Aziz Ansari and Enthusiastic Consent
CW: sexual assault and trauma
I wish I didn't have to write this blog post.
I mean, how hard can it be to only try to have sex with someone who wants to have sex with you? Seems like it should be pretty easy to not force/coerce/persuade someone into having sex.
Apparently not, if the last few months have taught us anything.
I've been thinking about writing this blog post for some time now. A couple of weeks ago, I put out a message on Instagram asking what you all would want to see for a sit-down video on my fledgling YouTube channel, since I've only been uploading travel vlogs so far. One of my close friends from Washington, DC suggested a video about the recent news surrounding Aziz Ansari, and specifically how men should go about getting enthusiastic consent from their sexual partners. Given that I'm bouncing between shared hostel dorms for the time being, it will be another couple of weeks before I have a quiet space to film a vide. It's an important discussion, though, so I wanted to write about the topic here before too much time passes (stay tuned for the video).
It's been a few weeks now, so in case you need a refresher (or if you missed the news in the first place), here's a quick summary of what happened: on January 13, 2018, the website Babe.net published a story called "I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life," about an anonymous woman's negative experience (to put it lightly) with the famous comedian. The woman, called by the pseudonym Grace in the piece to protect her identity, details a date gone terribly wrong. According to Grace, Ansari rushed her into his home and out of her clothes after their dinner, repeatedly attempting to have sex with her despite her verbal and non-verbal cues that she wasn't interested. Ultimately, Grace left without having sexual intercourse with Ansari, but only after she felt pressured into performing various sexual acts and attempting to leave his apartment multiple times. In the Babe piece, she says that she felt "violated" and "had to say no a lot" in order to make her desires clear. Despite Ansari's statement indicating that the sexual encounter was "by all indications...completely consensual," Grace concludes that the experience constituted sexual assault.
The piece - and related accusations - has come under fire from all directions. Plenty of valid criticisms of Babe's journalistic practices have emerged, rightfully claiming that the story deserved better reporting. In particular, Julianne Escobedo Shepherd writes in Jezebel that Babe's failure to execute the piece well has exposed the subject to unfair attacks that obscure the important discussion we need to be having about boundaries and consent in modern dating life. Vox.com published an especially well-balanced piece on the newstorm ignited by the Babe allegations, which contains a thorough explanation of the story's critics, including many who are justified.
As Anna North points out in a different Vox.com piece, Grace's experience hits at the core of our society's problem with sex. At least with respect to heterosexual sex, our culture consistently prioritizes male pleasure, going so far as to valorize persistence in the face of refusal as a normal and even romantic or desirable aspect of dating: North notes that "movies past and present frequently depict men overcoming women’s initial lack of interest through persistent effort — that is, when they’re not mining coercion and voyeurism for laughs." Regardless of whether you believe that Grace's experience with Ansari was indeed sexual assault, her account makes clear that it was a negative, traumatic sexual encounter in which her partner dismissed her desires. The situation is so common that I don't for a second doubt its veracity; I've heard similar stories from women in my family and social circles for my entire life. Indeed, North suggests, "Perhaps what is especially threatening about Grace’s story is that it involves a situation in which many men can imagine themselves. But this is a reason to discuss it more, not to sweep it under the rug." The banality of Grace's encounter with Ansari makes it more important to address, not less. (For a laugh/cry about our own difficulties with discussing the problem, watch this dark SNL skit.)
I have my own account of the gray areas of sex and consent. Years ago, I had an experience with my first boyfriend that I only came to recognize as sexual assault last year, when the #MeToo movement dug up trauma that I had long since buried. I gave him sign after sign that I didn't want what he wanted - saying no repeatedly, refusing to reciprocate his touch, going cold and not moving - but he pressured me so much that I eventually said yes. It took me years to understand what happened and why I felt traumatized by the encounter. Sure, there was a verbal "yes" somewhere in the course of events, but it was so overwhelmed by clear verbal and non-verbal indications of "NO" that the assent my ex-boyfriend extracted from me was anything but consensual. The effects are strong enough that I still feel them today; for various reasons, I associate this person with Berlin, which is in large part why I canceled my plans to go there last month. It takes me more than two hands to count the close friends who carry similar traumas with them.
