#AzizAnsari 5: Sexual Assault?

I think it’s time to talk about the definition of assault.

Let me first make it clear that my aim is neither to assert nor to deny that what Aziz Ansari did to the ‘Grace’ of the Babe article is sexual assault.

My aim is to examine some of the responses to the single use of the word ‘assault’ in that article, and perhaps clarify a thing or two.

Briefly, the relevant bits of the original Babe article: Grace is quoted saying ‘“It took a really long time for me to validate this as sexual assault”’, and ‘“I felt violated”’.

In my favourite New York Times article ever, Bari Weiss called the story an ‘insidious attempt … to criminalize awkward, gross and entitled sex’.

Kyle Smith, in his National Review article entitled ‘Feminists, Stop Bad Sex Before It Happens’, claims that Ansari’s behaviour ‘fell well short of a crime’ but that, ‘following the guidelines that have been established on campus’, the young woman mistakenly ‘channeled her bad feelings into the language of crime.’ He quotes her phrase ‘I was violated’ and states that here she is ‘implying that not merely assault but actual rape took place.’ But, he says, ‘no crime occurred. Sex willingly embarked upon by both parties, even if one party feels reluctance or disgust or shame, is not a crime.’ (I should point out here that it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that Grace’s ‘I felt violated’ is in any way intended to mean ‘I felt like actual rape took place’, when ‘to violate’ as ‘to rape’ is hardly in common contemporary usage; it is perfectly plain that she is using it in its more dominant and current sense as ‘to fail to respect’. This is a shabby little attempt on Smith’s part to smear the article with the panic-inducing taint of the false-rape-allegation myth.)

In a Guardian Opinion piece coming from a very different angle to Smith’s, Tiffany Wright also protested Grace’s use of the word assault: ‘Assault is not a feeling. Discomfort is a feeling, embarrassment and hurt and anger are all feelings, but assault has to have an objective definition because of the legal and social ramifications that come with it. When we act as though disrespect, harassment, assault and rape are all different words for the same thing, the conversation starts to lose its legitimacy.’

What was interesting, though, was that neither Wright nor any of the others actually provided that ‘objective definition’ they claimed was being trampled all over.

Now, it’s important to mention that the terms ‘assault’ and ‘sexual assault’ exist beyond their legal usages, as do countless other terms, such as ‘murder’ and ‘fraud.’ To use them is not, in fact, necessarily to engage with a legal framework of crime and punishment; it certainly doesn’t follow from the use of the word ‘assault’ that one is suggesting someone ought to be tried in a court of law. There is absolutely nothing to suggest that ‘Grace’ was accusing Ansari of a crime in any formal or legal sense. Her text message to him after the event was polite and aimed at informing rather than accusing. Read it here.

I would argue that the whole ‘exposé’ was, similarly, aimed at informing rather than punishing – but I’ll return to this. For now, let’s give the question of legal definitions some consideration. The writers above were angry she’d used the term ‘assault’ and adamant she’d used it incorrectly, but none of them actually quoted the law.

According to the United States Department of Justice,

‘sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape.’

Notice that this legal definition is rather broad, embracing a number of very different behaviours; if violations of different magnitudes are being grouped under one umbrella, this isn’t Grace’s doing. Neither is it unusual in law: the acts of stealing a loaf of bread and stealing a car are both termed theft; all murders are not equally heinous, nor do they receive the same penalties. The reality is that some sexual assaults are ‘worse’ than others: it doesn’t follow that they are not all sexual assaults.

Now, is there anyone who can say that Grace gave ‘explicit consent’ to having her breast touched, to being digitally penetrated, or to receiving oral sex?

Let’s revisit her account:

‘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.”

She says Ansari began making a move on her that he repeated during their encounter. “The move he kept doing was taking his two fingers in a V-shape and putting them in my mouth, in my throat to wet his fingers, because the moment he’d stick his fingers in my throat he’d go straight for my vagina and try to finger me.” Grace called the move “the claw.”’

Now, there certainly are situations in which people are coerced into performing acts – such as ‘giving’ oral sex – but that can be harder to argue, so let’s focus here on Grace as ‘the recipient’ of ‘sexual contact or behavior’.

Is there any evidence in her account that she gave ‘explicit consent’ to any of the contact or behaviour described?


