One night in September 2017, a woman we know as “Grace” went on a date with actor and writer Aziz Ansari. The evening has been rehashed and disputed many times over since it took place; now, in the quiet that follows, what can we say we’ve learned? What we know for certain is that if Ansari weren’t famous, if Babe.net hadn’t gone after Grace’s story, and if we weren’t living through the public reckoning that is the #MeToo movement, this simply would have been another bad date in the litany of bad dates women have endured for years, with Grace’s pleasure disregarded and consent assumed due to the fact that she agreed to the date and let him pay.
“Apparently there is a whole country full of young women who don’t know how to call a cab,” wrote Caitlin Flanagan for The Atlantic, whose “hot take” — though it’s one I fundamentally disagree with — illustrates an opinion shared by many, which is that #MeToo has now crossed the threshold into hysteria, with women equating Ansari’s aggressive sexual overtures with the repeated, systemic, and career-destroying sexual assaults perpetrated by people like Harvey Weinstein. The argument was a red herring that pulled many into a semantic argument. As Samantha Bee put it: “We know the difference between a rapist, a workplace harasser and an Aziz Ansari, but that doesn’t mean we have to be happy about any of them.”
So the conversation following Babe.net’s story, which could have centered on the nuances of consent, became a debate about what does and doesn’t constitute a sexual crime. But there are other parts of this worth digging into, like the intricacies of gender power dynamics, the unbalanced ways we teach and talk about pleasure and consent, the experiences — from confusing to dehumanizing to traumatizing — we’ve tucked away as a result of our sexually illiterate culture, and our collective language that defines “bad sex” for men as “sex in which my orgasm did not arrive at the proper time or with the most pleasing velocity.” “Bad sex” for women, meanwhile, is defined as sex that ranges from an indifferent partner to one who systematically hacks away at their defenses until they’re too exhausted to do anything but submit.
The #MeToo movement was founded by Tarana Burke to empower and give voice to the survivors of sexual crimes. Thankfully, and unsurprisingly, it has incited a broader cultural conversation. That conversation has launched an overdue reckoning, one that means coming to grips not only with the terrifying pervasiveness of sexual assault, but also the kind of sex we have to steel ourselves through — the kind we’d never call assault but would also rather forget — and all the toxic mechanisms that make that kind of sex universal. In addition to discussing the legal trespassing of our bodies, we are also now addressing the emotional trespassing — what Rebecca Traister defined as “a vast expanse of bad sex — joyless, exploitative encounters that reflect a persistently sexist culture and can be hard to acknowledge without sounding prudish,” sex that leaves young women “wondering why they feel so fucked by fucking.”
But as the counterproductive noise following Grace’s story has proven, now is the moment we need to ask: what is the best way to talk about bad sex?
Don’t Call it a “Gray Area”
Our need to create some sort of “continuum of trauma” is understandable — giving a thing a name is one of the ways we try to understand our world — but our fumbling attempts to “grade” sexual assault could actually be contributing to the problem.
“I think it is incredibly important to keep the idea of what we’re talking about broad,” says Gina Scaramella, executive director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC). “Calling [Ansari’s reported behavior] a ‘gray area’ minimizes it, rather than calling it what it is: manipulative, coercive and aggressive.”
Our tendency to play down sexually coercive behavior contributes to a culture in which survivors end up shouldering the blame. “So many of the people who call our hotline feel the need to apologize,” Scaramella says, “to say that what they experienced wasn’t that bad. Survivors feel like they didn’t do enough, weren’t smart enough, that because what they went through wasn’t ‘rape’ as they understand it, they should have been able to fight back. This language just serves the status quo, and it is a mask for problematic behavior that needs to get addressed if we want to develop a better understanding of sexual dynamics.”
