The women of the Post Opinions section carry on a running conversation about everything from the Trump era to Hallmark movies to #MeToo. And after Babe.net published an account of an evening gone wrong between a young woman and Aziz Ansari that seemed like a real-life version of the New Yorker’s blockbuster short story “Cat Person,” Christine Emba and your regular Act Four proprietress Alyssa Rosenberg decided to take their discussion about why Americans seem to be having such bad sexual encounters from the water cooler to the Web. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length and to remove extraneous “Seinfeld”-bashing.
Alyssa: You and I were hanging out in the office, as we often do. And the conversation turned to what, to me, actually feels like the central question of the moment: Are people really having “Cat Person” sex all the time? I feel like the short story in the New Yorker really kicked off that part of the conversation, the idea that women are having a lot of sex that they don’t really want to have, that they don’t even necessarily really enjoy, that they feel bad about afterward. And yet we’re sort of doing this anyway. I think I was really confused about how that could possibly be true, and you were confused about how I was confused that that could be true.
Christine: Actually, I think you came over and said, “Are people really having ‘Cat Person’ sex?!” And I said, “Yes. The sex is bad.” And I think one of the things that we talked about is the fact that some people seem to believe that this is just like an occasional bad date –not really a problem, that women are not showing agency — and another older generation who thinks it’s abuse made manifest.
Alyssa: I think the generational point is really interesting. Because you and I aren’t that far apart in age but I think we come from really different experiences. I’m 33 and married. I was an early Facebook adopter, but I’ve never used an app to date. Do you swipe left? Do you swipe right? I don’t actually know.
Christine: So you swipe right on a person who you are interested in, and you swipe left if you’re not interested. And I’ll point out that I’m 29! I think the app lifestyle and the sea change in how we date and meet people has had something to do with this, but I don’t think it explains it all.
One thing I have wondered about, and have written about a little bit in the past, is the understanding of what we use dating for and what we use sex for, and how we think about our responsibilities to other people. And I kind of wonder if that’s something that has changed. In both of these stories, in “Cat Person” and in the Babe story, both of the people in the equation — the man and the woman — don’t know each other. They have assumptions about what they want from the encounter, and what they think the other person might want, but they’re not sure and they don’t clarify.
Alyssa: Right! They never actually talk about what the other person is doing, they just kind of proceed on their path. Why do we proceed down that particular garden path with someone you don’t know? I’m asking that genuinely in part because it’s just foreign to my particular experience.
Christine: It’s honestly not a huge part of my experience, either. But I know people for whom it is.
I have a theory about the way that we have emphasized the teaching of some aspects of sex and not the others. I think that one of the through lines I’ve seen between the “Cat Person” story and the Ansari story (which is really just a real-life version of “Cat Person”) is that in both situations, the woman was taught to say yes. It was really clear that you are allowed to have sex if you want to, and that it should be good. But in both stories, the women were not clear on how to say no — or even “chill out!” — to him.
Alyssa: Part of what’s weird to me about both of these stories is how self-negating they are. The only thing that “Grace,” the pseudonym used by the woman in the Babe story, is worried about is being nice to Ansari. And in “Cat Person,” the main character literally makes the decision to have sex with that guy out of pity.
Christine: The real question that we should maybe be asking is: If these women didn’t say no and they wanted to, what is keeping them from saying no? What didn’t they learn or what sort of lesson has disappeared from our discourse that makes it possible for this to happen? Because surely it can’t fall on just the participants — there’s a societal component to how we learn about what we’re supposed to do, in sex and elsewhere.
Alyssa: But at the same time, there’s something very old-fashioned about the idea that what the woman wants doesn’t really matter and that the important thing is to be a nice girl. To an extent, the old model was “nice girls don’t say yes.” Now it’s “nice girls don’t say no.” And there’s something very weird and retrograde about this sort of protection of the male ego.
