I read the Aziz Ansari account on Babe.net (Google it but be aware it contains explicit talk of sexual acts and of a man not respecting a woman’s “no”), and then I read a lot of the conversation happening on Twitter around it as well as various comments sections. Here’s what I’ll say.
I imagine this is a story that is going to make a lot of people — particularly cishetero men, but people of all genders — deeply uncomfortable and probably defensive. ESPECIALLY men who consider themselves liberal or progressive. Why? Because it’s not a clear-cut story of rape. According to the various intertwining conventional societal codes of sex, rape, dating norms, consent, and gendered expectations that apply in this situation, nothing concretely or legally “wrong” happened here. And I imagine that many cis men who have never had the experiences of sexual assault but who also do not think of themselves as people who rape or sexually assault will read the account and squirm and wonder — “what if I could be accused of sexual assault, even if that wasn’t my intention? Seems like a misunderstanding. What if I were in his shoes? Is this Me Too stuff going too far?”
And to those men, to whatever extent I have access to your eyes and your attention — and if I don’t, I’ll put this out there as a wish to the universe anyway — I want to ask you, please. Keep listening. Before we make anything personal or individual, let’s just say that none of this is about you and, as much as you can, read and listen to what women are saying.
Here is my piece. I am tired of things having to be “bad enough.” After being assaulted at work last year, I wrote: “I feel guilty calling it sexual assault because I learned long ago that men touching you in ways you didn’t want must pass a certain threshold before you can use language that might hurt their feelings.” In phone conversations with my brother after that assault, I remember telling him over and over again that I felt stupid that the assault was messing with me as much as it was.
“It’s not like he raped me.” As intelligent as I am, as self-aware as I am, as sensitive as I am, as unapologetic as I am about speaking out about these issues. That’s still something I said over and over again. And as I said it then, and as I write it now, it makes me so deeply sad for myself, so sad it goes beyond sad, so exhausted to the bone.
I am tired of us holding the standard for people, especially women, trans and nonbinary people, and further for anyone who is (also) Black or brown, that unless it was The Worst Thing — unless it was unequivocally the worst, most grisly, brutal, forceful horror story that would pass even today’s legal system in which Brock Turner, the Stanford rapist, can successfully argue that consensual sex is possible with an unconscious woman — short of that, we are not allowed to be upset, be affected, feel violated or otherwise deserve to not have experienced things that we did sexually.
Listen: I am not out for blood. I am not out here fighting to change the legal standard of rape so we can put a ton of men in jail. I think that is probably the nightmare end goal that most men fearfully project forward to when they worry that consent and rape culture conversations could “go too far,” but even that reflects a difference in perspective.
As someone who has had stories of rape and sexual assault written onto my body, I am never out here telling these stories so that other people can continue to experience the same but at least their attackers will be punished. No: my dream is for these things to stop happening. For us to take a step back and examine our ideas about sex and what is ok and how that conflicts with these stories and feelings we are hearing. For us to create new ideas and standards.
A person’s actions should not have to be rape or even sexual assault for us and them to be able to examine them in a critical way. It makes me so sad to read comments like “no one made her put his dick in her mouth.” What — and that means she should just shut up from there and not feel anything? Welp, clearly she feels something, and that should be cause for concern for any feeling human being.
I can tell you with absolute certainty that there is one kind of feeling that falls into the “ooh, there are definitely some reasons I shouldn’t have slept with that person” category, and it feels very different from the all-too-relatable sensation of going along with something you don’t really want to do because saying “yes” or saying nothing is easier and saying “no” and making “no” happen requires the energy for the myriad potential consequences that range from not being heard or understood and having to insist to to social repercussions to outright violence, with many other possibilities in between.
There is a reason these kinds of stories (see also “Cat Person”) are gaining so much traction, and it is because they highlight a disparity between men’s and women’s experiences of a shared act. These are threads that we are afraid to pick at because once we do, a lot unravels not just about sex but also gender. The fact that women are upset and men are uncomfortable because it’s relatable is the whole point. That’s why we need to talk more, and that’s why I ask for you to please listen. Because you should want people to feel good having sex with you. And the way you end rape culture is not just by zeroing in on The Worst Thing. It’s called a culture because it’s based on an entire mentality of centering the desires of one to the exclusion of the other, and rape is simply an extreme expression of that culture.
It takes a thousand tiny pieces to hold up an entire sky.