No one expects Ansari to be a mind reader. No one is. But the only reason not to ask a woman for her consent before initiating sex is because you’re afraid she’ll say no.
Like most of the internet, I read Grace’s story about Aziz Ansari over the weekend. My Twitter feed was full of angry voices, but not for the reason I expected. That Grace simply regretted her “hook up” the next day seems to be the general consensus; even The New York Times opined that Ansari was guilty only of “not being a mind reader.”
I don’t know what to call what happened to Grace. But I know it was wrong — and there probably isn’t a woman alive who doesn’t have a similar story.
My own Ansari story happened when I was 18 years old. I was on my own for the first time in my life, and my parents weren’t supportive, to say the least. I found myself drifting, looking for someone — anyone — to make me feel less alone. What I found was the world of IRC (old-school internet chat). And while there was a lot of good there, and I’m still in touch with many of those people today, there was one aspect of IRC that was less positive: the boys.
In the month after I moved out on my own, I went on date after date, and all any of those boys really wanted was sex. I was an adult, and I knew what I was doing — yes. But after a few dates with a few boys, it began to feel less like a choice. I had a reputation by then, and when I found myself on the couch watching TV with a boy I’d just met, and he climbed on top of me and began trying to shove himself inside me, it seemed easier to just let him do it. I couldn’t imagine yelling, or pushing him off me, or even saying no. It was safer — and had long been safer — for me to simply leave my body and hover somewhere on the ceiling while he finished.
There was a part of me that hoped he would notice that I wasn’t moving; that he would care that I wasn’t enjoying myself. But I was first sexually abused before I could walk so I didn’t have high hopes. If he noticed, he certainly didn’t care. He had one concern: getting laid.
There are many people who say that it’s up to women to say no. They place the burden of consent on women, expecting them to shout their denial from the rooftops. But the absence of no isn’t yes; the absence of no means ask. Just ask.
I suspect many of the men who are defensive about Ansari have many of their own memories and their own stories. These men don’t want to think of themselves as rapists or sexual predators so they place the full burden of consent on women. Likewise, the women who argue that Grace should’ve said no or should’ve pushed Ansari away probably have many of their own painful memories; maybe even with men they love.
But none of that excuses the fact that sex without consent isn’t sex. It might not be rape, it might walk an uncomfortable line, but it’s not sex. And all of that can be avoided by asking one simple question: “Do you want to have sex with me tonight?”
Except it’s not that simple, not really. Asking that question requires a shift in how men approach dating and sex. It requires giving women full bodily autonomy; it requires viewing them as people, not bases or a piece of ass. It demands that men respect women as their equals, capable of giving and withholding consent. And even good men — the men who say they are feminists and would never, ever rape a woman — still struggle with that.
My ex-husband is one of these men. He supported Bernie, but he still voted for Hillary. He bought our daughters shirts emblazoned with “Nevertheless, she persisted.” But when we were married and I said no, he tried to change my mind. When that didn’t work, he tried to coerce me. And eventually, he even tried to force me. Not that much. Not that hard. But enough. And when I told him to stop and pushed him away, he was enraged. He went to sleep angry, still not speaking to me, and the next day he told me I was lucky to be married to a man who wouldn’t cheat on me — even if I didn’t meet his sexual needs.
There are many men like my ex-husband. Men who believe they do the work but who still view women as conquests — just a little bit. They wear the Time’s Up pin or feminist t-shirts, but they are only our allies until they want to get in our pants. I’ve come to prefer the flagrant misogyny of men on the alt-right to the hypocrisy of so-called progressive men. At least one of them is honest about who and what they are.
In a perfect world, women would be empowered enough to say no. But that will never absolve men of the responsibility to ask for a woman’s consent before initiating sex. If you can ask a woman out for dinner or drinks, or back to your apartment, or to hop on your counter, you can ask her if she’d like to have sex with you — without manipulation or coercion, and you can listen to her response. Both what is said and unsaid.
Ansari’s statement says that he continues to “support the movement that is happening in our culture.” But this movement requires men to do more than wear pins and give speeches in a show of support: It requires them to reconsider their own behavior and own their mistakes. It requires them to admit when they’ve fucked up and commit to doing better.
No one expects Ansari to be a mind reader. No one is. But the only reason not to ask a woman for her consent before initiating sex is because you’re afraid she’ll say no. And if you prioritize your orgasm over her consent, you’re a sexual predator. Full stop.