Bad Sex or Sexual Assault?
Ansari’s name has been thrown alongside Weinstein and Spacey in a story that has caused an enormous divide within the #metoo movement itself, with women and men growing more and more hesitant to speak on the subject for fear of being accused or their reputation being tarnished. Most importantly, however, this has created monumental shifts in our perception of the dating and sex life of women, at a time when these ideas are at the forefront of Western cultural dialogue.
As I read and reread the Ansari story, I could not understand why I gave so much energy and time into something that I had initially found ridiculous. The story on babe.net describes the experience of a young woman under the pseudonym of ‘Grace’ who had an uncomfortable encounter with Aziz Ansari. Frankly, when I first read the story, it read as a spoiled child who preferred red wine as opposed to white wine, and simply couldn’t ask for different. To me, the article felt extremely biased, painting Aziz as a creep, a molester, and a ‘sexual bully’. No matter how hard I tried, I could not understand why this complaint of bad sex was getting so much attention, and had been given a platform as important as #metoo. It was poorly handled by the journalist in charge of writing the case, highlighting details that denounced the story as a whole, or inserting their own commentary in moments that did not matter (i.e a comment about her outfit). I am not expecting more from babe.net, but I am expecting more from a journalist representing the story of a woman who felt violated.
Maybe it is the attention that everyone has given to it, that made me try to understand what exactly this had started. Perhaps it was my own eerily similar experiences that made me rethink and wonder whether or not I am more of a victim than I already feel made out to be by society. One of the most important factors though is that, as a feminist and as an avid support of human rights and dignity, I did not want to dismiss or undermine a story of a human being who felt violated and was speaking out. Too often in our culture, many voices are shut down and dismissed because they are deemed by others to not be “serious enough” to merit attention, despite the fact that the trauma felt by these victims is no less real.. I did not want to be a voice or an actor that fed into this culture of repression and thus, made an attempt to understand the article beyond my initial judgements.
But honestly, I could not help but feel offended. I did not understand why at first - I tried to challenge myself to break out of my own biases. Were these thoughts a byproduct of a culture that normalises violence against women? Was this experience actually awful and have I just grown accustomed to such dire violence, that this seems like a feather on a boulder? Is my sexual life so tainted that I have become numb to mistreatment and abuse? I still could not shake the feeling that the conversation about the article was undermining my own experience with sexual abuse. I talked to a close friend, and she said that we need to stop competing in the ‘oppressed olympics’, that our stories of abuse should not be set up against each other. Am I participating in oppressed olympics? Should I stop comparing my own experience with ‘Grace’s’? Why do I feel anger that the term sexual assault that describes my experience is going to be used on a story where the woman said no and, in my opinion, was respected?
After obsessively rereading every detail of the story released on babe.net, I have concluded that this isn’t in the realm of assault and should not be included under the term ‘sexual abuse’ with the information that has been provided*. I was not there, and do not know the exact events that may have played out, but the details the journalist provided is one that describes discomfort and a feeling of not knowing how to say no, which is valid and a product of the larger society as a whole. However, this story has been used under the umbrella of sexual abuse and rape, and in doing so, trivialises my story and history with sexual abuse, and the millions of other women who have been raped or assaulted. The woman in question had the power to make different decisions than she did that day, but instead she fed into the rhetoric that women are an object to be acted upon, rather than a human being with agency. She made decisions now that she later regrets, including getting into bed with a man who had different sexual expectations than she did.
The question that has really confounded us all is the issue of drawing the line, of differentiating between sexual abuse and a regrettable sexual encounter a.k.a bad sex. Her experience reminds me of several sexual encounters that I have had myself, and they were all given with my consent, although I didn’t enjoy it and later regretted it. They were unpleasant, sure. Perhaps not what I had expected. Fine. But consensual all the same. The thread that pulls it altogether is that in every one of these regrettable experiences, I was willing but uncomfortable.
I have heard many opinions stating that consent needs to not only be willingness but enthusiastic. The power in this story is demonstrating the different opinions on what consent really entails, and how actions will be interpreted in a whole new spectrum, ushering us into an age where verbal communication becomes more important than ever. Consent does not necessitate enjoyment or enthusiasm, but that does not mean that as men or women we shouldn’t demand that pleasure in sex.
As an emancipated woman, who has been given an education, her rights, freedom, and an infinite space to explore her sexual pleasures, I know that I have been willing to experience different things with men that I later regretted despite my willingness. I can confidently put those experiences in the ‘bad sex’ bracket as opposed to sexual abuse, which I have also experienced despite all the privileges I have been given.
Now, having understood that consent might not necessitate enthusiasm or enjoyment for men or women, this conversation is useful in enabling us to carefully analyse our own sexual lives, and how, as women, we should demand not only to be respected through the rules of consent but pleasure as well (the ever ‘elusive’ female orgasm). Whatever your opinion on the case, whether or not it was sexual assault or just bad sex or an ambiguous area in between, this has initiated a conversation about the sex life of young women and how we should be asking better from sex rather than just mere consent.
I read an article which stated that Aziz Ansari sticking his fingers down the girl’s throat was inherently reprehensible and abusive. That is absolutely ridiculous. In mainstream rhetoric, we do not talk about the details of our sexual encounters, and perhaps the little kinks that we get our pleasure from. I understand why people might not want to have fingers down their throat, and might feel revulsion towards it, which is perfectly fine within their own realm of experience, but to feel disgust and claim the sex act as a clear sign of abuse taking place is downright ignorant. The article implies that this act is abusive even if consent was previously attained. The sex act itself isn’t a symbol of abuse, but the action of not having attained consent is abuse. It might be bad sex to somebody, the greatest sex to another- the point is we are not having nuanced discussions of preferences and details in la vie sexuelle, because of the intimacy of it, but rather falling into the viewpoint that women are victims of all types of sexual encounters when we approach situations like aforementioned.
Sex is messy and there is a lot of ambiguity in terms of things we like and things we do not like, and it is time we treat women as human beings with agency and - yes, brace yourself - weird kinks. Pleasure can be demanded in different ways, including sex acts that may seem absurd to people. Sex, like everything else, needs to be talked about in all of its forms so as a society we can better differentiate consensual sex that may seem as weird as chains and whips to abusive demeaning rape. Does political correctness and righteousness need to be present in every bedroom, bathroom, sex dungeon? Are all of our kinks supposed to be repressed and forgotten even though they are imagined and acted upon in a consensual relationship? We need to have more nuanced discussions, with respect to all aspects of sex, from consent to its kinks.
Context is important. Communication is even more so. The narrative of the babe.net article does not give enough agency to women like Grace, and we should shift the conversation to empowering women, rather than infantilising them. As a woman or a man with needs and desires, you have the ability and the responsibility to tread not only the lines of consent, but demand and give pleasure. At the end of the day, it is brilliant that we have been having these type of discussions which work for the improvement of the livelihood of women, and in a unique way, I am grateful for the story for allowing pathways for discussion; it is allowing us to reexamine consent and sex in a new light, and moving the goalposts into an era where both consent and pleasure becomes the norm.
*Ansari’s quick response to her saying she felt uncomfortable, and stating that he must have misunderstood her feelings is another crucial piece of evidence of an experience with bad sex and communication rather than one of coercion and abuse. I also think that his being open and willing to engage in the conversation is something that I want to see even if the case was one of sexual assault. His willingness to engage and realise his wrongdoings is a major step forward in this movement, perhaps telling of how horrible the circumstances were before.