All this is to say that if sexual assault is common (and it is), then negative sexual experiences, in which one partner is actually not interested, are even more so. The problem is that we don't know how to talk about consent in such a way that we prevent these disastrous encounters from happening. Realistically, the education needs to start at a very young age, and must encompass everything from healthy boundaries to open communication. For those of us who have already grown up in a toxic culture around sex, however, I want to talk about how we can obtain free, willful, enthusiastic consent from our partners. The need to obtain enthusiastic consent goes for everyone - not just straight men - so if you're a person who has sex, then you'll get something out of this list.
I'll preface my suggestions by stating the obvious, which is that these are based on my own personal experiences giving and getting enthusiastic consent from my partners. Now, let's get into the fun stuff - because as serious as this topic is, consensual sex in which everyone involved is into it can be a lot of fun.
1. Regarding Alcohol
Bear with me - I know this subject is well-trodden. Firstly, I want to make it perfectly clear that alcohol does not cause sexual assault; instead, it is commonly weaponized as a tool to facilitate sexual assault. I also want to be clear that I am not telling you that you can't have a drink and then get it on with your partner. To be honest, the subject of alcohol and consent is one that I am still trying to figure out. I have had plenty of both sober and non-sober consensual sex, but it's a fact that alcohol affects our judgement and decision-making capacities. I don't pretend to have the solution, but what I will say is that it's important to be clear with your partner about what they want, especially if you or they have been drinking. And it goes without saying - but because people still don't seem to get this, I'll say it anyway - that if someone is clearly drunk, intoxicated, or otherwise incapacitated, they can't give consent.
2. Just Ask
Maybe I'm biased since I'm an especially direct person, but verbal communication is highly underrated. My aforementioned experience illustrates that a verbal "yes," depending on the context, doesn't actually constitute enthusiastic consent. That said, verbal confirmation is a great start. Ask your partner if they like what you're doing, and if they want to keep going. Ask them if they're feeling good. If the answers you get are negative, hesitant, or non-existent, that's a clear indicator that you need to stop. I'm not saying you need to request formal permission to remove every article of clothing you strip off their body, but talk a little bit. It doesn't have to be awkward, and in fact, it can be a fun part of the sexual experience. Which brings me to my next point...
3. Make It Sexy
Okay, I know the whole "consent is sexy" thing is tired. Furthermore, consent - true, free, enthusiastic, fuck-yes consent - is necessary. The sexy part comes in second. But it really can be sexy! There's something totally hot about communicating your desires clearly and knowing your partner is paying attention to them. Getting consent can even - shocker - turn your partner on. Something as simple as, "Is this what you want?" while doing X-Y-Z activity can provoke a breathless "yes!" that both parties enjoy. Get creative. Talk dirty. Turn it into foreplay. There are so many suggestions out there about how to make consent sexy that you really have no excuse to be awkward. Get over it, get out there, and make it hot.
4. If It's Not Hell Yes, Then It's A No
I would like to think this one is obvious, but accounts like Grace's and the countless others I've heard make it obvious that many of us still aren't clear on this concept. If your partner isn't totally into it, if they're not full-speed-ahead, let's-go, hell-yes-I-want-this into what you're doing, then you should stop. This goes for any point during the encounter; maybe they're into it at the beginning and then change their mind, or maybe they're unsure about something and then decide they want it. I think about sex the way I think about most things in my life: if I'm not ready to say "hell, yes!" to something, then I'm not ready to say yes at all, and when it comes to consent, that's a no. This may seem strict, but it's the only way to make sure that they're truly interested. Plus, there's no better turn on than knowing that you and your partner are both one hundred percent into everything you're doing together.
5. Pay Attention
I know it can be difficult when you're caught up in the moment, but please, for the love of all that is good in this world, pay attention to your partner. Conventional wisdom says that over half of communication is body language alone, and I'd guess the percentage is even higher when it comes to sex. Check in with them. Observe them. It's not hard to to do. If you notice something that makes you wonder how they're feeling or what they want, see #2 and ask. Even if they're just a hook-up, you should care about how they're feeling, and ideally, you want to make them feel good. Be attentive to their needs, and demand the same from them. Not only will you be sure that you have enthusiastic consent, you'll both have a way better experience. And that, my friends, is what it's all about.
I'd love to hear your thoughts, tips, and questions about this topic, especially how to get enthusiastic consent from your partner. Leave them in the comments below!