Over the weekend, Babe, an online publication aimed at young women, released a reported story about an anonymous woman’s unhappy sexual encounter with comedian Aziz Ansari, which the woman characterized as “sexual assault.” It’s unclear if the woman meant that she was sexually assaulted by legal standards, which would be difficult to argue based on her recounting of details, or if she meant to communicate that the encounter had simply seemed worse to her than an “awkward sexual experience,” as she put it. Either way, the article was immediately taken as evidence that the #MeToo movement has gone too far and has begun to reinforce the view that women are infantile and helpless.
The fear that #MeToo represents a regression of women’s status and liberty didn’t arise with Ansari’s particular case, though it serves as a good object lesson for skeptics of the movement to demonstrate their concerns. Both Caitlin Flanagan (writing in the Atlantic) and Bari Weiss (in the New York Times) used it as an opportunity to remind women that they have agency, that they’re always free to get up and leave, that regret doesn’t make an encounter nonconsensual, that you can always tell a guy off, call a cab, just say no. It’s become such a common refrain that I wonder if anyone thinks women actually aren’t aware, or if they think that saying women always have the free and obvious choice to end a sexual encounter whenever they like will make it true.
It hasn’t so far. After its article on Ansari went viral, Babe published a follow-up article featuring several responses from women who felt their experiences with other partners mirrored the anonymous woman’s experience with Ansari. On Twitter, there were many more examples of the same. Flanagan noted in her essay that the outpouring of women sharing similar stories was reminiscent of the response to the New Yorker short story “Cat Person,” about a humiliating sexual encounter between a young woman and a slightly older man. In fact, it seems we have these sorts of public airings of female sexual misery all the time now, which suggests to me that something is wrong with our sexual culture that can’t simply be explained by positing that women are insufficiently aware of their rights and liberties.
One of the principal outcomes of the sexual revolution was to establish that sex is just like any other social interaction — nothing taboo or sacred about it, no big deal. Flanagan points out that, in her day, women were advised to slap men or jump out of cars or scream and shout in order to bring an encounter verging on nonconsent to an end: Sex wasn’t an ordinary matter and thus didn’t need to be treated with ordinary manners.
Yet, while becoming just another social interaction stripped sex of much taboo, it’s still subject to the everyday pressures of etiquette, which can be just as binding. If a guest were lingering too late after a party, or a lunch partner boring you, or an acquaintance pestering you to borrow your umbrella, you wouldn’t scream or shout or slap them, and you likely wouldn’t abruptly leave. You would likely try to be subtle and transmit certain signals without a confrontation. You would likely go along to get along. You would likely grin and bear it. You would likely do this because that’s what we do in workaday social interactions, and sex is one of those now.
The trouble is that sex is clearly different, as the lasting unhappiness of so many women attests. If acknowledging that endangers one of the achievements of the sexual revolution, then so be it: What is the alternative? Telling women over and over that, when it comes to sex, they must abandon all of the normal rules of interacting with others in society hasn’t helped and seems transparently ridiculous. In every other domain of life, being patient and generous with others makes a person praiseworthy and well-liked; those mores are deeply instilled and hard to shake, especially for women. It doesn’t make any sense to keep insisting otherwise, and trying to destroy those norms — which are good for society in general — seems like a ruinous project.
Instead, we ought to appreciate that sex is a domain so intimate and personal that more harm can be done than in most social situations, and that given that heightened capacity for harm, we should expect people to operate with greater conscientiousness, concern and care in that domain than in others. If you are still hanging around your tired host’s home long after the party is over, excuse yourself and leave — don’t wait for them to order you out or call the police. If you are kissing someone and they’re barely responsive — if they say, as Ansari’s partner did, “I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you” — then get their coat for them and call it a night. Ansari didn’t commit a crime. But cruelty isn’t restricted to criminal acts. In all domains of life, but especially where it comes to sex, we must insist that people consider one another’s interior lives, feelings, personhood, dignity.
Demanding an expansion of empathy and responsibility when it comes to sex isn’t regressive; it’s a sexual revolution in its own right. It is silly to think we could have needed only one.
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