I’d just read the photographer’s account of her ‘date from hell’ with Aziz Ansari. My thoughts on such stories are always identical, had in exactly the same order — with exactly the same fervour — every time: believe the victim, separate art from artist, leave such matters to the real courts rather than those of public opinion.
There have been a handful of stories published recently on the supposed downsides of #MeToo, of #TimesUp. Articles questioning whether, in our (over)zealousness to protect victims and to pillory perps, we’re inhibiting men and women’s ability to enjoy fully-fleshed out adult sex lives.
In the late 1990s, I was enrolled in one of my first radical feminist subjects. The topic du jour was consent, and the lecturer was systemically identifying the politics — the power relations — sullying every male attempt at seducing a woman. The point was that heterosexuality is inherently problematic. Eventually presented was a scenario she (begrudgingly) considered acceptably egalitarian: a man and woman’s eyes meet across a crowded room. They’re drawn to one another, they move towards one another and then they fuck. I sat in the lecture theatre with the lyrics of Madonna’s ‘Crazy for You’ running through my mind while stifling a laugh. And even then, in my then late teens, I knew there seemed something a little sketchy about sex without a single word being exchanged. Potentially hot, sure, but sketchy.
So, assuming most of us aren’t attending too many ‘smoky air/weight of my stare’ parties, how is this perfectly egalitarian scenario going to unfold?
A couple of years ago I’d be on the fourth or fifth date with a man I quite liked. There’d been a lull in conversation which he suitably shattered with the question, ‘I missed my window of opportunity didn’t I?’ A more elegant — a more depoliticised — way of asking whether he’d been friendzoned. Indeed he had been.
How is talking about such a situation possible without talking about sexual scripts? About gender relations? In my head — a busy, chaotic, unenviable place to be sure — had this man liked me, had he wanted something to happen, then there was a window, there amid all the silly flirty banter, for him to act. In my head, baseline consent had been provided in the form of my returned text messages and my repeat attendance at second, third, fourth dates. Him not acting therefore, meant that feelings of rejection eventually morphed into my reassessment. Subconscious sure, but nonetheless, the temperature dropped.
Now, let’s for a moment, spare a thought for the genuinely lovely man in this situation. We’d met in a professional context, which meant he knew what I did, the kind of madness I wrote. And he, by all accounts, wanted to show me his feminist credentials. Which meant him not being sexually assertive, aggressive, presumptuous. Me however, being my own bundle of neurosis and anxiety and general malarkey needed him to do just enough to demonstrate that I wasn’t projecting, being a fantasist, misconstruing his body language. I’d be fine once a sufficient first move was made, but I needed that much. And it didn’t come. So things cooled. Dried.
I could relay half a dozen such stories. But then I could also tell you my own Aziz Ansari tales. Of course, I don’t know Ansari. But I, like every woman I’ve ever spoken to about this stuff, have had at least one experience of a situation with a man that left our control. A situation where, had at any point, we been asked, ‘do you want this?’ we would have said no. But we weren’t asked and, in my case, things continued as though I were an enthusiastic rather than just a compliant participant.
Read any of the comments sections in any one of the Ansari write-ups and there’ll be musings about ‘why didn’t she just go home?’ or ‘how elastic has the definition of sexual assault become?’ Fair questions. Equally fair however — equally necessary — is to talk about reality.
This is still a culture where the person with the penis does the lion’s share of the raping. So to pretend that just leaving is effortless assumes the capacity to trust that this is actually possible; that doing so will proceed without cost
But perhaps more potent is assumed or imagined agency. Just going along with things — not making a fuss, not creating a scene — made the whole thing seem that little less bit egregious to swallow. If your self-view, like mine, is generally not primarily victim-of-the-patriarchy, you’re probably going to prefer viewing yourself as acquiescent rather than assaulted.
So what happens when Ansari/Joe Bloggs/Billy from Brighton tells his side of the story — one of him enthusiastically following well-established sexual scripts, of being the Grand Seductor in a world that still puts the first-move burden on his shoulders? What happens when she tells her story, knowing she went along with things — that she never answered an unasked question with a ‘no’ — but still wholeheartedly feels a bit raped nonetheless?
Certainly male/female relations — in the bedroom, in the workplace — need to be revisited. In the meantime though, how do we conduct our sexual business — seduce and be seduced, ravish and get ravished — all the while having no idea about how our gestures are being read, let alone how to navigate that iceberg of ever-evolving gender politics?
This is so much more complicated that he said/she said, he felt/she felt, and alas, my passion for enthusiastic consent sadly assumes better emotional intelligence than most of us have. Myself unquestionably included.
Lauren Rosewarne is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne. She is the author of nine books and in 2018 will be a co-host of ‘Stop Everything!’ on Radio National.