Consent Is Complicated
That said, when it comes to consent specifically, acknowledging supposed “gray areas” — or, better put, the spectrum across which unwanted sexual behavior exists — might help the law catch up. Sexual assault laws vary from state to state. The most progressive, like the “Yes Means Yes” law in California, look for “affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity,” while in Mississippi, a claim of sexual battery requires proof that the perpetrator was intending to rape; indeed “rape” itself is still defined as the intent to “forcibly ravish any female of previously chaste character.” Jeannie Suk Gersen, the John H. Watson Jr. professor of law at Harvard Law School, says consent is becoming more of a touchstone in legal assessments: “The idea that someone needs to be physically forced has been de-emphasized when considering whether [an encounter] was an assault,” she says.
Using consent (as opposed to force) as the litmus test is certainly a more nuanced way of looking at sexual assault; it isn’t, however, necessarily more straightforward.
“What the courts are grappling with now is how we define consent,” says Gersen. “Some of those definitions are veering toward the idea that someone has to say or indicate ‘no,’ and others veer more toward a positive agreement, which could be verbal or nonverbal. Some statutes for college campuses require verbal consent given at every stage, but even that is difficult to resolve. Does one kiss count? The second kiss? Touching an arm?”
Subjectivity complicates matters further: What is coercive to one party may have seemed consensual to the other. “The internal feeling of coercion may not actually mean that the other person is trying to coerce,” says Gersen, “especially in cases where there is an imbalance of power. The law recognizes that two people can have very different subjective experiences, so the debate becomes whose subjectivity to recognize.” And while this is blisteringly difficult to negotiate, it is necessary — anyone who cares about due process understands that intention has to matter in a court of law. “If you hit someone with your car,” says Gersen, “it matters to our legal system if you intended to kill or if you were just being negligent. And it should.”
But the legal system is not currently designed to empower victims of sexual assault, nor is it entirely reliable. According to RAINN, six out of 100 rape cases will result in jail time. “It’s a false narrative, this idea that if it was ‘real’ rape, serious and forcible, then it will be punished,” says Scaramella. “Even if you have physical evidence and the victim is the ‘perfect’ victim and the offender is the ‘perfect’ offender, these cases rarely result in a conviction.”
The More Conversation, the Better
What the pundits and critics who rail against the excesses of the #MeToo movement don’t seem to realize is that when it comes to issues of sexual consent, any conversation is good conversation. BARCC has reported a 34% increase in hotline volume, an indication that more individuals are comfortable coming forward. “Our job is to say [all claims of assault] are worthy,” says Scaramella. “It’s all part of the same risk areas, areas of social change and social norms that need to get addressed, advancements around equality that need to get talked about.”
Gersen agrees. “What we’ve got now is the perfect storm of controversy on a really, really important social issue that we need to get more savvy about. The tools are there for us to put something together that reflects our social conscience about what is proper and fair — it’s just a matter of us working it out. It’s going to be a painful process, but it is a process.”
The Value of Talking About Bad Sex
When I think about “bad sex,” I think about the five years I spent single in New York, the men I met and went home with. I think about the moments I realized that our expectations of the night had diverged and that the effort required to extract myself seemed exhausting, risking violence at worst, annoyance at best. Allowing the act to take place would be easier, making whatever noises and contortions would get him off fastest. It’s a strange kind of detachment, unsettling and sad, to look up at a man and realize he has no idea you’re there. It was sex that looked nothing like what I wanted, but I didn’t know how to ask for what I did want or how to say no. It is not an experience I would wish on anyone, and yet it was what I came to think of as ordinary.
Sure, sexual violence may not be eliminated by a more nuanced and open conversation around consent, power and pleasure, but that doesn’t mean the conversation isn’t critically important. There’s no reason to wait for more Graces to tell their stories or more famous men to fall. This conversation is long overdue. As Emma Gray wrote in The Huffington Post, “[Bad sex] is a kind of sex that is not only worth talking about, but necessary to talk about. Behavior need not fall under the legal definition of sexual assault or rape to be wrong or violating or upsetting. And when nearly every woman I’ve spoken to about the Aziz Ansari story follows up our conversation with a similar story of her own, it’s worth thinking about why that is.”
Collages by Louisiana Mei Gelpi. Photos by Fairfax Media via Getty Images