Of course, there is the possibility that her account makes omissions – but none of the writers quoted above who so vociferously denied that this episode involved assault made that accusation. They were drawing their impressions and inclusions from the Babe piece, the only detailed evidence that we have to go on. Ansari declined to say more than that he thought the sexual contact had been ‘by all indications completely consensual’. He does not actually cite any instances of ‘explicit consent.’ On what grounds should we believe there was any?

(We’ll leave aside for now the fact that she actually gave a number of indications of dissent.)

I’d like to just mention the UK definition of assault while I’m here: from the Sexual Offences Act 2003, Section 3 (still current in 2018):

Sexual assault

(1) A person (A) commits an offence if—

(a) he intentionally touches another person (B),

(b) the touching is sexual,

(c) B does not consent to the touching, and

(d) A does not reasonably believe that B consents.

(2) Whether a belief is reasonable is to be determined having regard to all the circumstances, including any steps A has taken to ascertain whether B consents.


If Ansari’s response to the story is sincere, he believed that there was consent; but was this ‘reasonable’? Is there any evidence of his taking ‘steps’ in order ‘to ascertain whether’ Grace really did consent?

In the absence of any such effort, his ‘belief’ may not be ‘reasonable’, the sexual touching not consensual, and the term ‘assault’ potentially applicable.

But I repeat, I’m not here to argue that it was an assault and that Ansari should be charged. My point is that those writers who have accused ‘Grace’/Babe of abusing the letter of the law have cast their stones rather wide of the mark. If she had meant to accuse Ansari of sexual assault in a legal and formal sense (and I do not believe that she did), the letter of the law could actually have upheld her.

Whether any court would have actually convicted Ansari is another matter.

I find it interesting – almost amusing, nearly appalling – that both US and UK law offer definitions of sexual assault that are more progressive than those implicitly held by the three writers quoted above, two of whom at least consider their own thinking to be feminist.


I’ll be back soon to consider why this could be.

Patrisse Khan-Cullors: When They Call You a Terrorist

A review of a Bristol Festival of Ideas event on the 12th March 2018

The words Black Lives Matter must have reached the ears of most in Britain by now. Comparatively few, however, will know that the global civil rights movement of which they are the name and reigning idea, was founded by three women – two of whom identify as queer. Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, Patrisse Khan-Cullors. That so many of us who are acquainted with their ideas do not know their names is symptomatic of the racialised sexism faced by black women everywhere, but also testament to the particularly democratic nature of the fight that these three founded. ‘We do not want to control it. We want it to spread like wildfire,’ writes Khan-Cullors in her recent book When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, co-written with journalist asha bandele.

Khan-Cullors was with us this week in Bristol to speak about the memoir and the movement. In fact, memory and movement may be said to be the two pillars of the Black Lives Matter approach, for as Khan-Cullors puts it, we need to talk about the trauma that black people have faced and still face, “but we also have to talk about the resistance.”

Thus her book falls into two parts: first, a record of childhoods (hers, and of all the black kids termed “super-predators” by a racist state but “the forgotten generation” by Khan-Cullors) damaged by the repeated message – coming from schools, from police, from the mass incarceration of people in their community – that their lives did not matter. She writes with devastating clarity of the harm done to young people for whom “there is nowhere that they can be or feel safe. No place where there are jobs. No city, no block, where what they know, all they know, is that their lives matter, that they are loved.” She writes of how the state’s staggeringly unjust war on drugs effectively targeted black people over and above whites, and of the “external factors” such as a lack of supports and resources, “including the general sense that their life matters” that “exacerbate chaotic drug use, send people into hell.” …

Read the rest at the Festival of Ideas blog.

Julie Bindel on The Pimping of Prostitution

A review of a Bristol Festival of Ideas Event on 14th March 2018

The sex trade is rape culture, said Julie Bindel on Wednesday night in Waterstones. It involves people (mostly men) having sex with other people (mostly women) who do not want to have sex with them. To legalise it is to sanction and normalise men desiring sex with women who do not desire them.

Normalising, or indeed eroticising sex with people who don’t want sex: that’s rape culture.

I had never heard it put like that before. There are passionate and persuasive arguments being made on both sides of the abolish/legalise debate, all claiming to be more progressive and humane than the rest; one casts about in the dark trying to get at the truth. But when I heard Bindel’s simple and devastating argument it was as though she had hit the switch of a particularly stark and unforgiving light. …

Read the rest on the Festival of Ideas blog

Making History, Learning Admiration: An Interview with Dr Naomi Paxton

At the International Women’s Day event orchestrated by Bristol Women’s Voice on Saturday 3rd March, I had the splendid luck to get an interview with suffrage historian (and actress, and comedian, and activist) Dr Naomi Paxton. I was interviewing her for Bristol Women’s Voice, of course, but it felt like a stroke of personal good fortune.

