Pop Stuff: Consenting Adults
Honest conversation is the best step we can take going forward
One #MeToo tale after another has ensured that workplace sexual abuse is no longer a dirty little secret. But the Tale of Aziz and Grace, a departure from the narrative, receded from the spotlight after an initial media frenzy. In January, Aziz Ansari made headlines when a 23-year-old photographer, going by the alias Grace, recounted a date with him to the website babe.net, which resulted in a consensual but discomfiting sexual encounter. The Internet responded swiftly to classify a story deemed frivolous by some in the face of the movement’s fight to end abuse at work. But opinions ran the gamut: an irresponsible piece of journalism, Aziz can’t publicly claim feminism and privately behave boorishly, Grace was reckless in publicizing a ‘bad date,’ she empowered feminists by speaking out, she diminished feminism by not walking out. Aziz should have known better. Grace should have known better.
Unlike the loud and clear message of #MeToo, this story was as messy as sex on a first date. Eventually the public conversation shifted back. Over one third of women worldwide experience abuse so our current reckoning is devastatingly unsurprising. But given that significantly more women have had a sexual encounter that they didn’t truly want, where a tentative yes shrouded a repressed no, the question of why consent is confusing deserves a discourse as prominent the one we are having about abuse.
Women have always had to walk a fine line between agency and currency when it comes to our bodies. The economy tells us we are worth less than men, biology tells us that we’re on a countdown to reproduction and society tells us that without marriage and children we are pariahs. ‘Just saying no’ is encumbered in liberated societies where female CEOs and freezing eggs are commonplace and fully loaded in ones where women are routinely married off. Add to this that in most scenarios men are more powerful than women. Even a faint threat of physical dominance or a tinge of insecurity over what you lose by saying no means yes feels palatable for reasons that have nothing to do with desire. To cap, femininity’s demands are at odds with ‘no:’ be nice, smile, don’t make things awkward.
If true agency is fraught for women, empathy isn’t a cakewalk for men. Often, machismo is a virtue and sensitivity a vulnerability. The onus is predominantly on women to say yes or no because the onus is equally on men to make the moves. And once in the chase, if men have trouble reading the signals pointing to NO, the fact that romantic heroes from Ryan Gosling in The Notebook to every Bollywood Romeo that Shah Rukh Khan has played, ignore hints in the name of passion, indicate that pop culture isn’t doing us any favors. And that’s before we get to the problem with porn.
If society isn’t set up for sexual encounters to feel positive, we need bring the consent discussion out of the condom drawer. We talk to children about the birds and the bees and we talk to victims about abuse but we shy away from talking to each other about what makes sex awkward or regrettable. Instead of avoiding the muddy conversation around consent, we should get our hands dirty to keep our consciences clean. The idea that sex can’t be detrimental if it’s consensual and only warrants critique if its assault belongs in the past with the corsets and the dueling pistols.
The author is a film producer and journalist, and a former hedge fund COO. Twitter: @soleilnathwani