The Complexity of Consent

Our understanding of sexual assault is complicated by social discourse that is more progressive than our interpersonal experiences. The Aziz Ansari allegations—and the ensuing backlash—give us all a chance to take stock and catch up.

Wearing a Time’s Up pin, Aziz Ansari accepts a Golden Globe award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series — Musical or Comedy award for ‘Master of None.’ [The Hollywood Reporter / NBC]

One of the scariest moments of my life was deciding to leave a sexual encounter. It lasted just seconds: I gathered my things, walked toward the bedroom door, and was physically stopped by the man’s outstretched arm — a strong, military-trained arm. Before I could process my options, I pushed his arm away and rushed out of the room.

As I walked out, I tried not to think of what might have happened if he didn’t let me go. His dense, muscular arm was more than capable of overpowering me. And if I’d hesitated a second more, I might have decided to stay and have sex with him to, for all I knew, save my own life. Would that make the sex consensual?

I thought of this experience (and many others) while reading about “Grace” and her alleged sexual encounter with Aziz Ansari (her name was changed in the story). The sloppily reported account is graphic and uncomfortable, and it’s an acutely familiar description of what happens when two people’s expectations are wildly mismatched. It’s also what happens when men and women operate under completely different paradigms of romantic pursuit. Apart from a few nuanced opinions, the public is taking sides in this extremely personal and humiliating encounter. On one hand, Ansari is “the fucking same” as all men who think they’re entitled to women’s bodies; on the other, Grace is a silly millennial who doesn’t “know how to call a cab.

Both of these are true within the standards we’ve come to accept as normal. But that doesn’t mean they’re right, nor should they continue to be normal.

(For the sake of argument and to speak more assuredly from my own experience, the following regards heterosexual relationships.)

Where Consent Falls Short

Through a confluence of feminism, financial independence, and free love, we’ve arrived to a point where women can have all the sex we want — as long as we’re okay with paying a lot more than men for birth control, having our sex lives scrutinized when we’re sexually assaulted, and only occasionally getting off. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and within the patriarchal social economy, the cost of women’s sexual liberation has been acquiescence to male desires—up to, and occasionally including, marital rape.

Given this history, it’s no surprise that the way we talk about consent oversimplifies what happens in real life. Of course, no means no (sort of). But we can’t Just Say No unwanted sex away; it didn’t work for D.A.R.E., and it won’t work to prevent sexual assault and the less severe sexual indignities women so often endure. This is largely because generations of men have been taught to see “no” as a brief stop on the way to “yes,” and because generations of women have been conditioned to please and support men, sexually and otherwise.

As a result, we are painfully aware of the potentially dangerous consequences of noncompliance. Especially as young women, the mental gymnastics we do to gauge our willingness to engage in sexual activity often render us mute. Rather than appear prude or rude or risk physical harm, we go through the motions to get it over with.

This pantomime is perfectly illustrated by Cat Person, the viral short story in which a young woman does just that. Deciding she no longer wants to have sex but feeling she’s gone too far to say no, the protagonist mentally vacates her body while her date finishes the deed. Little did we know the ensuing debate — Was she assaulted? Why didn’t she just leave? — would be revisited in regards to Grace’s and Ansari’s allegedly real-life experience.

Master of Woke Baes

Until this past weekend, no bae was more woke than Aziz Ansari. He shamed “creepy men” in his 2015 standup special—a refreshing approach in a notoriously misogynistic space—and he even wrote a book guiding a generation of digital natives through Modern Romance. And in Master of None, his objectively excellent Netflix series, he tells nuanced stories about women and people of color that other storytellers have previously neglected. In fact, there is a storyline in which Dev—the semi-autobiographical protagonist played by Ansari—finds himself unwittingly promoting a television show with Chef Jeff, his cohost who’s been accused of sexual harassment.

A still from the episode of ‘Master of None’ in which Dev, Aziz’s Anzari’s character, publicly finds out that his “BFF” cohost Chef Jeff (Bobby Canavale) was accused of “sexually inappropriate conduct.” [BuzzFeed/Master of None/Netflix].

The episode was funny, resonant, and eerily prescient. And yet, if Grace’s babe account is true, Ansari clearly shares a blindspot with so many men and women who otherwise bask in the glow of Twitter feminism while inadvertently perpetuating sexism. Especially in the age of social media, social discourse progresses much faster in theory than it does in our daily lives. We cosign feminist ideas without fully understanding what they mean in practice, and we demand that others do the same. Believing women sounds great until a good friendor you — are accused of sexual assault, and you have to confront the searing reality that we’re all at least a part of the problem.

While it is far from my place to assume Ansari’s thought process in the unfortunate babe story, I doubt he meant harm by his actions. In fact, I can sympathize with him: I think a lot of people (myself included) have made similarly embarrassing and potentially harmful mistakes under the influences of alcohol, insecurity, and the desire for intimacy. Unless additional similar—or worse—accusations arise against him, it’s just bad luck that Ansari is the fall guy for something most heterosexual people have experienced. But with his Designated Woke Bae status, I trust he can lead the way in guiding men through the much needed introspection about what constitutes a “normal” sexual experience.

Step one is taking the onus off of women to walk the line between having an unwanted sexual encounter and angering a man, lest she end up professionally compromised, hurt, or killed. It’s emotional labor that often leads to complicated, uncomfortable situations like the one recounted to babe. Men should enter sexual encounters with women knowing that hesitant participation may be a defense mechanism; we may think you will literally kill us if we say no. You should act accordingly. And we should all adopt a standard of enthusiastic consent: Yes means yes.

From there, redefining “normal,” consensual, equitable sex is going to take a mental shift from all of us: Time really is up, and it’s time we all buy in.