You see, the month of February had seen me delving into women’s suffrage history for a project with the National Trust (and learning more about it in that three-week period than I had in my entire life up to that point, History A level notwithstanding) and I had questions that felt urgent. How was it that I had come out of my Modern History A level with more admiration for David Lloyd George and his welfare reforms than for the women who fought so hard for the vote – for the right to have more say in the welfare of the nation?

So I told Paxton that I was concerned, as an educator as well as a feminist, with how we can better teach the admiration of these women – without it being shouted down as propaganda, which is an accusation that has already been levelled at the National Trust for their ‘Women and Power’ exhibition. She asked me with a shrewd gleam if it hadn’t been propaganda that had led me to admire Lloyd George. Of course I knew that really, but it was so good to have it from the historian’s mouth: we are subjected constantly to a stream of patriarchal propaganda from multiple directions, but this is so normalised as to appear neutral. To teach the admiration of suffragists and suffragettes, in this context, qualifies as resistance or redress.

Let alone admiration, her schooling hadn’t covered women’s suffrage at all. “I did the Tudors, and then I changed schools and did the Tudors again – so I knew quite a lot about the Tudors but nothing about women’s suffrage.” She discovered that history through theatre: through the discovery of suffrage plays. When I asked if she thought it ought to be taught in schools she said, rather generously I thought, that she was sure “every historian is clamouring for their bit of history,” but added that “as a latecomer to this whole story I would have loved to have learned it earlier, yes, and I would love to have learned more.”

This is a big part of the problem, I realised, as I listened to her speak: what we do tend to learn about the suffrage movement is so selective that it creates a partial and distorted image. We tend to learn about the WSPU, or Suffragettes, who were not the largest but only the most militant suffrage society – “perhaps because it’s the most voyeuristically pleasing to find out about” – but we rarely get to see “the wider picture”: it started long before 1903, and it wasn’t all militant campaigning, even for the militant societies. Neither do we get to see what Paxton calls “the wider point”: that “it was never all about a vote – it was about equal pay and better rape conviction rates and anti-vivisection”… and parental rights for women, better conditions for workers, and any number of reforms to “wider society”.

“Without being conspiracy theorists about it,” says Paxton, “I think there’s a sense that people want to consign it to a neat package.” To focus on the vote alone, and on the dramatic clashes between state and suffragettes, is “to consign the suffrage movement to a part of history that feels very ‘done’ … and that allows you to steer attention away from the other subjects that are still relevant and problematic now.”

Yes: when you consider that the fight for women’s suffrage was a fight for better conditions for working class women, for single mothers, for children, for married women, for widows, for prostitutes, for women of all professions, for entry into professions from which women were excluded, not to mention animal welfare and all kinds of social reform – and when you look at the extraordinary opposition to the movement – then it becomes harder to deny the great urgency behind the campaign, or to consign its significance to the past. “Those things are all still very relevant now, and maybe that’s not the best advertisement for our society and how far we’ve moved. Yes women have got the vote, but actually have all these other things moved forward? Do we have equal representation, do we have equal pay, do we have an end to violence against women and girls, do we have equality of opportunity for all? No. That’s hugely problematic, and obviously posting up those things is hugely important.”

Indeed. I had imagined that I couldn’t possibly feel my feminist convictions more intensely – until I began looking into this history and realised what a deprivation it had been not to have known about it before. As Paxton puts it, once you begin investigating one aspect of women’s history you end up asking yourself “‘why am I not learning about women inventors, why am I not learning about women explorers, why are the only women here painted to be very much extraordinary rather than ordinary – why are we not learning about women more widely in our history?’”

Which is why all this noise about the centenary of votes for some women is absolutely vital.

“This year’s really exciting because it gives us a chance to talk about the diversity of the campaign,” says Paxton. Especially now that the film Suffragette has been “done” (“a lot of the major issues have been dealt with: forceful feeding, militancy, and Emily Wilding Davison – tick”), we have the opportunity to explore “the stories that are less violent, or less extraordinary, and that relate more to how people live their lives now. These are the stories that say, ‘Why might you get involved, why might I have got involved? Are you involved in activism; what would make you become involved in activism – and if you did, how would that manifest in your day-to-day life, within your social circles, within your family circles?’ Those are the things that are really important, I think, about learning suffrage history.”

