I’m going to hark back to my last point and simultaneously foreshadow the next one with a quotation from Justin Myers (yes, a man, writing for GQ, a men’s magazine) criticising the status quo in attitudes towards male sexual behaviour:
‘Consent is seen as something to be tangibly and forcibly withheld, not asked for – we pretend men don’t have to check themselves or read the room; it’s up to his partner to stop them, tell them no, move away from them, leave if possible.’
Actually, let’s make that three or four quotations, just because it’s so good to hear this – that is, what some women have been saying for ages – coming from a man:
‘We say things like “he lost his cool” when they kill, or “he misread the signals” when they coerce; we put it down to a force of nature. We’re saying guys need solid, firm instruction on how to behave sexually, because otherwise they might “accidentally” rape you, and that would be your fault. The victim must do all the groundwork, the soul searching afterward; they’re the ones who must try to stay out of danger, rather than chastise the men creating it in the first place.’
Myers is a man (so this can’t simply be dismissed as an unreasonable female expectation) and he doesn’t think that men are incapable of reading other people’s signals:
‘Don’t pretend you haven’t noticed their body language just because it’s inconvenient for you to do so right now.’
‘When a man does something wrong, it’s interpreted as he forgot himself, he just couldn’t help his natural impulses, and I think that’s a load of shit. I think a man does know better. … honestly, I can’t say that I’ve misread a signal for longer than a millisecond. You can tell yourself you’ve misread it, but really you just don’t want to believe the signal.’
(Man-to-mansplaining does have its place, when so many men refuse to listen to women.)
Myers is making two points here:
- That men can actually read their partners’ signals, but choose to ignore them because would be inconvenient to take notice. (The point of my last post.)
- That we make women responsible for avoiding male misbehaviour: otherwise known as ‘victim blaming’ … yes, yes, it’s already a boring, hackneyed phrase – but if it’s so old, why do we find it so hard to stop doing it, or to see when it’s being done? (My next point.)
He also highlights the fact that 1 and 2 are related because we hold certain ideas about men (e.g. they are less emotionally intelligent and can’t control themselves) which lead us into letting them off the hook.
In her 2010 book Delusions of Gender: The Real Science of Sex Differences Cordelia Fine reported on a study which found that when men are offered a financial incentive for doing well on tests of empathising ability the gender gap closes:
‘This financial incentive levelled the performance of women and men, showing that when it literally ‘pays to understand’ male insensitivity is curiously easily overcome.’
Another study showed that social incentives work as well: men performed better on empathising tests when told that women are more likely to go home with men who are more ‘in touch with their feminine side’. Apparently motivation doesn’t necessarily help figure out more complex mind-reading problems, but as we’ve already discussed, inferring ‘I don’t want to have sex tonight’ from ‘next time’ is not a complex mind-reading problem.
What I’m driving at is that men are perfectly able to read even subtle signals, but until now they haven’t been obliged to respect them – not those given by women, at any rate. This is because
- ideals of masculinity haven’t required them to demonstrate emotional intelligence and sensitivity to the desires of others
- more importantly, women’s lower social status has meant that men are free to ignore female desires without sanction.
In short, men as a group may need a little more incentive before they’ll start paying an appropriate degree of attention to female signals and the desires behind them.
I’m not suggesting that the incentive should involve the offer of money or sex, as it does in the studies named above; working to make emotional intelligence, sensitivity and empathy integral to desirable masculinity (as they are already integral to desirable femininity) would help, but we could probably do with adopting a pincer movement. I’ll come to the other claw at the end of this post, after we’ve taken a look at the question of responsibility.
Let’s return to Bari Weiss’s influential NYT piece, ‘Aziz Ansari Is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader’. Having cleared Ansari of guilt in the title, the rest of Weiss’ article reproaches Grace in a number of ways.
Most glaringly, she reproaches her for having allowed the experience – which she terms merely ‘”bad sex”’ – to happen at all:
‘If you are hanging out naked with a man, it’s safe to assume he is going to try to have sex with you.
[… I omit four similar recommendations…]
If he pressures you to do something you don’t want to do, use a four-letter word, stand up on your two legs and walk out his door.’
Note that the woman is supposed to do a lot of thinking about the man’s intentions and desires, while he has been excused from making a reciprocal effort.
And she is responsible for avoiding coercion (being pressured into doing something one doesn’t want to do), while he … isn’t.
Let’s dwell on that a moment: she is responsible for avoiding being coerced, but he isn’t responsible for avoiding coercing someone.
(If you think coercion is too strong a term, it still works like this: ‘she is responsible for avoiding being pressured, while he isn’t responsible for avoiding pressuring someone.’ Or even, ‘she is responsible for avoiding unwanted penetration, while he isn’t responsible for avoiding penetrating someone who doesn’t want it.’)
