On Aziz and consent

Insofar as, among other things, there seems to be a real generation gap on responses to the whole Aziz Ansari imbroglio, you’ll not be surprised to find that I’m more sympathetic to the arguments of Aziz’s older female defenders, like Caitlin Flanagan.  I actually found out about Flanagan’s take as she was a trending topic on twitter from all the Millennial feminist pushback, arguing that Flanagan was a defender of sexual assault.  Now, I think it is pretty clear that Azari did not act in the way you would want someone to in a sexual encounter, but that certainly doesn’t make it sexual assault. Anyway, I did like this part of Flanagan’s post:

Was Grace frozen, terrified, stuck? No. She tells us that she wanted something from Ansari and that she was trying to figure out how to get it. She wanted affection, kindness, attention. Perhaps she hoped to maybe even become the famous man’s girlfriend. He wasn’t interested. What she felt afterward—rejected yet another time, by yet another man—was regret. And what she and the writer who told her story created was 3,000 words of revenge porn. The clinical detail in which the story is told is intended not to validate her account as much as it is to hurt and humiliate Ansari. Together, the two women may have destroyed Ansari’s career, which is now the punishment for every kind of male sexual misconduct, from the grotesque to the disappointing.

Now, that probably goes too far in defending Ansari who seems to have not simply failed to provide affection and kindness, but also seems to have acted some level of inappropriate in the whole matter.  But, I don’t think acting like a jerk should result in this kind of public shaming (and I’d agree with Jon Ronson that we way over-use public shaming).

Also liked this take from NYT’s Bari Weiss:

If you are wondering what about this evening constituted the “worst night” of this woman’s life, or why it is being framed as a #MeToo story by a feminist website, you probably feel as confused as Mr. Ansari did the next day. “It was fun meeting you last night,” he texted.

“Last night might’ve been fun for you, but it wasn’t for me,” she responded. “You ignored clear nonverbal cues; you kept going with advances. You had to have noticed I was uncomfortable.” He replied with an apology.

Read her text message again.

Put in other words: I am angry that you weren’t able to read my mind.

It is worth carefully studying this story. Encoded in it are new yet deeply retrograde ideas about what constitutes consent — and what constitutes sexual violence.

We are told by the reporter that the woman “says she used verbal and nonverbal cues to indicate how uncomfortable and distressed she was.” She adds that “whether Ansari didn’t notice Grace’s reticence or knowingly ignored it is impossible for her to say.” We are told that “he wouldn’t let hermove away from him,” in the encounter…

I am a proud feminist, and this is what I thought while reading the article:

If you are hanging out naked with a man, it’s safe to assume he is going to try to have sex with you…

Aziz Ansari sounds as if he were aggressive and selfish and obnoxious that night. Isn’t it heartbreaking and depressing that men — especially ones who present themselves publicly as feminists — so often act this way in private? Shouldn’t we try to change our broken sexual culture? And isn’t it enraging that women are socialized to be docile and accommodating and to put men’s desires before their own? Yes. Yes. Yes.

But the solution to these problems does not begin with women torching men for failing to understand their “nonverbal cues.” It is for women to be more verbal. It’s to say, “This is what turns me on.” It’s to say, “I don’t want to do that.” And, yes, sometimes it means saying goodbye.

The single most distressing thing to me about this story is that the only person with any agency in the story seems to be Aziz Ansari. The woman is merely acted upon…

The article in Babe was met with digital hosannas by young feminists who insisted that consent is consent only if it is affirmative, active, continuous and — and this is the word most used — enthusiastic. [emphasis mine] Consent isn’t the only thing they are radically redefining. A recent survey by The Economist/YouGov found that approximately 25 percent of millennial-age American men think asking someone for a drink is harassment. More than a third of millennial men and women say that if a man compliments a woman’s looks it is harassment.

To judge from social media reaction, they also see a flagrant abuse of power in this sexual encounter. Yes, Mr. Ansari is a wealthy celebrity with a Netflix show. But he had no actual power over the woman — professionally or otherwise. And lumping him in with the same movement that brought down men who ran movie studios and forced themselves on actresses, or the factory-floor supervisors who demanded sex from female workers, trivializes what #MeToo first stood for.

I think it is this whole idea of what is consent that is really bothering me.  Is “enthusiastic consent” ideal for a sexual encounter?  Sure.  We should aim for that as a society– especially in the ambiguous and fraught situations in today’s hook-up culture.  But humans consent to things all the time unenthusiastically, begrudgingly, or tacitly, among other adjectives.  Those types are not ideal for a sexual encounter, but they are still consent.  So, as a cultural matter, sure we should aim for the ideal that sexual consent should be clear and enthusiastic.  On a totally realistic level, though, human behavior is complicated and people will consent to sex without enthusiasm or clear verbal assent for a variety of reasons.  And to argue that those encounters constitute sexual assault is to diminish genuine, non-consensual, sexual assault.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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