This gives me the occasion to ask her about her own activism: how it manifests in her life – and how much it can change anyone’s day-to-day.

“Oh, hugely,” she says without a moment’s hesitation. Paxton is on the steering committee for a lobbying group called 50:50 Parliament (for which she also actively campaigns); she’s a trustee for a group called Not Buying It, which campaigns against sexualised images of women in the media; she has been involved in London’s Reclaim the Night, in Bechdel Theatre and with Women@Rada (working on gender equality in the field of performance); she’s an associate artist of Scary Little Girls, a feminist production hub; she performs feminist comedy in character as ‘Ada Campe,’ and at present she is working as Research Assistant at Parliament with the Vote 100 team and others on a joint project called ‘What Difference Did the War Make? World War One and Votes for Women’, which you can take a look at online.

Parliament’s Vote 100 project will culminate in a fascinating exhibition this summer called ‘Voice and Vote’, exploring at “how women have interacted with politics and politicians on the Parliamentary estate throughout the past two centuries”. The exhibition will demonstrate, for instance, how the spaces to which women were confined (thrillingly named ‘The Ventilator’, ‘The Cage’, and ‘The Tomb’) created physical as well as symbolic obstacles to their participation in politics. It also looks at how women’s participation in Parliamentarian spaces has changed them. Some online exhibitions from the project are already available: have a look!

The team have also been involved with putting together a ‘MOOC’ (Massive Open Online Course) called ‘Beyond the Ballot: Women’s Rights and Suffrage from 1866 to Today.’ (You can take it for free! I for one am certainly joining the 11,000 who have signed up.) There has been a lot of positive feedback from learners already.

Paxton concludes this list of things she’s doing for the cause of women’s rights and representation with a sincere “and one can do more; but I absolutely try to use my powers for good.”

Trying to imagine how exactly one could do more, I ask her what she might say to women interested in getting into activism, or just setting out: where can they start?

“Oh, well, welcome!” she says, as if really pleased. “Thanks, come and join, and you can start wherever you are. Part of it is finding your own language and articulating your thoughts and your experiences and your ideas; you don’t necessarily have to be the most articulate or have the most knowledge, but find out where you are and work within what you know – and then just try to find out more about the things that you are interested in. Really it’s about becoming articulate in your own way and expressing your ideas and not being intimidated. If there’s a campaign that you don’t see, perhaps start it, or talk about it.

Go to WoW festivals. (I’ve been to so many of them and they’re hugely exciting.) Look at websites. Read books. Research history: if that’s family history, that’s great; if that’s suffrage history, that’s great; if that’s the history of the last five years that you can read on blogs online then do that. Yes, welcome, and start from where you are: there’s no gold standard to be met. It’s about feeling that you have something to contribute – and if that’s three minutes a month, then that’s three minutes more than there were before. Everybody’s voice is important, everyone should have equality of opportunity to participate in creating change for the future – and in representing people who are not always represented. So if you don’t hear your voice there, get it there somehow.”

Before we parted ways I couldn’t refrain from asking her what had come out of the research project: what difference did the war make? This was one of the questions that had a personal urgency for me. That it was the war rather than the campaign which secured votes for women (that the Suffragettes needn’t have bothered making all that unladylike fuss, in short) was the truism repeated by my A level teacher, the same I’ve heard repeated by so many others since then, as though all their teachers had repeated it too… I confessed to Paxton that I felt the argument of the war was used to dismiss the intelligence, the courage and importance of the women’s political campaigning.

“Exactly, yes,” she said, “and it’s really not the case that they got it because they worked hard in the war. It’s just not true.” Politicians at the time stated clearly that “it wasn’t a reward for war work” but a right that ought to be extended to women anyway. And it certainly was no reward, “because some of the women who were most heavily involved in some of the heaviest war work were not enfranchised by the war” – the majority of the Munitionettes and women who worked in the Auxiliary Corps, for instance, were under 30.

