He was funny. Charming. Intelligent. Seemingly sensitive to the topics and issues of the day that trouble so many. In short, he was all of the safe words you look for in someone. Until he wasn’t.
By now most of us have read or at least heard about one woman’s disastrous “date” night with Aziz Ansari which went from a fun night out before devolving into what could be characterized as, at best, a tragic miscommunication between two people, and at worst, a sexual assault. And possibly it’s both. There’s a good chance you’ve read a hundred headlines and opinionated takes. There’s a good chance you’ve seen some of yourself not only in the incident in question, but in the ensuing flood of accounts from women all over the country telling their all too familiar stories. And there’s a good albeit unfortunate chance that a lot of this will pass with the speed of breaking news without us having the chance to talk about all of the long overdue bedroom inequalities and dangers this specific situation represents.
The story is difficult to read for a number of reasons. Difficult because it’s clear to see how uncomfortable, afraid, and used “Grace” was made to feel. Difficult because if we didn’t know before, it’s more apparent than ever just how many women have lived through this experience not just once, but in many cases time and time again. And difficult because it forces a self reflection of my own past and actions as well as those of any man willing to take the time and honestly assess himself.
Of course, this honesty often feels like an impossible thing to touch. I’m my own unreliable narrator in life. When I read about Ansari forcing his fingers into Grace’s mouth or pursuing her across the room as she tries to move away, it’s easy for me to think “I’ve never done anything like THAT!” And I’m sure many others had some similar line of “I haven’t been that bad” reasoning. But what does that really mean? Because what we’re learning, and what others have long pointed out is that this kind of problematic behavior lies on a spectrum. I may of never forced my fingers anywhere, but was there ever a time I didn’t listen to a partner’s wants or requests to slow down? Was I every emotionally manipulative in my pursuit of sex in the moment? Before my spinal cord injury I was 6'2 and 200+ pounds, when I closed the bedroom door did I, however unintentionally, ever make a partner feel trapped? Did I ever make someone feel as though sex was a debt that needed to be paid? Were there signs of discomfort I willfully ignored? Was there an emotional or physical shut down I missed and “just kept going”? Did I ever read “yes” just because I didn’t hear “no”. Of course I may not think I’ve done any of these things, but the difficulty is an acknowledging that if I did, my assumed unawareness would not lessen or invalidate the impact it had on the other person and that I would still own the responsibility for my actions.
Still, these are a lot of questions. And they’re heavy ones not just because they’ve been gathering years of unanswered and unasked weight, but because the honesty of “yes” to any one of them carries a morally reprehensible consequence that nobody wants to be guilty of having committed. That nobody wants to face and so is much easier to turn away from. Much easier to couch in a vast array of excuses like “we were drunk” or “she wasn’t clear enough.” But that’s not good enough. And it’s more than worth asking why we continually place the burden of stopping these sexual encounters on women. Why are we constantly asking women to be more forceful and not men to be more caring. We don’t need to learn to read minds but we could stand to at least make an effort to read bodies and the language they speak that we can’t pretend doesn’t exist. It is in fact very possible to read the unflinching person beneath you who has disappeared behind eyes that don’t see you but only a distant hope this will all be over soon. And it is on us not just to listen to our partners but to take time to thoughtfully ask questions.
What I’ve learned from stories like this is that even beyond the clear cut examples of assault that exist, there are just so many unhappy, unsatisfying, uncomfortable sexual experiences that too many are living through simply because we’ve been conditioned to believe that this is just how it works. That sex is an entitlement there to be taken by men and that it is not to be enjoyed but rather endured by women. We see it in popular culture every day from sitcoms to movies to books: the woman who would rather roll over and fake a headache, and the horny husband doggedly pursuing sex by whatever trick or number of chores he can perform. We see the woman who plays hard to get and the man jumping through hoops to catch her. We see woman who says no until, when faced with the relentless romantic efforts of a man, finally says yes. To a date. To a kiss. To more.
In all of these we see the constantly reinforced with the notion that sex is a transactional and not shared experience. That “I did this so now you have to do/give me this other thing”. We see the idea that a woman’s space and boundaries are not her own when it comes to a man who “really” wants her. That all of those lines can be crossed if a man decides they should be. And we see our failure to recognize women as sexual beings who have wants and needs, emotionally and physically, that should be asked about and fulfilled.
I’m sure there exists a world in which sex is talked about openly but it isn’t this one. To be sure there’s a lack of education in schools but also we just don’t talk to each other, whether as partners or as groups. And as men we’re not generally taught to ask. Sure, you watch enough movies and you become vaguely aware if the things you *think* a woman may want or enjoy but when is the last time you actually asked a partner? Talking isn’t going to solve every problem of some of the larger societal and systemic issues that plaugue healthy sexual relationships but it can go a long way to making things better and improving our individual experiences.
I try to make it a point to not have celebrity idols. But the ones we tend to like or admire, we tend to do so because we can see parts of ourselves in them or projections of who we want to be. In Ansari, I saw my humor and my want to be a good person navigating the 21st century pitfalls of life and love. But if I can see the goodness then I also have to see the rest. The potential monster inside me that’s hidden behind all of those good intentions and still haunting someone that I was supposed to care about in the moment, not because of what I wanted but because of who they were and are. A human being deserving of my respect and best effort to provide a healthy and safe environment. Ultimately what will make modern romance, in fact, modern at all, will be our willingness going forward to have the kind of difficult discussions with each other and with ourselves not just about how to be better partners and lovers but how to be better people. It has to involve men asking not just who we are but who have we been and who can we be. It’s asking what have we broken and how we can be whole, and asking this without the reflexive defensiveness that often halts our most important conversations and self progress. For too long we’ve left women to do the work on their own with little or no help and if we continue to refuse to share in the heavy lifting then we’ll continue to fall short of the standards that should be a bare minimum for health and happiness. I hope you’re working on finding those words and the strength to look in all of the mirrors that might reflect the worst parts of us. We have to start somewhere. Let it be here.