When news broke last weekend about Aziz Ansari taking a young photographer named “Grace” out on a date that “turned into the worst night of [her] life,” it wasn’t anger that was the dominant emotion among readers. Unlike the sexual harassment accusations against Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK, and Kevin Spacey, the Aziz and Grace story—how he wined and dined with her after meeting at an awards show, how he brought her back to his place, engaged in some sexual activity, and repeatedly badgered her to go further despite her earlier protests, until she had to leave his apartment in tears, sobbing in the back of an Uber—didn’t inspire a prevalent, clear-cut rage as much as a conflicted, burrowing discomfort. A day later, Ansari released a statement, saying he thought everything was okay that night, and upon learning from Grace that it wasn’t, felt “surprised and concerned.”
The spectrum of male reactions ran the gamut from bewildered to defensive to vengeful. “So bad dates are headlines now?” a lot of you asked, some mockingly, some genuinely confused. Many of you cried foul at the sheer number of disgraced men—and over the fact that the #MeToo movement, a continuing battle against sexual misconduct, harassment, and assault, has turned into a witch hunt, where a single injustice against a woman can ruin a man’s career and reputation forever.
I think what a lot of you are, actually, is worried.
Grace’s story wasn’t rape. There was no violence involved. It was a bad sexual encounter, one that wasn’t pleasurable for a number of reasons—but does that really merit a crucifixion this massive, this public? Maybe your mind is drifting back to the women you’ve slept with who may have the same story to tell about you. Maybe you’re wondering if an offensive remark or a dumb gesture you made carelessly in your past is considered harassment, and if it will come back to haunt you one day and destroy everything you’ve built. Maybe you’re just trying to figure out why, seemingly out of nowhere, women are openly, audaciously talking about bad sex. Grace did it. Essayist Ella Dawson did it, defining bad sex as “the sex we have that we don’t want to have but consent to anyway.” Fiction writer Kristen Roupenian did it, in a viral short story for The New Yorker called “Cat Person,” a cringe-inducing, nails-on-chalkboard gut-wrenching, painfully detailed fictional account of a romp gone wrong.
It’s not that women are suddenly dissatisfied. It’s just that, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, we’re realizing that we deserve not to be. We’re realizing that we deserve so much more than sex that’s “technically” consensual. That when we say no, but you keep on insisting yes that we are forced to say fine, that’s not okay. That there are layers upon layers of gray areas to the conversation on consent and coercion that we need to explore.
What a lot of us are, too, is worried.
We’re worried that this excerpt from Roupenian’s story, despite being fiction, rings excruciatingly true:
“Looking at him like that, so awkwardly bent, his belly thick and soft and covered with hair, Margot recoiled. But the thought of what it would take to stop what she had set in motion was overwhelming; it would require an amount of tact and gentleness that she felt was impossible to summon. It wasn’t that she was scared he would try to force her to do something against her will but that insisting that they stop now, after everything she’d done to push this forward, would make her seem spoiled and capricious, as if she’d ordered something at a restaurant and then, once the food arrived, had changed her mind and sent it back.”
We’re worried about all the times we say yes when what we really mean, deep down inside, is no. And we’re worried about all the reasons behind it: because we’re seeking your approval and attention, or because we’re in your room and our clothes are off and we’ve already kissed and it’s too late to back out, or because we don't want to hurt your feelings or make you mad, or because we don't want to be called a tease, or because we’re afraid you’ll look for it elsewhere.
So much of this is ingrained in us that it’s hard to change our minds about it—something we need to do before we change your minds. But by continuing to talk about the expectations we no longer want to fulfill, we’re giving you the opportunity to rethink the sexual perceptions and expectations of men as well: that, like Ansari, all men are perverse, horny, pushy creatures who don’t know how to pause and listen. That you’re selfish and insensitive; that sex is all you’re ever interested in. By continuing to talk about bad sex, we’re learning about the things we do and don’t like, and learning how to communicate this to you in better, clearer, kinder, more responsible ways, both in and out of the bedroom.
We’re learning that when sex is more than just “technically” consensual on both sides, that when it’s more pleasure than pressure, everyone wins. And nobody is left crying in the back of an Uber at the end of the night, careening towards an endless cycle of discontent where no one is ever willing to let the other—ahem—come first.