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Fucking in the Hellscape of Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance

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This weekend, The Week published a piece deservedly ricocheting around my feminist media bubble. I myself have managed to find any and every occasion to send it to friends and they, in turn, can’t stop sending it to me. Like Cat Person, this essay plainly speaks to a widespread pain that so rarely gets recognized that when it’s faithfully appreciated as fuckery in an article like this, we all lose our shit.

In all the media shock surrounding allegations of Aziz Ansari’s sexual miscondcut, Lili Loofbourow reminds us that we mere common people are in danger of forgetting just how normalized women’s sexual pain really is in everyday heterosexual encounters. Citing some pretty gruesome statistics, she shows how medical researchers are singularly preoccupied with studying men’s erectile dysfunction to a point where you’d think keeping dicks hard is on par with curing skin cancer. But alarmingly, there’s hardly a fraction of that funding going towards the seeming pandemic of vaginal pain.

If you’ve ever found yourself lying awake at night, crying, frantically googling your vaginal symptoms in the dark as your oblivious partner snores next to you, then you probably already know all signs always point to vulvodynia: a chronic condition that makes all sex excruciatingly painful and CAN NEVER BE CURED.

It’s like the worst game on the internet for women. Step right up, tell the computer box where it hurts and learn how it means you’re going to die alone!

Once you quickly exhaust the maybe four medically reputable sites that describe vulvodynia, you’ll keep going down the list of google results until you hit the wasteland of health forums where desperate women describe their symptoms in excruciating detail to internet strangers begging for a miracle cure because no doctor on this planet seems to understand how vaginas work and nothing modern science has devised ever seems to help.

Does it sound like I’ve been there? Because I’ve been there. Loofbourow’s connection from Aziz to Vulvodynia screamed so true to me. Because like many other sexually active women of childbearing age, I ran out to get an IUD the second Trump was elected. And because my body basically rejected it from day one, I spent most of 2017 hating myself as the copper rod delivered months of agonizing vaginal pain, blood and infections that no fewer than three separate doctors dismissed as normal and par for the course.

“Just stop having sex for a few months and see if that fixes things.”

Christ, why didn’t I think of that!?!

Spoiler alert: I did not stop having sex.

Instead, I was a fucking idiot, falling in love with a guy and didn’t want to jeopardize a nascent relationship by insisting that we could no longer bang for an indefinite period of time. So rather than do the “correct” thing, I kept having painful sex, completely hating myself all the while for being the kind of woman who would keep having painful sex because she’s terrified, believing that to own up to having an interminably broken vagina would — no matter what her well-meaning, affectionate partner said to the contrary — translate to abandonment. Because what else is Brooklyn if not a wonderland of vaginas way better and more functional than mine?

A fun place to be, let me tell you!

And at the same time all of this was happening, I was ironically finalizing a dissertation that investigates how modern dating makes young, heterosexual women feel valueless, disposable and interchangeable. And I did so mostly with an icepack between my legs because I, too, felt valueless, disposable and interchangeable.

A fun place to be!


Ages ago, back when I still gave a shit about tenure, I wrote a book proposal for this dissertation for academic press. Expected in any proposal is a brief editorial analysis of how your project compares to similar books currently available on the market. Weirdly enough, the number one book most like my study of heterosexual singlehood was Modern Romance, a book on contemporary dating culture written by — yes — Aziz Ansari and fellow Sociologist Eric Klinenberg.

This is what I summed up about the book and its relationship to mine:

… Klinenberg supports Ansari’s comic observations with focus group and statistical insight. The book is well-received by a market of readers who are clearly hungry for accessible research into the experience of modern dating. But like many books in its genre, it focuses on guiding individual strategies, and thus does little to theorize dating as a social problem.

I look back on this and laugh. Aziz Ansari literally wrote the fucking book on modern dating and still allegedly pressured a woman within hours of a meeting her into oral sex and saw nothing wrong with that because despite spending at least a year researching the subject of modern dating, he learned nothing at all about how women feel about the the hell of dating the modern man.

… fun place to be.


Does anyone paying for outrage really want to talk about how it is that women keep ending up in sexual scenarios where they come away feeling genuinely violated like this? Because if that’s the case, these takes seem narrowly sighted. They seem to concern themselves almost exclusively with determining whether or not Aziz did anything technically wrong that night, but technicality isn’t what this story is about.

