The definition of sexual harassment and consent is changing—that’s a good thing

The sexual harassment allegations against Aziz Ansari 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 the definition of sexual harassment or 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 think piece 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 sexual harassment and consent, in a way that will eventually outlaw or at least stigmatize many of the interactions we now take for granted.



That’s true. The definitions are changing. But I find it hard to see why that’s a bad thing. A decade ago, when I first started writing, I routinely heard from commenters who didn’t believe having sex with an unconscious person constituted “real” rape. Thirty-five years ago, when I was born, marital rape was not considered a crime in the state of New York. Things change, often for the better. A deep social transformation, like the one #MeToo stands to be, requires that we not only call out clear violations, but that we re-think “small” offenses and apparently normal encounters.

Affirmative consent is one of those “small” changes that stands to alter the world for the better, because it requires all parties to be visibly happy, turned on, and vocally expressing enthusiasm throughout the encounter—which, if you haven’t noticed, is pretty characteristic of decent sex in general. The fact that it’s seen as a threatening or unmanageably high standard is puzzling. It’s not hard to ask how something feels, or say “Is this all right?” If more satisfaction on your partner’s part seems unpleasant or impossible to you, then you probably shouldn’t be having sex with anyone but yourself. One thing that is self-evident from the reactions to Grace’s account is that, whether or not they use the word “assault,” just about every woman has had sex that she didn’t enjoy, didn’t want, and would have opted out of if she felt it were possible. If #MeToo somehow brings about a world in which sex has to be excellent and much-wanted in order to happen at all, bring on the puritan dystopia.

This conversation matters, not because “the grey area” doesn’t exist, but precisely because it does, and it’s dangerous. It’s easy to misread someone else’s boundaries: To lean in for a kiss with a first date who’s not feeling it or try to take a makeout session to the next level when the other person isn’t ready. But in a culture where vocal, affirmative consent isn’t mandatory, a misunderstanding can quickly escalate into something much more traumatic. Keeping the lines of communication open keeps people from getting hurt. 



Yes, that communication depends on actually listening to and honoring a partner’s requests. This is tough, in a culture that trains men to be aggressive and persistent in the face of rejection. The women I’ve talked to usually see a series of clear “No’s” in Grace’s account of her evening—and many others, particularly men, see a series of “Maybe’s,” the kind of thing they’re encouraged to press past in the hopes of getting eventual consent. But what is clear, no matter what you believe, is that Grace feels deeply hurt by the encounter. Even if you think men can violate people by accident — which is a controversial proposition. It should be horrifying to anyone to discover that you accidentally violated someone. It should strike the kind of terror that you’d do just about anything to avoid experiencing, including the apparently unthinkable act of asking for permission to keep going. 

Yet in our current culture, where women’s boundaries are seen as negotiable or unimportant, and women are socialized not to be vocal about their sexual desires or needs, the practice of badgering women into sex becomes inevitable—as does the fact that women go on to feel anything from dissatisfaction to deep trauma after a bad encounter. The trauma is tragic, but the unsatisfying and sometimes unjust sex isn’t that great either.

To genuinely take on the epidemic of sexual violence, we need to deal, not just with individual offenders or “big enough” offenses, but with how our culture devalues women’s autonomy and desire in all sorts of major and minor ways. We need to talk, not about individual men, but about why women’s sexuality is so devalued that their pleasure or comfort isn’t a non-negotiable part of sex, and why our definition of masculinity is so toxic that racking up a higher number of sexual partners is more important than being kind or respectful to the sexual partners they do have. We need to believe women—not just about sexual assaults they’ve experienced, but about how they feel in the moment. We need to listen to women who say, “No,” women who say, “Yes,” and every woman in between. That respect for consent prevents both sexual assault and “bad sex”—and getting rid of either would be an improvement on where we stand now.

From: Elle UK

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