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Consent is just the Baseline: Emotional Labor, Pleasure, and Coercive, Shitty Sex

Last weekend, I was at the beach with my family. It was a trip to celebrate my mother’s birthday, falling at the end of the first year after my dad (her husband of 40 years) died. On the first morning, a family member told me they’d brought hits of MDA for everyone. I didn’t have any interest in doing MDA with my family. But instead of an unambiguous, Nancy-Regan-inspired no, I phrased my refusal this way:

“Uh. I’m on Wellbutrin. So. I think there’s side effects? I mean, I guess I could look it up. But probably not.”

I am 36 years old, a lawyer, a mother, and, as it turns out, still a woman that was raised to feel responsible for other people’s feelings. No matter how much therapy I’ve had (a lot!) or how much feminism I preach (a lot!) or how much I’ve read (you get it) I’m still a person that has a hard time defining my boundaries, especially when my boundaries are going to be unpleasant, disappointing or frustrating for someone else.

The young woman’s account of her date with Aziz Ansari, especially in light of this #MeToo moment, has brought a stickier situation to the fore. Coercive sex or sexual contact is difficult to define. It is precisely because these sort of encounters are so common that we need to start talking about them. We need to do a better job, as a culture, of defining what decent sex looks like, and how it’s different from coercive sex.

Coercive sex is the hardest kind to explain to people who weren’t there. Every situation has its own particular power differentials. In the case of Aziz Ansari and the young woman who spoke to Babe, we’re talking about giant gaps in age, status, and economics. Each one of these things on their own can provide fertile ground for coercion. But frustratingly, a lot of the commentary seems to be reflecting on what the young woman should have done differently instead of why she responded as she did, and more importantly, what Ansari should have done differently.

The young woman explains that she wanted to leave but didn’t quite know how. The reason she didn’t know how is both because of her own personal narrative (which I know nothing about) and a cultural narrative that I am intimately familiar with. She has been told in a hundred thousand ways that she is supposed to be “nice,” and avoid hurting other people’s feelings. If she does hurt someone’s feelings, it’s her job to make them feel better. In sexual encounters, it’s her job to do the emotional labor of soothing a jilted lover’s ego, particularly if she still wants that person to like her (even if they aren’t going to remain lovers). Unlike many of the Harvey Weinstein encounters, this young woman doesn’t hate Ansari or find him disgusting (at least she didn’t at the beginning of the date). She wants to like him, or at least leave the encounter on friendly terms. In this way, her task is more complicated; she’s supposed to say no in a way that is both unambiguous and kind. Unambiguous so that Ansari will understand she doesn’t want to have sex with him. Kind so that he doesn’t hate her.

Back at the beach, my family member asked me three more times if I wanted to do the MDA. I am on much surer footing with my own family than this woman was with Ansari. I know my family will still love me if I say no. And still, I found that unambiguous no impossible. Instead I just kept avoiding the question, being indirect, skating away. And I made it out of the weekend sober, while this young woman made it out of the Ansari situation in a much less composed state. Both of us had to gently and firmly sidestep our way out of a coercive situation. I think sex (and drugs for that matter) would be a lot better if we stopped thinking about consent as a green light that magically erases everything that came before the yes.

Sex should be consensual at the very bare minimum. It’s a floor, not a ceiling. Lots of sex people consent to is shitty (meaning, awkward or not fun). Some of the sex people consent to is coercive. I know feminists and sex educators have talked for years about “enthusiastic consent,” but people are still fixated on the word “consent.” Instead of focusing so hard on consent, maybe it’s time we talked about pleasure.

Mutual pleasure, not consent, should be the goal of all sex and sexual encounters. In order to shift to a pleasure paradigm, we need to talk early and often about sexual reciprocity and communication. We need to expand our ideas about what sex is, and what it can be. Pleasure isn’t always about orgasm**. It’s a concept that stretches beyond the black and white spectrum of who came and who didn’t, or who said yes and who said no.

Particularly when the power imbalance favors you (as it did Ansari in this scenario), moving the bar from mere consent to the other person’s pleasure is important (and potentially career-saving). And sure, people will still have shitty sex. But it’s possible that the truly coercive encounters would become less and less common, or even disappear entirely, if the parties with the power decided to use the other person’s pleasure as their green light, instead of the other person’s harangued, beleaguered, or barely whispered “yes.”

**I feel it’s important to point out that pleasure is a much broader concept than orgasm, though it’s related. Many people have had the experience of a lover insisting that they orgasm, as though the evidence that he came/she came is the panacea to anything shitty that happened previously. Also some bodies respond to abuse or rape with orgasm or other signs of being turned on. This can complicate the victim’s feelings about the encounter, and cause immense shame.

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