NSFW WARNING: There is no possible way to discuss the following without using adult language and talking about sex in graphic terms. Enjoy.
It may be the curse of all aged human beings to watch the world they knew in their youth fade away as they begin to bemoan the illogic of younger generations. The ground changes subtly until suddenly it no longer makes sense. As Grandpa Simpson once said, “I used to be with it, but then they changed what ‘it’ was, and now what I’m with isn’t it. And what’s ‘it’ seems weird and scary to me.”
When it comes to sexual morality, Caitlin Flanigan of The Atlantic put it this way:
Sexual mores in the West have changed so rapidly over the past 100 years that by the time you reach 50, intimate accounts of commonplace sexual events of the young seem like science fiction: You understand the vocabulary and the sentence structure, but all of the events take place in outer space. You’re just too old.
Broadly speaking, we are inculcated in our morality as youths, subject to various factors—cultural, social, economic, and so forth—and tend to carry those biases into later life. As Morris Massey famously said, “You are what you were when…when you were value programmed.” That makes these values neither right nor wrong necessarily, but it does explain our bias in continuing to see life through the lens of ages passed.
I mention this because I am now on the other side of a generational divide. The world has shifted, and pretty damn quickly too. Nowhere has this been more apparent recently than the #MeToo movement and the Aziz Ansari allegations:
The #MeToo movement has been embraced by legions of women as a vital step toward countering widespread sexual abuse and misconduct. This week, more so than at any point in the movement’s brief history, there’s visceral discussion about its potential for causing harm.
The catalyst was the publication by Babe.net of an account by a woman identified only as “Grace” detailing her 2017 encounter with comedian Aziz Ansari. The article intimated that Ansari deserved inclusion in the ranks of abusive perpetrators, yet many readers — women and men — concluded the encounter amounted to an all-too-common instance of bad sex during a date gone awry.
Ansari has said he apologized immediately after the woman told him about her discomfort during an encounter he believed to be consensual.
That any right-thinking person could believe Ansari to not guilty of sexual misconduct (or worse) blows the minds of the younger generations. I know. I’ve communicated with them. Or tried to. They’re in a big hurry to be offended, which makes discussing issues difficult. The Time article references generational split:
Liz Wolfe, managing editor of Young Voices, a D.C.-based organization that distributes op-eds by millennials, said the Ansari story gets at the core of what men and women are taught regarding dating, sex and romance. Men should pursue, women should play hard to get.
“So many women have wondered in a situation, ‘Have I said “no” decisively enough?’” Wolfe said. “They can’t quite figure out whether they want to go forward or leave. … And from the male perspective, he can’t quite figure out what the woman wants.”
Wolfe has noticed a generational divide in their reactions. Older women tend to think Grace should have been more vocal and assertive, or simply left Ansari’s apartment. Younger women feel that Ansari should have read Grace’s body language and listened to her more closely, and he was at fault for pressuring her.
I believe that assessment to be correct, because I find the idea of reading body language and listening more closely to be ridiculous. At the risk of sounding like Grandpa Simpson, here’s what “it” used to be and why what “it” is today seems weird and scary to me.
Generation X, of which I’m a member, was raised on the following sexual consent mantra: “No means no.” It’s a handy, bright shining line. She (or less frequently he) said, “no” so that was the end of it. And in cases where that wasn’t the end of it, well, overstepping that boundary was (and is) to move onto a pathway ranging from sexual misconduct to rape. It may have made flirtatious games like playing “hard to get” difficult (or impossible), but both parties were equal actors and there was a clear veto on the more amorous or aggressive party .
Because “on means no” is lexically direct, unambiguous in an area of potentially enormous social misunderstanding, as others have said, it means nobody has to be a mind-reader. It emphasizes personal responsibility.
“No means no” consent doesn’t come without caveats. It’s not that “no doesn’t mean no,” it’s that some people for reasons of time or circumstance must be considered incapable of giving consent. This muddies the waters, and gives imaginary psychological cover to those who would sexually harass, abuse, or worse.
Many famous people, among those Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Bill Cosby, have been ensnared presumably because they were wholly mistaken that their (allegedly) sexually predatory behavior could be excused in this way. Sometimes that’s an issue of power dynamic: When Weinstein can literally make or break your career in Hollywood, how can you say no to his sexual advances no matter how grotesque? This is the same power dynamic found in employer-employee, doctor-patient, teacher-student, priest-penitent, and other relationships. While it necessarily imposes a burden on the the person in power—you can’t date just anyone you please—it also rules out coercion on the basis of a clearly unequal power dynamic.
(Those arguing for an unequal power dynamic in the Ansari case because the woman was “star-struck” by the Emmy-winning actor are misunderstanding matters. Power dynamics have to do with situations that are necessarily unequal, not unequal by choice. In fact, many alternative sexual behaviors are centered around the concept of creating consensually unequal power dynamics like master-slave, dominant-submissive, etc. If the argument is then that being “star-struck” is involuntary, I disagree.)
