Within hours of each other, several male friends privately contacted me. They sent the Babe article of the detailed account by a woman named “Grace” of comedian Aziz Ansari’s sexual behavior on a first date. A few of them were asking for my opinion—was this just a “date gone bad” or was this actually a harmful #metoo experience? I’ll get to that question in a moment. But one of them, an ex-boyfriend from long ago, who I’ve had occasional email contact with over the years, emailed to apologize. Yes—an apology. He wrote:
“Everything that has been going on recently has led me to ask:
Was I ever too sexually forceful in my past relationships?
In one, and only one, instance.
I definitely forced you to do things that you didn't want to do.”
He stated that he read the Aziz Ansari article, and saw his own behavior towards me reflected in that date. He went on to write:
“My sincere and humble apologies to you for forcing you into any sexual activity before you were ready.
I hope that you can forgive me my transgressions.”
This was not an email I ever expected to see. I wrote back the next day, feeling awkward with a weird mix of emotions:
“Thank you for taking the time to reach out to me like this—I really appreciate your reflection and kindness to do that.
I don't know if you ever saw my personal consent violation video? Here's the link: https://youtu.be/MOSU7B8iR-Q
I mention this because I actually referenced you by pseudonym in that video. The only specific memory I have of being overtly pushed by you was the one time that you stated something along the lines that everyone else was having intercourse and didn't have a problem with it, but since I didn’t want to yet, I at least owed you a blowjob every time. I do have to say, that kind of made me hate blowjobs and viewed them as coercive.”
After I sent the email, I’ve slowly started to recall the bigger picture of what he was referencing. Although I recall his kindness in our slow sexual progression, I now remember times when I repeatedly said no to specific sexual acts, yet he continued to push. Perhaps I replied too soon.
Nonetheless, it’s a big deal that through Aziz’s actions, he recognized his own pushy sexual behavior. And he realized that it was unfair and unkind to me, and emotionally coercive. But did he “sexually assault” me? Was it “sexual assault” in the Aziz Ansari case?
Journalists and readers seem to believe they have to choose one side or the other, and place these encounters in either the “typical bad date” or the “#metoo” category. In the many heterosexual examples of problematic sexual behavior like this one, something that is overlooked is that women want to date men because they like men, and men want to date women, because they like women. We want the affection and validation and sexual excitement from the other gender. Neither side is trying to harm the other. Yet it occurs regularly. This will keep happening until we recognize that women and men often experience the same sexual encounter very differently, especially when we are not in sync with each other. There’s a big, vague, gray area, where a lot of assumptions are made. Both sides need a voice and language to communicate, in the moment, to ensure harmony of purpose.
To move this conversation forward, it’s valuable to view these activities along a continuum of sexual coercion—both physical and emotional coercion. At one end of the sexual coercion continuum is grabbing a woman’s ass as you pass by at a party, a woman you know and flirt with regularly who you think enjoys your touch and attention. Or perhaps using guilt tactics to convince someone to give you a kiss. At the other end is blatant forceful rape. Sometimes it is “bad people” doing intentionally harmful things. But much of the time it is good people engaging in perceived consensual sexual activity. This middle, gray, messy area is where I’m assuming the Ansari situation lives. This messy area of assumptions and poor communication and unintended emotional coercion is where I think many sexual interactions live.
The question we need to be asking is why so many sexual interactions result in drastic differences of perspective? If many folks view this as a normal “bad date,” and others view is as sexually offensive, then the problem is mainstream social sexual norm. We need to see that the system is broken. But as a good friend just asked, “What the fuck do we do about it once we’ve finished outing everyone?”
Some press and commenters are attacking Ansari for missing the cues that Grace was not interested in the sexual interaction. Or maybe she was interested, but only up until a certain point. But picking up those shifting cues requires skills of emotional awareness and intelligence. As a society overall, we literally train emotional awareness and emotional intelligence skills OUT of many boys from a young age (with the belief that this makes them strong not weak). As teens and adults, many men don’t know the difference between a mutually consensual sexual encounter and one that is emotionally coercive. Where and how would they learn that?
Some press and commenters are attacking Grace for not speaking up. Despite giving some negative verbal feedback and many non-verbal cues of her discomfort, she was also reluctantly going along with some of the sexual activities. Like many women in similar situations, she didn’t directly verbalize whether she wanted everything sexual to stop, and also halt the sexual engagements. As a society overall, we literally train the confidence of voice OUT of young girls, if it’s considered rude or rocks the boat. Because it’s more important that they are trained to be nice and polite. So where and how would a woman learn that, especially in a sexual situation? How do women and men build the language and skills necessary to discuss their emotional readiness for a sexual encounter?
There’s one other important point for reflection. Some commentators judge women for not choosing fight or flight. They fail to understand that freezing is much more common in such circumstances, and a normal and natural response. Acquiescing to a situation out of fear, confusion, and discomfort is certainly not enthusiastic consent. However, it isn’t necessarily easy to spot when others freeze.
To make real progress, we must change the conversation. First, let’s take as a fact that we are all much worse at understanding the complexity of emotions around sexual interactions than we think. Without specific training in the nuances of consent and sexual communication, you won’t likely have those skills. Second fact: Women and men each have different strengths and weaknesses in sexual encounters, some innate and many learned, that can vary by experience, context, and moment. Again, without specific training in gender awareness and reflection on the your specific upbringing, you won’t have the necessary skills in understanding and empathy. But without this understanding, too much is left to chance. Which all leads to my third point: Assume that you are making assumptions that you don’t realize you’re making. Oh yeah, and drugs and alcohol make all of this EVEN worse. If we all accept these as baseline unfortunate facts, we can start to make different choices.
I appreciate the men who vulnerably reached out to share their confusion about this topic, and to my ex-boyfriend, for his insight and courage to do something differently. For each person reading and reflecting on this story, I hope you consider that the blame game keeps us all stuck with dissatisfaction and unhappiness. Instead, acknowledge that we are just not good at this. The change we seek is based in learning the language and skills necessary to enable healthy conversations between men and women during a sexual encounter. Any well-intentioned encounter that ends up on the coercion continuum is a reflection of a faulty system. With some skills and practice, we can eliminate coercion between two good and attentive people. That would go a long way towards empowering both women and men. Hopefully, at some point in the not-to-distant-future, we won’t need this #metoo debate anymore. In the meantime, let’s look for those opportunities to apologize and start doing things differently.
If you’re interested in my more personal and sociological account of sexual coercion, please watch my consent violation story that I referenced to my ex-boyfriend.
~Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus, Sociologist, Sexuality Speaker, Sexologist