There were a number of complex factors, she says, but of crucial importance were the fact that the franchise had to be revised anyway for the men who had been excluded from it by the war (fighting away from home so long they didn’t meet the property qualification); the change in Prime Minister from anti-suffrage Asquith to relatively sympathetic Lloyd George; and – last in this list but certainly not least – the continued campaigning of every single suffrage society other than the WSPU. A deputation of more than 80 women from 33 suffrage societies pushed to have the matter tabled at the 1917 Speakers Conference which was held to discuss the franchise, and which afterwards made recommendations to Parliament. Then it was down to the Commons to decide, and when it came to it Lloyd George did not send out the government whips to push MPs to vote for women’s suffrage. In short, as Paxton puts it, “it could very easily not have happened.”

So there was nothing inevitable about women getting the vote: it had had to be fought for; the fight had mattered. And it matters to us, to know that now: it reveals how much those women shaped our world – teaching us to admire them – and it reminds us how much power we have to shape it for those who will come after us. Which teaches us to admire each other and ourselves.

Having thus soothed my heart, which had so wanted a historian to tell me I could take pride in the world-shaping powers of those women, Paxton left me with this parting advice:

“Read Suffrage newspapers! If you want to find out more, if you want to learn what happened in your area, you want to know a little bit more about the diversity of the campaign – and you have access to the internet – read the suffrage newspapers because they will just open up a whole world. … If you read just one issue you will realise how diverse and representative the campaign was. They are reporting about all the things that happen across the UK, they are reporting about working class women, about women in other countries, they’re reporting about what’s happening in parliament… you’ll see.” She flatly denies the frequently-levelled accusation that the movement was not inclusive. “People want to find fault: ‘where are the men, where are the working class women?’ And they are there, they are absolutely there,” she says.

“And do the MOOC, because it’s free!”



You can read the suffrage newspapers for free, on Google Newspapers: it has Votes For Women – initially the WSPU newspaper, later was taken over by the United Suffragists – The Common Cause, the NUWSS newspaper, and The Vote, the Women’s Freedom League paper, listed under the title The Globe.

Find out more about Paxton’s comedy as well as her research, and enjoy her highly readable blog, at http://www.naomipaxton.co.uk/.

On Admiring Women: IWD 2018

Despite the attack of the Beast from the East, women of all descriptions (and some men!) flocked to Bristol City Hall on Saturday 3rd March to partake in the International Women’s Day events orchestrated by Bristol Women’s Voice.

Sadly there were a handful of scheduled speakers who couldn’t get to us across the snow-bound country, including well-known suffrage historian Elizabeth Crawford and the women who were to lead the African Voice Forum Discussion –but the wonderful thing is that there were so many brilliant women on the programme that it easily took the hit.

I’m relatively new to Bristol, didn’t know anyone at the event and had sort of expected to spend the day weaving between the impenetrable faces of strangers; only it wasn’t like that at all. We collected in the foyer where Burning Brass, a collective of women drummers and horn players were very successfully turning even ‘Hit the Road, Jack’ into a rousing feminist anthem, and smiles of complicity met me whichever way I looked. I’m not generally given to waxing lyrical about ‘good vibes’, but I will say that a palpable atmosphere of cheerful co-operation seemed to unite the many women of diverse backgrounds and generations. I had been greeted at the entrance by a girl young enough to be my daughter and then fell into conversation with a woman old enough to be my grandmother: this felt precious. And the speakers were approachable in a way I hadn’t expected: suffrage historian, activist and comedian Dr Naomi Paxton granted me such a warm and stirring interview (read it here!) that I was left feeling like I’d been given a pep talk.

With all the will in the world I couldn’t wrangle being in three places at once but I did manage to take in a workshop on domestic abuse awareness by brilliant Bristol charity Next Link; some of Elizabeth Crawford’s talk on suffrage propaganda – read by Paxton; a panel on The Women Who Built Bristol by Jane Duffus; a talk on modern slavery and human trafficking from Unseen; a discussion on the concept of ‘Honour’ with the young people of Integrate UK (who work with other young people on issues around FGM and honour-based violence); and a final panel on fighting gender-based violence in Bristol.

One highlight I’d like to share is Next Link’s simple brainstorming activity on the possible ‘losses’ and ‘gains’ of leaving an abusive relationship, which provides a powerful rebuttal to the judgmental – and common – question ‘why didn’t she leave?’ The list of losses that we drew up together in the workshop was painfully long with items such as ‘the person you love’, ‘your home’, and ‘dreams’. The list of gains, though equally long, featured benefits that would have to be hard-won: ‘recovering mental health’, ‘self-esteem’, ‘new friends,’ ‘a healthy relationship one day.’ As someone who has had to leave the man I love to escape his escalating violence – the hardest thing I’ve ever done – and who met with painful incomprehension and judgment from those who thought it should be easy, it was balm to my heart to witness Next Link raising awareness of what is an all-too-common reality.