It’s obvious in my reading of that story that Aziz didn’t actually see his date as a human being. Aziz spent years carefully cultivating a public persona of the guy in comedy who gets it. He stood on stage after stage proclaiming himself a feminist who gets it. He wrote a book about dating, positioning himself as an expert who by virtue of authoring a book on the subject supposedly gets it. But then when he gets a woman alone, he nevertheless makes her feel dehumanized, objectified, like she’s nothing more than an assemblage of warm, moist orifices — less a living person than a sexual vending machine.

I wish this story didn’t keep happening but the truth is male feminists seem to have an uncanny ability to keep hurting women in exactly this way. They gain our trust by adorning themselves with patches and pins bearing feminist slogans and dropping Audre Lorde references into brunch conversation. Exhausted from dating men whose commitment to gender equality seems to have ended with the credit reel of Bridesmaids, these rare birds excite us. We get giddy granting them exception to the rule that all men are trash. We let down our guard.

We invite them in.

And like with vampires, that’s when we get fucked.

The first and only time I ever invited a new guy back home to my place after a first date, I was 25. And true to form, I did so with the earnest intentions of getting stoned and playing Guitar Hero.

At the time, I loved Guitar Hero. I was having drinks with a guy I met off OkCupid. He seemed nice enough. He was several years older than me, working on his doctorate in literature at the same grad school that I was. And best of all, in that moment, he seemed as equally eager as I was to get stoned and play Guitar Hero. What’s the worst that could happen? I asked myself, three drinks stupid. I was just thankful that this nice, smart guy was willing to walk me home at a time in my life when I still felt uneasy walking alone late at night through a city, three drinks stupid.

Well, needless to say, the worst happened.

To say that I came away from the experience forever changed would be an understatement. There are few nights in my life as vividly remembered as the one when a guy I barely knew forced his dick into my mouth. You relive that night over and over again, from every angle, in painful slow motion. You’ll never forget how the only thing that made him stop was screaming that you’re not on birth control.

I would say that I’m still not ok.

And that I’m probably never going to really enjoy giving blowjobs again.

But has my telling this story through fat, sloppy tears with mascara running down my face ever stopped my feminist partners from asking for them?

Nah.

And did I ever stop giving them?

Nah.

Which brings us back to this fun place women find themselves dating today.


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The overwhelming success of the self-help genre keeps the otherwise irrational business model of book publishing solvent. Soft pink paperbacks promise to help women get over all kinds of man-shaped problems, ranging from child molestation to infidelity to domestic violence.

Dating books are no different. I’ve read now dozens. They range from regressive tutorials teaching women how to eat shit to the relatively kinder entreaties for women to scale back on their shit-eating.

But most dating books strive — like the Democratic Party —for something in between, encouraging and even celebrating moderate shit consumption across pages of useless platitudes that distract you from the striking absence of substance. These books — quite like experts employed by the Democratic Party — help reinforce an immoral imbalance of power by reminding you that your options aren’t so bad and that, besides, have you stopped to consider that what you’re asking for is too much? Maybe it’s not capitalism, imperialism or masculinity that are wrong. Have you ever stopped to think that maybe it’s you, stupid?

Have you even seen all the movies written and directed by men about men in their relentless pursuit to impress other men? I bet you haven’t seen half of them. Maybe if you took more of an interest in the things men like, you wouldn’t be single, alone, crying into your coffee at this Barnes and Noble again. Find more abuse like this in Stop Being Such a Weepy Pig: A Man’s Inside Scoop on What’s Wrong With Single Women Today, $21.99/$22.99 in Canada

The other imperative these books give women is to “put yourself out there.” Honestly, is there any advice more vacuous? You’ll never meet a guy holing up in your apartment. Go outside, you lazy bean burrito. Find this tip and not much else more in How To Land the Man of Your Dreams in 30 Days Or Less, $13.99/$15.99 in Canada.

While we’re putting ourselves in the “out there,” we’re told to give all dudes a chance as if none of us has a frightful backstory bearing evidence as to why this isn’t a good idea. Even my therapist is guilty of pushing me too hard to give more men in New York the benefit of the doubt. You’d think he of all people would know better since it’s his job to listen to me describe every week the luck I’ve had so far with giving men the benefit of the doubt.

At some point, I think a lot of women get the idea that nothing you have to say about your own dating experience really matters. The message sinks in slowly, over years, that women’s dating pain isn’t really a subject that the experts seem to care about. Obviously, if modern dating culture tortures the female heart, their answer is to just keep doing it.

