Today I am thinking about all the times I have watched friends squirm and look away from me as they tell me about the date that “did not go great”.
“I didn’t really want to, but I did anyway because I felt bad.”
“I gave in eventually.”
“I didn’t really want to, but I think he had a gun.”
In the age of #MeToo, we are getting better at holding people accountable and enforcing the idea that “no” means “no”. It is easy to look at some cases of sexual assault and see the line that was crossed, the way the victim was ignored, forced, etc.
However, we are having trouble with the fact that it is not just “no” that means “no”.
Early this year, news broke that Aziz Ansari had a sexual encounter with a woman who claimed he was aggressive and ignored her discomfort. The story was met with backlash as people insisted that what happened with Aziz Ansari was a normal case of miscommunication. She did not say "no", so how could he possibly know she did not want him?
In an opinion piece for The New York Times, Bari Weiss expressed that the situation was “a lousy romantic encounter” that many women could relate to, but not an example of sexual violence. Further, she argued that “it is time for women to be more verbal”. This is a reasonable sentiment: women should feel empowered to say what they are feeling, to stand up and leave as Weiss suggests Ansari’s date should have done. Why not just say "no"?
Yet, there are plenty of reasons women and men do not speak up. We live in a world in which sexual violence is reported every day. The American Psychological Association reports that “74 percent of all murder-suicides involved an intimate partner...Of these, 96 percent were women killed by their intimate partners”. In 2014, a sixteen-year old girl in Milford, Connecticut was stabbed to death on school grounds because she said "no" when a boy asked her to the prom. A few weeks ago, I wrote an article on Incels, an online assembly of men, many of whom believe women should be forced to have sex with them and punished if they will not.
Why not just say no? Because there is a tangible fear of retaliation.
It is no longer enough to teach young people that they simply need a “yes”. In fact, some think that looking for “consent” is about the lowest bar we can set for sexual encounters. It is common for young people in particular to pressure one another into saying "yes", and ignoring their partners’ non-verbal signs of discomfort. Lisa Damour of The New York Times suggests that “so long as we normalize mere consent as an acceptable standard for sexual engagement” then instances of coercion and thus, regret, will remain commonplace. Instead of “yes” we should all be looking for enthusiastic agreement, which includes a pressure-free verbal “yes” and excited body language. We need to teach young people that sex is better when everyone actively wants to participate.
The Ansari situation began an interesting conversation about the sexual politics of the modern world. Ansari was guilty of something many people have done and experienced, but that does not make his actions acceptable. We need to set a new standard for consent and encourage the idea that we are all responsible for being in tune with our partners’ body language, as well as listening to and respecting them when they say "no" the first time.
Emma Ragusa is a Copy Editor for The Rational Creature.