I didn’t get to attend the Wonderful Women Awards ceremony (BWV celebrating Bristol women who have been nominated for their contributions to the community), but as I sat, an eager beaver in the front row of the final panel of the day, with Charlotte Gage of Bristol Zero Tolerance (working against gender-based violence), Melissa Blackburn, CEO of Unchosen (working against modern slavery) and Alex Raikes of SARI (working against racist and now gender-based hate crime) – as well as Cheryl Morgan (who runs trans awareness courses) in the front row beside me – I was handing out the awards inside my own head. I had heard so many women speak that day about the work they were doing to make change and improve lives: hard-headed and warm-hearted women; women fighting, women leading. It seemed suddenly as though women were the ones turning the machinery of the world: driving it forwards.

That’s why we need International Women’s Day, I realise, and Women’s History Month, and as much noise as possible about the centenary of votes for (some) women, not to mention noise about the work that women are doing now across so many fields. We need to draw attention to the achievements of women, not as some kind of back-patting exercise but as remedial education. We are learning machines, we humans, collecting great banks of data and storing countless connections; but the dominant culture that most of us learn in does not teach us to associate women with courage, with hard-headed organising, with authority, with leadership. We’re deprived of the histories, of the news stories, even of the films and fictions that would teach us to connect the idea of ‘woman’ with the idea of ‘greatness.’

But just a day like this Saturday goes some way to redressing the deficit. So do books like The Women Who Built Bristol by Jane Duffus, which offers an A-Z of ‘250 inspiring women, three sheroic dogs and one heartbroken barmaid from Easton’ who had an impact on Bristol between 1184 and 2018. (In fact, reading books by women writers only is a good idea: I’ve been doing that for two years and it has had an enormous impact on the way I see the world.)

During the panel on The Women Who Built Bristol Duffus asked her panellists, who were also contributors to the book, what it meant to them to have these histories collected in print. I listened to Dr Naomi Paxton and Dr Finn Mackay agree that it was inspiring and that we can learn a lot from the strategies of the women activists who have gone before us. All true. But for me the book and their clear voices ringing out from the stage had, like all the events that day, one greater significance: they were lessons in admiring women.

#AzizAnsari 4: Consent II

You know what, I just can’t get enough of all those responses to the Aziz Ansari story which, like Bari Weiss’s, deny that ‘Grace’ denied consent. They just keep yielding up more for me to get my teeth into.

“If you are hanging out naked with a man, it’s safe to assume he is going to try to have sex with you”, writes Weiss in the NYT. She defends Ansari, saying he would have had to be ‘a mind reader’ to have known the woman did not consent to penetration.

Of course Weiss’s views are not idiosyncratic: they are the dominant historical model.

It is a model in which the female body itself signifies consent. And that is rape culture.

By being born female you have consented to sex with men. (And as trans women will know, to become female-bodied or -identified after birth also qualifies as consent; trans men, meanwhile, will know that not even by becoming male-identified can they withdraw the original consent of their birth.) This consent granted by your female body can only be withdrawn through a perpetual and vocal effort. And be careful, because a number of your attempts to withdraw it will be refused: saying ‘next time’ and ‘I don’t want to feel forced’ will not be accepted. You will be cross-examined on whether you uttered the monosyllable ‘no’, regardless of whether you were asked a question that invited a yes/no answer.

And as often as not, your ‘no’ will be understood as a deferred ‘yes.’

Note that there are certain situations in which nothing you say – not even ‘no’ – can qualify as the withdrawal of your consent. For example, if you are naked. Your nudity in the presence of a man (even if you didn’t take your clothes off yourself) invalidates anything you may say. Also if you are within a man’s home: once you have stepped over that threshold you have no more right to withdraw your default consent and would have to leave again to be considered dissenting (“use a four-letter word, stand up on your two legs and walk out his door”, as Weiss puts it).

As I pointed out in my last post, there are 127 countries in which marriage legally negates your right to withdraw your consent. This is true, in practise if not in law, in many more countries: marital rape remains more difficult to prosecute than rape outside of marriage – which is already difficult enough. In the UK it is only since 1991 that consent can be withdrawn within marriage; in the US, since 1993 – although exemptions for spouses remained in some states up until 2015. Attitudes certainly haven’t changed much: Donald Trump’s lawyer and campaign spokesperson Michael Cohen declared in 2015 ‘you cannot rape your spouse.’ Such attitudes extend to rapes by unmarried partners, too: women raped or sexually assaulted by partners face even greater scepticism than the rest.

