Whether or not Grace’s complaints against Aziz Ansari meet the legal or moral definitions of assault is being discussed widely, with lots of good think– pieces exploring the nuances. This is not one of those.
I write as a forty-one-year-old married man who has been a serial monogamist since I was a kid. I never had a one–night–stand (although I made out with a ton of people). But I had situations with girlfriends and longtime partners in which communication was poor. Or too much alcohol was involved. Or I was being selfish, or pushy. There were two times in which I did not heed the first no. I heeded the second, but the damage was still done. I wasn’t as safe as I once was; I had excuses, we always do, and it wasn’t intentional. But it took me looking beyond my own sexual desire to understand that I felt entitled to someone else’s body and that isn’t a good look for anyone.
I share this because I am reading so many men becoming defensive, responding something like, “OMG, we can’t do anything now without being accused of assault.” That’s ridiculous. It doesn’t mean that at all. What it does mean, though, is that we need to get serious about talking consent. We need to talk about it with one another, fellas. It needs to become part of what we think about when we think about having sex with another person. Sex is not masturbation with a meat puppet. It is an intimate act with another autonomous person who has agency.
I hear some men of my generation encouraging the generation of men behind us to “protect themselves from these women who just want to destroy men.” Consent talk, therefore, is just about guys protecting themselves from false accusations. It is not about the potential damage we can do to women. The Ansari story, in particular, seems to be Exhibit A in the menagerie of ridiculousness, according to the interwebz and twitting machine. She had bad sex and is now ruining Ansari’s life. See, though, any positive that might come from discussing the nuances of this situation is sullied because the mindset is that of adversaries. Men need to protect themselves from women.
To be sure, women have to engage in a totally different calculus, so I am not speaking to that. But this notion that there are millions of women looking to accuse of assault every man with whom they sleep is preposterous. It minimizes the real dangers of hook-up culture. I am not a sexual prude or puritan in the slightest, but frankly, if you’re a man who thinks that consent is only to protect yourself, you might want to reconsider your choice of sexual partner. Consent conversations are about trust and limits; they are about taking a few minutes before getting extremely intimate and asking, “So, what’re you thinking we should do?”
Consent is sexy. Safe words are hot. Asking questions, giving feedback, making suggestions, checking–in: all of these make for much, much better sex. Not always. Consent is not a guarantee that you have good sex. But it does help guarantee that you are at least getting the bad sex you signed up for.
I hope that enough men, especially Gen Xers, will talk to their sons and nephews, to their cousins and godsons about consent. And, of course, it is not just for heterosexual sex! The seismic shift, though, has to occur with the upcoming generations of boys understanding how to properly respond to clues both verbal and non–verbal. I hope that is something on which we can all agree.