People must be of sound mind to give consent, which means it is impossible for the mentally enfeebled. If a person is drunk or, in Cosby’s notorious (albeit alleged) cases, drugged, no consent is possible.
That’s also true of age, the general age of consent in the United States being 18 years old. In other words, an 18 year-old can legally enter into a sexual relationship while a 17 year-old cannot. In some states (and circumstances) the age of consent is younger, and god knows age will be an imperfect line of demarcation no matter where you draw it because there plenty of people who might be chronologically older but who are emotionally children.
Generally, though, “no means no” treats both parties as adults with full agency and responsibility for their actions. So one danger of the Ansari situation being categorized as sexual misconduct is this: It treats the woman in question as utterly incapable of saying what she wants, the object of the sexual sentence rather than subject. This is far more damaging to the fight for equality than many young people either understand or are willing to admit.
The generational feminist divide has played out along these lines in the media. For feminists who have spent their lives pursuing equality for women—as human beings fully capable of making their own life choices— the idea of returning to an era wherein women are again seen as prey, or as lesser beings to whom things happen, is anathema. Surely our culture is best lived believing that adult women are capable of knowing and communicating their own desires.
In the Ansari situation, the “no means no” crowd says that the woman in question (identity-obscuring pseudonym “Grace”) should have simply said, “no” unambiguously at any of the seemingly endless opportunities she describes. That she did not despite freely engaging in multiple different sexual activities is not Ansari’s fault. That she later regretted her decisions is unfortunate, but again not Ansari’s fault. That he should come away from the encounter “surprised and concerned” that she had a bad experience surely indicates that she did not communicate her wishes concretely. We have every reason to believe that if Grace had clearly said “no” Ansari would have respected that wish.
A NSFW summary of the the highly problematic (Google if you must; there’s no way I’m going to link to it) Babe.net article confirms this:
A “tipsy” Grace pursues Ansari at an Emmy Awards after party. Ansari “brushes her off at first.” They “flirted…then she and her date went back to the dance floor.” Before Grace leaves the party she puts her phone number into Ansari’s phone at his suggestion. They exchange “flirtatious banter over text” for the next week or so. Ansari asks Grace to go out with him.
She arrives at his Manhattan apartment on a Monday evening where they make small talk and drink some wine. They walk to a nearby oyster bar, and she does “most of the talking” along the way. Ansari ends the dinner more quickly than Grace is accustomed, as there was “still wine in [her] glass and more left in the bottle.”
Upon return to Ansari’s apartment, they start kissing, he touches her breast, and begins undressing her then himself. Ansari says he’s going to get a condom. Grace says “something like, ‘Whoa, let’s relax for a sec, let’s chill.'” He resumes kissing her and performs cunnilligus on her. She performs fellatio on him. Anasari puts his fingers in Grace’s mouth then fingers her with his wetted fingers.
The extent to which Grace expressed discomfort with any of this is open to interpretation because as she herself says, “Most of my discomfort was expressed in me pulling away and mumbling.”
Grace excuses herself to the bathroom. When Grace returns Ansari asks if she is okay. She says, “I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you.” He replies, “Of course. It’s only fun if we’re both having fun.” Ansari suggests they move to the couch.
Ansari sits on the couch, and Grace decides to sit on the floor next to him. At his request, she turns around and performs fellatio on him again. Ansari moves her up to the couch and they make out again.
Ansari leads Grace to a different part of the apartment where he asks to initiate intercourse and Grace says, “No, I don’t think I’m ready to do this.” Ansari answers, “How about we just chill, but this time with our clothes on?”
They get dressed and return to the couch where this time Grace sits next to Ansari instead of on the floor. He turns on an episode of Seinfeld. He kisses her again, puts his fingers in her mouth, and begins to undress her. She turns away and says, “You guys are all the same. You guys are all the fucking same.” Ansari asks what she means and kisses her again.
Grace stands up from the couch, moves to the kitchen, and says she’s going to call herself a car. Ansari hugs her, kisses goodbye her, and says he will call a car for her.
Ansari texts Grace the next day, “It was fun meeting you last night.” Grace responds, “Last night might’ve been fun for you, but it wasn’t for me.”
The above sequence of events represents the most pro-Grace slant one can reasonably put on a heavily skewed story. Ansari was given less than 6 hours to respond (on a holiday weekend) before the story was published, was never interviewed or quoted directly as a result, and Babe.net (motto: “babe is for girls who don’t give a fuck”) is hardly an unbiased publication. Article author Katie Way turns out to be unimpressive in areas beyond her writing. Her ad hominem attacks on real journalists who’ve taken issue with her work cast further doubt on her accuracy and objectivity, in case such a judgment couldn’t be easily arrived at simply by reading her hit piece.
