man & woman

We Need to Talk About Consent – Following the Aziz Ansari Story

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The world is still reeling from the revelation that Aziz Ansari is apparently a bit of a massive creep. The story of him ignoring a young woman’s cues and stepping over the lines repeatedly was related in a rather poorly written article in Babe and sparked a massive debate, with some people calling Ansari a rapist on one hand and others saying it was a “bad date” or the “girl’s own fault” for not doing X, Y or Z.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll say that I had to actually Google Aziz Ansari after this got out. Then I recognised the name of his show from my Netflix welcome screen, though I’d never actually watched it. I have it on good authority that the man has literally made a career out of claiming to be some sort of ultra-feminist ally and an all-round nice, sensitive guy. However, my friend who used to be a big fan and is a film / TV critic has pointed out that his work frames all his experience of being a nice guy and doing the right thing when it comes to feminist issues as something his character pays for by losing out. Perhaps in light of recent events this is worth noting.

But let’s get back to this story. I’m a bit tired of hearing guys using this incident to whinge about how the #metoo campaign has “gone too far” or complain about how “Grace” (the woman in the story) should have hit him, kicked him or whatever. It reeks of protesting too much and I am pretty sure it usually stems from guys having been in similar situations and refusing to face up to their own guilt.

In fact, I am very happy this story’s come out and that it’s come out at this time, when people are actually listening to women. Do I think Ansari is a rapist? No. But I think he’s an aggressive, predatory creep who doesn’t give a shit about whether or not the woman he’s interacting with sexually is actually enjoying herself.

Would I have reacted differently in the situation? Sure, now. But I am older and more experienced and my boundaries may well be different. Back when I was 23, who knows what I would have done. You might not want to believe the person you’ve admired for being such a cool feminist is actually an asshole and are telling yourself you can resolve this peacefully. You might be confused and think it might be easier to just go along with it and then you’ll feel better. You might not want to hurt the guy’s feelings or disappoint him. You might be afraid of what might happen if you react angrily. Hell, you might not be very good at being assertive because you’ve never been taught how to stand up for yourself.

The fact is that this girl wasn’t being particularly enthusiastic and has asked Ansari to take it easy several times. She even said she wasn’t interested in having sex at some point. At no point did he ask her whether she was happy to carry on or what would make her more comfortable. Rape? Probably not. But is this OK? Hell no.

Consent Violations Vs Consent Accidents

A consent accident is what happens when one partner assumes the other one is OK with something when they’re not. A consent violation is what happens when one partner knows the other partner doesn’t want to do something / have something done to them but does it anyway.

In this case, Ansari claims this was a consent accident, and “Grace” feels that this was a series of consent violations. Who do we believe? Assuming the story happened as Grace tells it, there were plenty of cues there that should have made Ansari take a step back and check in with Grace to see if she was still cool with carrying on. A man who’s written a bestselling relationship book and makes a point of publicly battling sexual harassment, who’s old enough to know better and who’s on a first date with someone totally new to him should really be better than this. Either he’s really REALLY bad at reading signals (in which case, he’s a fraud) or he just doesn’t care about what they mean (in which case, he’s a fraud and and asshole).

So what should have happened here?

Enthusiastic Consent

The enthusiastic consent model is very popular in some circles. It’s when you assume everything is a “no”, unless your partner gives you an enthusiastic “yes”. Enthusiastic consent basically assumes people are incapable of reading non-verbal cues and that every action needs to be verbally negotiated, to avoid any chance of consent accidents. It works really well for many people, but, again, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m going to say that I personally can’t stand it in my own sex life and I totally get if you hate it too.

I call it “Asperger Sex”. The last thing I want when I’m in bed with someone is the guy asking me for permission before doing every single thing. I also don’t particularly want to have a lengthy conversation about every little thing I may or may not enjoy when I’m in bed and ready for action. But that’s me.  I’m happy to risk the occasional consent accident for the sake of having better flow and I’m confident enough in my ability to handle a situation where that line is crossed. For others, though, enthusiastic consent is the only way they can have sex without being potentially traumatised.  Some have boundaries that are very specific and cause problems when they’re crossed, some people have a history of abuse, others don’t feel comfortable unless they go at a particular pace – you just never know. And yes, if your consent model preferences are radically different, it might mean you and that person are not sexually compatible at all. And the thing is, you’re not going to know what the person you’re about to have sex with feels about this unless you ask.

So the first thing to do, is to ask your new partner what sort of consent model would make them comfortable. Do they want you to check in with them before doing anything? Are they happy to go along and stop you if you’re going too fast or doing something they’re not into?  That sort of stuff. And if they need you to ask before doing anything, you need to either be willing to do that or walk away.

The other very very important thing is to revert to the enthusiastic consent model every single time you’re even remotely on sure of whether your partner is into what’s going on. Basically, just ask them “is this OK?”, “Are you having fun?” “Are you enjoying this?” “Are we still good to carry on?” and then, even more importantly, act accordingly.

It’s really not that difficult.

If you’re a guy, it’s easy to look at stories like this one and feel uncomfortable about times when you misinterpreted signals. Hell, I even saw some people defending Louis CK when he claimed he “didn’t know” it was wrong to masturbate in front of women for exactly the same reason. But guys, rapists know. Sexual predators know. They know it’s wrong and they do it anyway and then hide behind misunderstandings because they know this is a grey area and you can’t prove intent.

The fact that you may have genuinely misread someone’s signals shouldn’t make you defend guys who should really know better and act like creeps anyway. What it should do, is make you more careful and, when in doubt, ask and don’t carry on unless you get an enthusiastic “yes”.


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