Also worth noting the contradiction: Grace should have left if she didn’t want to be coerced – but there never was any coercion or even pressure because all Ansari did was fail to read her mind, right?
We might as well note the misrepresentation while we’re at it, actually. Who noticed that there was something wrong with ‘if you are hanging out naked with a man, it’s safe to assume he is going to try to have sex with you’?
It isn’t just the old boys will be boys chestnut that’s bothering me about this. The phrasing communicates that “Grace” took off her own clothes enthusiastically and flaunted herself naked for a (possibly lengthy) period of time in which Ansari gradually got the idea that he could have a go. Now, I would actually defend a woman’s right to hang out naked without that being understood as an invitation to penetration. But whether or not you agree, that isn’t how the scene was described at all:
‘Within moments, he was kissing her. “In a second, his hand was on my breast.” Then he was undressing her, then he undressed himself. She remembers feeling uncomfortable at how quickly things escalated.
When Ansari told her he was going to grab a condom within minutes of their first kiss, Grace voiced her hesitation explicitly. “I said something like, ‘Whoa, let’s relax for a sec, let’s chill.’” She says he then resumed kissing her, briefly performed oral sex on her, and asked her to do the same thing to him. She did, but not for long. “It was really quick. Everything was pretty much touched and done within ten minutes of hooking up, except for actual sex.”’
Of course, it’s possible that Weiss has access to video footage of the encounter which reveals Grace hanging out naked before Ansari tried to have sex with her. (Not.) Actually, I think that Weiss’s facile recommendations rather grossly misrepresent the scene.
I read Weiss’s version before Grace’s own. Imagine if I weren’t fastidious, if I hadn’t gone and looked up the original: I would have been left with a very different impression of the encounter, and much less sympathy for Grace. I do not think that Weiss has been adequately fastidious in her treatment of the original piece.
But let’s get back to her contradictions. Belying her own title she does acknowledge that Ansari’s behaviour was ‘aggressive and selfish and obnoxious,’ and that this is not a personality problem but in reflective of a wider gendered pattern:
‘Isn’t it heartbreaking and depressing that men — especially ones who present themselves publicly as feminists — so often act this way in private? Shouldn’t we try to change our broken sexual culture? And isn’t it enraging that women are socialized to be docile and accommodating and to put men’s desires before their own? Yes. Yes. Yes.’
Pause here to acknowledge that she’s halfway to a feminist critique: she identifies a problem of structural sexism. Encouraging! But then she goes on,
‘The solution to these problems does not begin with women torching men for failing to understand their “nonverbal cues.” It is for women to be more verbal. It’s to say, “This is what turns me on.” It’s to say, “I don’t want to do that.” And, yes, sometimes it means saying goodbye.’
Now, I would have loved for Grace to have been more able to assert herself forcefully, but I would also have loved for Ansari to have been less able to be so forceful and selfish.
Weiss, however, lays all the responsibility for changing “our broken sexual culture” at the feet of women.
Except that there’s a contradiction here, or even a deception: because while she seems to want it to change, while she seems to be telling women to be more ‘verbal’ and assertive, she is also telling them they must only be verbal and assertive in private with men – and they must remain polite: they can say ‘I don’t want to do that but they mustn’t say ‘I don’t like the way you’re behaving.’ Certainly not publicly. They may change themselves but they mustn’t try to change men: don’t ‘torch’ them for their bad behaviour, don’t ask them to do better.
Don’t change our broken sexual culture, in short: just try not to let it hurt you, and when it does (because as Weiss suggests, ‘every adult woman’ experiences such ‘lousy romantic encounters’), just shut up and take it. (Whatever you do, don’t publicise it!)
I think that sounds a little too much like the docility, the accommodation and the prioritisation of male desire that Weiss pretends to abhor; it certainly doesn’t sound like a particularly robust method for effecting change.
No, frankly, it really is necessary to ‘torch’ men for failing to respect cues both verbal and non-verbal. (Why on earth shouldn’t someone be reproached for gross sexual entitlement and aggression?? I mean, we’re not actually talking about burning them at the stake: it isn’t a witch hunt. We’re talking about holding people responsible for their behaviour. Weiss and plenty of others have been happy enough to publicly reproach Grace and the female journalist who wrote the piece: why the double standard?)
It is because we haven’t been torching men that they’ve felt free to go on treating women’s wishes as less important than their own – in mindsets splayed along a spectrum from blissful ignorance to exploitative awareness. Regardless of where an individual man in a given situation falls on that spectrum, women need to voice their versions of these encounters loudly: if we don’t, men will either remain blissfully unaware, or aware and blissfully safe from consequences.
The very fact that people like Bari Weiss call this sort of encounter ‘bad sex’ rather than just ‘sex’ means that men are capable of better – that some of them are already doing better, at least some of the time.
So, by all means, ladies: light your torches and furnish a little more incentive.