: the man sweeping a woman into his arms, then leaning forward to kiss her, because she didn’t know that she wanted THIS. I feel like much of what we are indoctrinated to believe sex should be carries elements of this model. I believe that men have been taught that women may not know what they want, and so it is their job to lead us to the possibilities, even if they must do so with an element of force. On the other hand, women seem to be taught that we don’t know what is best for ourselves and our physical forms, which is perpetuated not just through the barrage of media and art forms that reinforce this code, but also through decades of medical practices, particularly around birth, that leave us without truly having a say over what happens to our bodies.
But this post is about Aziz Ansari, and the muddled actions that have hotly been debated, because of a controversial article posted on Babe that has outed him as a guilty party in sexual assault. I have read the original article several times, a few rebuttals, and a few that have taken a wider view of introspection to discuss the culture around sexual norms. My favorite twitter post this week captured the heart of how I feel:
If we are talking about perception, which seems to be the main issue, and if we are going to be real with ourselves, then we are talking about centuries of ingrained misogyny that tells men they do not have to be responsible for not only the pleasure of their partners, but for their comfort and safety. One article talked about Ansari only being guilty of not reading minds, and how this was just a bad ‘date’. I think any date where someone gives a name to a physical maneuver that another is continually attempting to use on one’s body in a fondling attempt (‘the claw’) goes beyond ‘bad’. There is a disconnect that goes larger than just missing ‘cues’. And it goes beyond women being taught to say no, or excuse themselves, or have ‘cab’ money at the ready, as another article suggested, along with claiming that women are ‘dangerous’ at this moment in #metoo for discussing such messy conditions. We have ignored for too long the emotional burdens and responsibilities that women have shouldered that require us to learn the cues of others, because that is the hallmark of nurturing. You cannot take care of people if you cannot read into the things they don’t say (parenthood is rife with these puzzles). Men, I feel, have abdicated much of this to their female counterparts, to their detriment. So if we can recognize that our perceptions are not matched, why are we not talking about it, rather than assigning blame to women?
What this article brought was a revelation to women that we have been living with assault and categorizing it as other things we ‘just need to live with’. ‘Bad’ dates are just something we should power through as we search for whatever it is we are seeking. It revealed that women feel that it’s not only okay for a woman to be subjected to treatment where she felt uncomfortable and gave uncomfortable signs with her body, and felt obligated to perform acts that she wasn’t really into, but that it’s seemingly a rite of passage. And even worse, not only should we just accept these awful realities as something ‘normal’, but we should defend the men who perpetuate them.
For me, #metoo is supposed to do exactly what it is doing right now: calling into question practices and beliefs around sex, harassment, assault, and gender inequalities that we are not comfortable admitting, never mind discussing. The fact that the woman in the article felt doubt as to whether she was assaulted and had to seek outside validation tells us an enormous amount about how the confidence women feel in society believing them. And the articles that defend Ansari are a testimony to such distrust, and I applaud Babe for sticking to its guns and publishing what they felt was right.
But where do we go from here, now that the water is murky, and we are in areas that no longer display strict polarities?
First, I want to hear from men, who have been auspiciously silent on this topic. Every article I have read dissecting this issue has been written by a woman. I feel that silence has a lot to do with fear that they have participated in such behavior themselves, and don’t want to reflect and/or admit such things. In addition, the leadership they need to have conversations among themselves seems lacking right now. But someone needs to step up, because SILENCE IS COMPLICITY. Men need to be vocal, and we need to hear from you what you can, and want, to do to help change the dynamic. It isn’t just about poor behavior that men might not have been aware of, but its perpetuation. What are your responsibilities? If you don’t feel you can read signals, how about a conversation around consent, and checking in? I personally am growing tired of the argument that consent removes romance and spontaneity from the sexual narrative. What it eliminates is ambiguity and confusion. Consent can be the sexiest move a partner can make. A partner who has enough forethought and consideration to ask me permission to kiss me, or touch me, or check in to make sure I am feeling comfortable, while creating a safe space where I can be honest about what I want, is completely alluring. Consent is hot and titillating, and if women feel they are losing something by giving up such autonomy over their bodies, and men feel they are losing something because they relinquish a certain element of sexual control, then I feel some self-reflection is long overdue on both sides. Where did we get the notion that our bodies are not our own? Where did you learn that women want a man who ‘takes control’? When did you become aware that sex is for the 'taking'? Where have these ideals sprung from? What has been modeled? What have you seen or heard?
Second, please stop shaming women for coming forward with stories that challenge the narratives we have woven for ourselves. Stop telling women they must do more than they are already doing. We have enough on our plates from all the other roles society has handed down to us that we shouldn’t have to worry that men can’t be responsible enough to cultivate an atmosphere of respect and comfort when it comes to intimacy. Stop victim shaming and blaming acts that women have experienced that cause you discomfort because of a permissiveness you displayed that you might have been conditioned to believe was a ‘norm’. Let go of the notion that women should have to accept such behavior, or that women are not worthy of being heard and supported because they acted differently in a moment that you might have considered acting. If you are vocalizing that you do not want to participate in something sexual, and you are physically indicating such, and you go home crying and feeling like you need to seek refuge in a shower, there has been an element of assault. What we need to start talking about are the invisible ways we are assaulted: the mental, verbal, spiritual, and societal ways we are sometimes coerced into doing things that we want to say ‘no’ to but lack the language and confidence to navigate. It is not always so simple as to state that a man did not physically force himself, and so there was no ‘harm’. There other ways of intimidation and abuse in our society that we continually ignore, and we need to begin to hear each other and discuss how to rebuild our sexual landscapes in ways that we feel heard and listened, and feel safe.
Third, to my artist friends, literary writers, dramatic writers, and all those who have a direct influence on the images we create and place in this world for others to soak in and digest: we need to begin to create the stories and images that shape what we want our sexual topography to look like. Write bold, female characters that embrace sex scenes where consent is a part of the narrative, and men that support those women. Envision the ideal of how both men, women, and those who identify in the spaces between, should be treated, and create THAT. We need new media, art, and literature that emboldens us to strive for what we should want, not what we have been conditioned to believe.
Lastly, please reflect on how you learned what romance, love, and sex should be. What did you grow up witnessing in adult relationships? On television? Movie posters? Music? How have you been taught to react to those you attracted to, and how you been taught to approach intimacy with them? What can you change? What is your responsibility to your sexual self, those you engage with sexually, and the community at large? How would you like things changed for your own children or future generations? How can we create dialogues? Who can be the leaders to bring others together for constructive dialogue? What are the disparities faced across economic, racial, and gender lines that may need more support and more action? How can we work to uplift everyone so that we can all feel sexually safe?
I understand things aren’t going to change overnight, because changing an entire culture takes the energy and participation of a majority, and often one that is sometimes slow and unwilling to join the cause. While there definitely seems to be generational differences in what women should feel they should tolerate or not, and what men may feel they should be responsible for or not, change is inevitable, and once the dragon is woke, we can no longer pretend that we are unaware of the ways that we have been influenced by our environments and the detrimental effects of their impact. Instead, we should strive for creation of terrain that serves us equally, and allows us to utilize communication and respect over force and blame. The grey should not frighten us, or have us begging for dichotomy. Rather, we should we welcome what it is allowing us to uncover, and its provocation to redefine what sex and gender equality means in our relationships. It is an invitation to expose ALL the ways we have been hurt and traumatized, not just the obvious forms, and with that, a way to seek healing and justice, both long overdue.