Aziz Ansari and the "next sexual revolution"

At the risk of turning the Aziz Ansari story into a dead horse after one too many beatings, this latest phase of the fallout from “Grace’s” revelations has taken a long-needed, but difficult and complex discussion into even more difficult, complicated territory this week. Thus far, through a series of fits and starts, the national conversation seems to have admirably avoided falling down any number of rabbit holes. (For the most part, anyway.) These could have included everything from blaming Grace for killing the #MeToo movement by making a false accusation and attempting to end Ansari’s career to going overboard in the other direction and declaring that even an awkward, pseudo-sexual set of first date moves is somehow comparable to rape.

Instead, the discussion has begun to focus on the question of female agency and empowerment in sexual encounters. This is risky business to be sure because it involves discussions of not only women’s rights but their responsibilities in communicating with potential partners or aggressors. It’s the “responsibilities” area which is fraught with peril because you immediately open up the conversation to accusations that you’re “blaming the woman” for what happened to her.

But as I said, that portion of the discussion is evolving. People are asking questions, albeit sometimes rather crudely, about whatever happened to the idea that the woman can tell the man, stop or I’m going to knock you in your nuts. While perhaps humorous, that’s a bit too blunt of an assessment. But it’s still an entry point to a discussion that Elizabeth Bruenig wades into at The Washington Post, suggesting that maybe it’s time for a new sexual revolution.

Bruenig claims that the sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies did a lot for women in terms of empowerment, but it also had the side effect of demystifying sex to a great degree. Rather than something unique and personal between two people in love (ideally, anyway), sex was now seen as just another social interaction. The author conveys this better than any summary I could manage, so check out this portion.

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.

To be fair, Bruenig later walks back the idea of agreeing to sex as somehow equal to letting a dinner guest hang around too long, tolerating a boring lunch partner or loaning someone your umbrella when you think it’s going to rain shortly. But she really only walks it back partially. Admitting that, “sex is a domain so intimate and personal that more harm can be done than in most social situations,” she modifies the position. The responsible woman, who might normally give her umbrella to her insistent friend and wind up getting drenched rather than causing a fuss or scene, should know that when it comes to consenting to sex, she can draw a more stern line. This, in some fashion, is described as a new form of sexual revolution.

Swinging back to the other side of the equation, Bruenig doesn’t let Ansari off the hook entirely. While not insisting that he be a mind reader, as Bari Weiss warned us about, she does call on men to stand up for their half of this shared responsibility and look for signs of reluctance in their date’s facial expressions and body language to a greater degree than he might be tuned into if he was staying too late at a dinner party.

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.

Is that really a sexual revolution? We’re talking about the idea that women need to be more ready to say no, grab their coats and head for the door, rather than going along with something if their date fails to pick up on their non-verbal clues. And that guys, in turn, need to be on the lookout because we should assume that some women might not have the capacity to say no.

I’m sorry, but not only is that not a sexual revolution, it’s a recipe for regression. Second guessing every facial tick or crossing of arms and trying to divine whether or not you’re on the verge of committing rape without knowing it is a very high bar. Certainly, such accurate empathy is the ideal, but people react in wildly different ways to various situations and you’re not always going to get it right. The reverse situation would be a more shy woman who honestly does want to “go further” but would never say so out loud and doesn’t communicate it very well non-verbally. When the guy assumes he’s gotten the non-verbal thumbs down and abruptly ends the date, a potential relationship goes down the tubes and the woman probably winds up feeling rejected by someone who was probably very attracted to her.

But at the same time, men clearly have to understand the nature of the relationship from the outset and there’s no excuse for not “getting” that part of it. If you are physically forcing yourself on someone who is resisting, even without saying anything, you are a rapist and deserve to be treated as one. But if you are in a position of power over your prospective date, be it through being her supervisor, an influencer in her field of work, a socially or politically influential figure in her community or anything else, there’s more of an onus on you. That’s a risky date to go on to begin with, but at that point, you really do have an obligation to not only be a mind reader but to engage in an awkward, possibly mood-killing discussion where you recognize your leverage and make absolutely sure that she’s not feeling pressured by that power differential.

To be clear, that doesn’t give a pass to someone like Harvey Weinstein. If you’re opening “line” is to tell someone to get in the bedroom and undress or you’re going to ruin their career, you’re a rapist. But there are other relationships which represent a power differential which may be more subtle. Women on the lower power platform in such an encounter actually can be sexually assaulted without saying “no” or perhaps even saying “yes.” I think that’s something that some of us in the Y chromosome community may not have fully understood or appreciated until we wound up learning everything coming to light in the Me Too era.

Holy cow… the further we dig into this the more complicated it gets. It’s not as if I thought there were going to be any easy answers, but I didn’t imagine it was going to turn into this much of a morass.