Or just stop forever, I guess. Die alone. See if anyone cares.

Look, do women ever get to admit that dating is not a fun place to be?


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“Why do young women have sex with men they don’t want to have?” is a question that begs another question: “How has men telling their female peers for the first decade of their adult lives that they aren’t ready for commitment affected women’s self-worth and thus their ability to set sexual boundaries with men?”

This is the crux of my argument here. There’s a clear line connecting modern dating to the pervasiveness of sexual misconduct. But in order for me to walk that line, I have to dispense with a some requisite caveats:

First: obviously consent is important. At no point should this debate ever regress back to a point where we’re relitigating the morality of rape. If a woman says no (or is too incapacitated to speak) and you keep pushing her for sex, you are rapist scum and you should see about getting your dick kicked in by a horse.

Second: lots of women do actually adore casual sex. Plenty of women out there are eager to beaver on the first date, no strings attached, no last names needed. They are out to say yes to the undress. God bless them.

Third: there are lots of men who want relationships and, too, feel alienated by the shallow, transactional character of modern dating.

Satisfied? Feel recognized? Great. Moving on.

Erica Jong is widely cited for her neologism of the “zipless fuck,” the classic example given of casual sex where, satisfied with the carnal embrace, partners require nothing further from each other.

It’s cited so often in sex lit because it describes what many think of when they think of casual sex. Two people meet, copulate, and take off in opposite directions. Their lifelines don’t knot together into an emotional mess for six months of “are we or aren’t we?” It’s hermetic, modern and mess-free like McDonald’s apple slices sealed in a tiny plastic bag.

If modern sexual interaction can be this simple, then modernity apparently demands that it should always be this simple. Giddily implied in our age of Bumble and Tinder is that we’re all DTF — dating to fuck. Ask a married man over 50 how millennials date these days and you’ll likely be absolutely disgusted.

But ask a bunch of millennial women (those who are now between the ages of 25 and 35) honestly what they want from their dating lives and it turns out most don’t want anything approximating the zipless fuck. When you ask a bunch of women for an honest account of their sexual history, most will tell you that such episodes are infrequent and rare.

Most leading relationship experts find that straight women most often prefer to feel emotional connection and safety with their partner before they can feel the desire for sex. This bore out in my research, as well. Most single women rejected the prospects of one-night stands and anonymous sex entirely. More than two-thirds said they generally avoid having casual sex; nearly four out of five said that at this time in their lives, they would prefer to be having sex in the context of a committed partnership.

But — disturbingly — not wanting to have casual sex isn’t the same thing as not actually having casual sex.

In a chapter I called “Fucking Hell,” I wracked my brain trying to explain how it is that so many single women who said they did not really want to be having sex outside of relationships so often did. Now, the vast majority of these sexual encounters were consensual. The problem was they happened in a context women weren’t thrilled to find themselves in. What I tried to make space for in this chapter was a frank exploration of the emotional distress women experience when navigating sexuality in the ambiguous gray area of dating, when relationship status is still a question waiting for an answer.

If mutual enthusiastic consent is the endgoal of this conversation, then it’s important to note that rarely do women feel an opportunity to express explicit consent to the sexual arrangement between partners while dating. The context is implicitly casual, non-commital, no strings until the subject of strings is broached, most likely by the man.

Because woe be to she who would try to make contextual consent explicit with: “So — where is this going?”

Apparently, a good number of women think that any talk of their feelings, desires and expectations are subjects best left unsaid while dating. Broaching them too soon, many believed, would risk being read as a hysterical stereotype, a woman incapable of playing it cool while our young male hero makes up his mind about whether or not he’s actually into you.

It’s not that women don’t want to talk about what they want. It’s that they feel they can’t.

And in this way, dating for many women quickly stops feeling like a fun place to be and quickly starts feeling like interminable probation. Date nights start feeling like a series of auditions for the role of girlfriend, performed for the benefit of a judge who ultimately determines whether or not his commitment is on the table.

Until then, the implicit terms of dating are that it’s supposed to be casual, implicitly a fun place to be, even if it’s not in reality.

So this is how we end up with an absurd etiquette of heterosexual dating where lots of incredibly smart women navigate sexuality with this unshakable idea that what they want from dating is an afterthought, second in importance to keeping things casual. Because more important than sharing how you really feel is pretending that you don’t.