Before this conversation, you and I both read this paper about that the difference between consenting to sex and wanting to have sex, by researchers Zoe Peterson and Charlene Muehlenhard. It’s describing a phenomenon that’s very much at work where women are consenting to sex they don’t actually want to have and consent has become the end-all, be-all of our conversations about sexual acts.
Christine: I think it’s odd and problematic how consent has become the one last line that makes things either okay or not okay. As long as someone says yes, we’re good to go, and we’ll keep ratcheting things up and up until the other person says no.
But consent is an incredibly gameable and shifting boundary! And the fact that legal liability is our boundary — well, I didn’t criminally assault this person, so this seems fine — that doesn’t seem like a great ethic of sex to me. It disregards huge parts of the human experience and ignores the question of what compels us to agree or disagree to something.
Alyssa: And if we’re talking about sex, and we’re talking about wanting to have sex, where is pleasure in this equation? Part of what’s so interesting to me about both “Cat Person” and the Babe story is just how divorced they are from the body. They’re such cerebral stories in a way. And I feel like our conversation about sex has just gotten really divorced from the fact that there are a lot of reasons to have it. I think that it is in a lot of people’s self-interest to just talk about sex in terms of pure availability. But it’s much harder, even though it might be in a lot more people’s interest, to talk about what it means to have good sex.
Christine: Yes. Because it’s a complicated question, and how people answer it is very personal. And it’s also something that I think our society — I’m speaking of American society — seems oddly averse to discussing openly. We’ve kind of gotten to a place where we’ve decided that sex is a good thing and to some it’s a statement of power to have it, but then we still continue to keep mum about what exactly it is that’s good, or that’s bad, about it.
Alyssa: You know, it’s just very different to say, “Do I have permission?” than it is to ask, “So how does this make you feel?” In part because the answer to the latter question is not binary. It might be really complicated. It might be “That tickles, so it takes me out of the moment, but it also kind of feels good, so maybe can we adjust the pressure here?” Having a skills-based and emotional conversation is harder for a lot of people. Why is consent the framework for that?
Christine: Because that’s just the language that we have right now? I think we’re maybe beginning to ask for more than just consent, but we haven’t conceptualized that next conversation in our heads yet. Right now it’s still “Well, you’re not reading the signs closely enough” or “Why didn’t she slap him?” There should be something in between these two.
Alyssa: I think this you’re raising something that gets at the heart of why expanding the conversation beyond #MeToo is really complicated. Some of the reaction to #MeToo has been men being foolishly paranoid about behavior that’s probably obviously not a good idea. I’m fine with men being worried that there might be consequences if they ask women who work for them to be the surrogate mothers. If that makes me a scary crusading harpy, I will accept that label. But if we start talking about the quality of sex that heterosexual American women have, I think that’s a conversation that could be deeply implicating and uncomfortable for a lot of men, and that’s scary.
Christine: Yeah, but I think it’s a great opportunity. You said people are worried that #MeToo is going to be the end of men or the end of eroticism, or the end of some special period when bosses were hitting on their employees and the employees were really into it. Or that men who are just frankly churls are being put in the same basket as men who are Harvey Weinstein-style predators. But that is not actually what’s happening.
What is happening is that yeah, we’re opening up a conversation both about behavior that we should have already known is criminal and about behavior that we’ve put up with for a long time, this misunderstanding of roles and desires. That is now becoming an open discussion. And I think that’s really healthy. Of course, if we’re scared, or if it’s too self-immolating for men to have this discussion, or for women to reveal things, then we’re never going to get anywhere and it’s going to be a lost opportunity.
Alyssa: This is not a conversation that can proceed without the participation of men. This is a journey that we need to go on together. Nobody is asking for the Manhattan D.A. to investigate whether Aziz Ansari is a bad lover. But I think men need to accept the possibility that Aziz Ansari might a bad lover, and that if you were like him, that might say something about you. It might make you feel bad. And feeling bad is sometimes part of getting to a better place.
Christine: Men, don’t feel too bad. We still like you.