Indeed, we don’t even know that it wasn’t Ansari who wasn’t the one being pursued (as he was at first by Grace’s own admission). Flanagan’s Atlantic article discusses Grace’s seeming ambivalence as well as her post-encounter regret:
Was Grace frozen, terrified, stuck? No. She tells us that she wanted something from Ansari and that she was trying to figure out how to get it. She wanted affection, kindness, attention. Perhaps she hoped to maybe even become the famous man’s girlfriend. He wasn’t interested. What she felt afterward—rejected yet another time, by yet another man—was regret. And what she and the writer who told her story created was 3,000 words of revenge porn. The clinical detail in which the story is told is intended not to validate her account as much as it is to hurt and humiliate Ansari. Together, the two women may have destroyed Ansari’s career, which is now the punishment for every kind of male sexual misconduct, from the grotesque to the disappointing.
So, that’s a problem, and it’s not how journalism—I think “bloggerism” might be more apt—is supposed to work.
As Flanagan notes, Grace seems too immature to know what she wants. Asari may have misread the signals that Grace says she was sending—or in hindsight believes she was sending—but again the entire matter is solved by her saying, “no” at any of the multiple opportunities throughout the night. This is not a difficult standard to meet assuming one has the emotional maturity to “know thyself,” and most of the older generation raised on “no means no” make exactly this argument.
Despite the one-sided mess that is the Babe.net story, Ansari clearly meets the “no means no” test. This is important, because it’s part of what drives the divide between the generations: “No means no” is not the only consent standard.
Younger generations have been raised on an “affirmative consent” standard, which can in today’s parlance be called “opt in” rather than “opt out.” Like so many things that sound good initially, affirmative consent is deeply problematic the more one looks at it.
Affirmative consent, or “yes means yes” is defined by State University of New York (SUNY) as a standard that sexual partners have “a knowing, voluntary, and mutual decision among all participants to engage in sexual activity” and requires a new “yes” at every new sexual activity escalation. A few states, notably California, and higher education institutions in the US have adopted this standard, in the latter case presumably in an effort to curb the highly disturbing (and disturbingly high) incidents of date rape on campus. But it’s also been advocated by the Obama administration and others. (Not sure where your state stands? Check the RAINN database.)
So what’s not to like about affirmative consent? Joseph Cohn is a legislative and policy director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a legal advocacy group, that was against California’s attempts to codify affirmative consent into law:
Under an affirmative consent standard, sexual activity is sexual assault unless the accused can prove that the accusing party consciously and voluntarily agreed to engage in sexual activity. Moreover, the accused student must prove that the consent was ongoing.
This turns “innocent until proven guilty” on its head and is part of the reason that affirmative consent been ridiculed by comedians ranging from Saturday Night Live to Dave Chappelle. While we can’t know that Ansari didn’t meet this standard unless we blindly accept the distorted Babe.net version of the facts, how could he prove that he did? How could anyone?
From Ansari’s perspective every sexual interaction was “knowing, voluntary, and mutual” and upon encountering a sexual scenario that was not to Grace’s liking, he retreated to those interactions to which she had previously favored. None of this was vocalized, so the encounter meets “no means no” but fails “yes means yes.” He also would have failed the impossible criterion of reading her body language, which again is a major flaw in the affirmative consent standard.
Proponents of affirmative consent have in recent years pushed further, now embracing something termed, “enthusiastic consent.” It could just as easily be called, “You will talk to each other, dammit.” This enhanced standard goes even further in attempting to force a mutual comprehension of intent: Both partners must be vocally enthusiastic about engaging in sexual activity, and, like “vanilla” affirmative consent, each new type of activity must meet this same standard. It is difficult to see how this could realistically work, even among life partners or married couples. Imagine this dialogue:
“Can I kiss you?”
“Can I put my hand on your breast.”
“If you want.”
Uh oh. Our imaginary couple isn’t at 2nd base before we’re bogged down. Under the enthusiastic consent standard you can’t focus on pleasing your partner, you can only focus on defending yourself. If many of us don’t consider this a healthy outlook on sexual activity, we also aren’t crazy about this level of government intrusion into the bedroom which is exactly what this is.
Finally, I would say this: If you are in or have been in a sexual relationship, has your behavior always adhered to the Affirmative Consent standard? Have you gotten a verbal “yes” at every escalation, however you want to define that, of sexual interaction? Because I will be the first to admit that while I have always respected “no means no,” none of my sexual experiences meet the affirmative consent (let alone enthusiastic consent) standard.
However well-intentioned, affirmative consent fails the real world test. It becomes another example of how life has changed, and I find myself among those who say that it’s not for the better.