Tuesday, January 16, 2018

On the Debate Over Consent and #MeToo

When the #MeToo movement first appeared, and many of my friends and acquaintances were using it to share their stories, I hesitated. Not because I didn't have my own story to tell, but because I wasn't completely ready to tell the world I was a survivor of sexual assault and also because I feared it would turn into a competition. I didn't think it would purposefully be a competition, where people respond to a story with challenges that their own story is so much worse. But I feared that would be implied in some of the responses. I know my story is pretty bad, but obviously, there are others that are much worse. That's not important. What happened to me damaged me - I thought for a long time that it had damaged me beyond repair. I didn't want to feel like I had to justify why my experience was painful, or to explain why I still have nightmares about something that happened so long ago. Something I spent time in therapy and self-defense classes dealing with to help me move on.

But sadly, it's happening. And though my heart goes out to the women who are having to justify why an experience was painful, it's resulting in a debate that we absolutely need - a debate about what consent really involves, and the behaviors that, while not criminal, need to stop.

By now, you've probably read about the allegations against Aziz Ansari and "Grace" (not her real name), the woman who went on a date with Aziz that ended with an upsetting sexual encounter that left her crying in the back of a cab. This story is generating many responses, including an article from The Atlantic that left me very frustrated.

In that Atlantic article, Caitlin Flanagan didn't seem to understand what "Grace" was so upset about. She seems to recognize that things have improved since her own sexual awakening:
I was a teenager in the late 1970s, long past the great awakening (sexual intercourse began in 1963, which was plenty of time for me), but as far away from Girl Power as World War I was from the Tet Offensive. The great girl-shaping institutions, significantly the magazines and advice books and novels that I devoured, were decades away from being handed over to actual girls and young women to write and edit, and they were still filled with the cautionary advice and moralistic codes of the ’50s.
But she falls back into problematic logic and victim blaming:
Those magazines didn’t prepare teenage girls for sports or STEM or huge careers; the kind of world-conquering, taking-numbers strength that is the common language of the most-middle-of-the road cultural products aimed at today’s girls was totally absent. But in one essential aspect they reminded us that we were strong in a way that so many modern girls are weak. They told us over and over again that if a man tried to push you into anything you didn’t want, even just a kiss, you told him flat out you weren’t doing it. If he kept going, you got away from him. You were always to have “mad money” with you: cab fare in case he got “fresh” and then refused to drive you home. They told you to slap him if you had to; they told you to get out of the car and start wailing if you had to. They told you to do whatever it took to stop him from using your body in any way you didn’t want, and under no circumstances to go down without a fight. In so many ways, compared with today’s young women, we were weak; we were being prepared for being wives and mothers, not occupants of the C-Suite. But as far as getting away from a man who was trying to pressure us into sex we didn’t want, we were strong.
Is Caitlin right that "Grace" could have just left? Pushed Aziz away? Slapped him and told him to stop getting fresh? Yes, she's right. "Grace" could have done all those things. But this story, and the various responses I've read, all seem to read this particular instance in black and white: either "Grace" wanted to have sex with Aziz, in which case she should shut about calling this misconduct, or she didn't want to have sex with him, and she should have gotten out of there sooner. But that narrative ignores the fact that not only do both parties need to consent to sex, both parties need to consent to the way it is taking place.

"Grace" admits she made the first move, of sorts. She met Aziz at a party, and though he brushed her off at first, she tried to make a connection with him that eventually worked. She gave him her number and they went out on a date. Yes, she was interested in him. Yes, she might have wanted to have sex with him. In fact, that's probably why she didn't leave or slap him. She wanted to have sex with him, but not in the way he was going about it. So she told him to slow down. She pulled away when he shoved his fingers in her mouth. That strikes me as someone who wants to be with him, but not in that way. How many women have been with men where we've had to say, "Hey, slow down"? How many of us have dealt with things getting a little rougher than we want - hair pulling that becomes a bit too hard, what should have been a playful smack that ends up leaving a handprint - but didn't stop because we feared hurting his feelings? It isn't that we don't want to be with that person. We wanted to stay with them, we just don't want to do those specific things they keeps doing.

The story is spun like her only choices are do what he wants or get the hell out of there. And eventually she did, probably when she realized that trying to gently, and then more forcefully, tell him that she didn't like the specific things he was doing wasn't working. That was the point when she had to decide that the man she was very attracted to, that she had really wanted to go out with, was going to keep using her as an object to act out his porn-inspired fantasies. And by leaving in that way, it meant she was closing the door on ever having a relationship with him. It had to get pretty bad for her to get to that point.

He didn't commit any crimes. He shouldn't go to jail, or lose job opportunities, or be labeled as a sex offender. But this case highlights something we need to discuss: that consent isn't as simple as yes or no.

I'm glad "Grace" shared her story, and I'm sorry that, despite her efforts, her interaction with Aziz was so painful. Rather than dismissing it as "not so bad" and saying it cheapens the stories of "real victims," why can't we use this case to help understand this issue of consent? To really think why our initial reaction to "Grace" is dismissal or frustration? If nothing else, Aziz shows us that, even the most progressive and "woke" members of either gender can have some difficulty navigating and understanding consent. Let's use this instance as a way to explore that, and move on as better people.

On that note, I highly recommend you check out this post, which does a great job at discussing the problem of dismissing as "not so bad."

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