And unfortunately, when she reaches a point when she can no longer stay in character, when the implicit demands of the role become straining, she asks the director where this thing is going, and too often walks out in tears. But not before she’s implicitly consented to several weeks of ambiguously contextualized sex on his casting couch in an interminably long audition for a part in his personal rendition of I Have No Idea What I Want Right Now.

And weirdly enough, this is seen as the natural order of things. That this is an observable pattern where women suppress their own needs and desires to keep up the expected pretense of casual insouciance seems almost irrelevant. That women should experience such predictable pains while dating is seen as par for the course.

After all, you don’t want to scare the guy, do you?

Keep putting yourself out there.

That’s just how it is.


At what point do you ever get to admit that you aren’t having fun?

Everywhere, people are caught in man-made nets of bad ideas. White Supremacy? Terrible idea. Capitalism? Tosh. Fascism. No.

So Patriarchy? Can we not yet all agree that it’s been quite a shitty time for women for some time now?

And so if you start from that premise, might you then ask how patriarchy being a bit of a shit time for women might affect their experience of sexuality?

Or are we going to keep pretending that sexual relations between men and women have somehow been equalized in the celebrated era of the zipless fuck?

One of the most obvious ways patriarchy constrains women’s sexuality is the subconscious belief espoused by virtually everyone that what single women want out of sex, dating and love doesn’t really matter, or least matters less than other things. When society deems our needs and desires inconvenient, they’re so readily dismissed as the aftereffects of Disney brainwashing or daddy issues or reproductive drives or evolutionary psychology or whatever it is these days that powerful men yell down from dude mountain to explain us to ourselves lately. The sum of it serves to remind us that what we want isn’t a priority.

If our desires diverge from factory settings, then we’re entitled princesses too precious to live in this world — a world, the last time I checked, is still very much made in man’s image; I don’t recall being asked for input in how this sausage factory runs.

I suspect men reading this are now at the point where they want to chime in with their own experiences and opinions on the power dynamics of coupling, especially where they contradict my account. They want, desperately, to have their side of their story told, too. And to be honest, all of that does have a place in the conversation. I interviewed men, too. It’s not like I didn’t think at all about how the casualization of intimacy can break the male heart, too.

But I didn’t feel like writing about men right now. Does that matter? It’s my fucking blog, after all.

Besides, the reason I’m writing this at all is because I read through a lot of men’s responses to the Aziz Ansari story. I came away feeling like the pat takeaway for many was the idea of contractual consent = good, rape = bad. Many men framed sexual consent as a private negotiation, a contract negotiated by two parties afforded equal rights and privileges. I saw men pitching phone apps that would lock in a partner’s consent so as to leave a legally binding papertrail. Men were literally congratulating themselves on gaming the moral and ethical concept of consent, their eyes getting twinkly with the batshit idea that this is the million-dollar idea they were born to develop.

All of this is so far from getting it that if getting it were the moon, this trajectory has us crash landing into the sea.

Why is it so hard for men to acknowledge that sexual liberation never actually freed women? That our sexuality remains bound still by so many other man-made knots that it will take a great deal more effort than the offer of a zipless fuck to untangle us?

No small part of the reason why dating sucks for women is that we’re paradoxically expected to be both defensive and open, hopeful but guarded, grounded but optimistic. We’re told by books, magazines and movies that men don’t want what we want so in order to find what we want, we have to jettison our expectations and lower our standards, the sooner the better. Because you’re not getting any younger. Geez, you selfish git. Why didn’t you just leave? Give every guy a chance. God, go put yourself out there.

And then if we’re confused by how any of this is liberation, then it’s because we’re not as liberated as men think we should be by now.

It stopped being surprising to me that this story keeps happening. I defended my dissertation with the conclusion that the modern etiquette of heterosexual dating demands that single women seeking partnership, intimacy and, yes, marriage and family, must first willingly navigate sexual conditions tilted far from their favor. That bad things might happen in this space is then viewed as normal, seen as par for the course.

It’s all our fault anyway, isn’t it? Is it not our national pasttime to ascertain exactly how women are personally responsible for all the man-shaped unpleasantness that should ever darken their doorstep? I’m sure there’s a book to help you get over it. Maybe you’ll meet a guy at the library who can help you reach it!

But in the absence of our everyday nightmares being heard, we make pieces about a bad fuck buddies and vulvodynia into viral sensations. We share pieces about other women’s pain as the proxy for our own, as if to whisper behind our private screens: “me, too.”

Which, I’ve decided and at this point maybe you have, too: this is not a fun place to be.

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