(And this in despite of the fact that almost 50% of recorded rapes in the UK are committed by a current partner – and that partner rapes are twice as likely to result in injury to the victim, too, belying the belief that such rapes are less violent – and as such perhaps less ‘real’. Figures from a UK Home Office Crime Survey.)

Which other crime or violation must victims fight so hard to dissent from? You do not have to say ‘no’ in order for it to count as stealing when someone takes your property. We do not operate on the basis that everyone has consented to murder unless they specify otherwise.

Men must unlearn this reading of consent in the very lines of the female body. And women need to stop reinforcing that reading with their reactions to stories like Grace’s.

We have to challenge this deeply engrained notion of the female body as inherently consenting. We need to fight for a paradigm in which women have by default not consented, and in which consent must be explicitly, actively, enthusiastically and continually established.



#AzizAnsari 3: Consent

This one is going to be short if not quite sweet, I promise.

I’ve been busy putting together and delivering a workshop on ‘Women and Power’ (in relation to the centenary of women’s suffrage) for the National Trust, but that hasn’t stopped me thinking about this whole Ansari thing. Indeed, dwelling on history and some of the relatively recent legal gains that women have made has been grist to my contemporary feminist mill.

Let’s go back to Bari Weiss and that influential New York Times article of hers that acquitted Ansari of all blame other than of having failed to be ‘a mind reader’ while holding Grace responsible for avoiding unwanted sexual contact. Because Weiss doesn’t only blame Grace for the unwanted sexual contact she experienced, but also for single-handedly setting the feminist movement back (some unspecified period) in time.

To elaborate: she claims that while the Babe article ‘was met with digital hosannas by young feminists who insisted that consent is consent only if it is affirmative, active, continuous and — and this is the word most used — enthusiastic’ (notice the bizarrely mocking tone) it is in fact ‘the worst thing that has happened to the #MeToo movement since it began in October.’

The problem is, Weiss says, that ‘encoded’ in Grace’s story are ‘new yet deeply retrograde ideas about what constitutes consent — and what constitutes sexual violence.’

Let’s unpack that: retrograde means going backwards, especially to an earlier or inferior condition. So, she’s saying that Grace’s version of consent, in which the absence of the monosyllable ‘no’ does not automatically mean ‘yes,’ and in which a man should expect a woman to show enthusiasm rather than reluctance, is a version of consent that would take us back in time to something we have, thankfully, escaped.

Hold up there.

I’m not actually a historian, but I’m struggling to remember when it was ever the norm for men to seek the affirmative, active, continuous and enthusiastic consent of their female partners before engaging in sexual contact with them.

Is she referring to some prehistorical matriarchal society in which women were on top? Poor Weiss must have missed the memo: there is, sadly, no evidence that any such society has ever existed.

She might more realistically be referring to the medieval period, when medical theory held that a woman could not be impregnated against her will – without her experiencing pleasure – and that, therefore, no encounter resulting in pregnancy could have been a rape, no matter what a woman said to the contrary. (Actually, there are still politicians who make this argument.) Conception as consent: is that what Grace’s story is threatening to take us back to?

It may actually be that she is alluding to the whole of that Golden Age of sexual relations prior to the criminalisation of marital rape, which only hit the UK and US in the 1970s. Oh, in those good old days, marriage itself counted as permanent and perpetual consent to sex: legally, a man could not be found guilty of raping his wife, no matter how many times she said or screamed the word ‘no’. (Of course, this would only be going back in time for some of us. The 2011 UN Women Report revealed that 127 countries still hadn’t criminalised marital rape. In 2014 Lebanon carefully re-enshrined a ‘marital right of intercourse’ while passing legislation on domestic violence.)

Or perhaps Weiss is referring more generally to that period of Western history, dating from some of our earliest literature to, well, now, in which it was (is?) believed that a nice girl won’t give in easily, and that therefore her ‘no’ means ‘yes’. Octogenarian billionaire Warren Buffett got rapped on the knuckles last year for making this point in a CNBC interview – ‘if a lady says no, she means maybe. And if she says maybe, she means yes. And if she says yes, she’s no lady’ – but I’ve heard much younger men say ‘a girl always says “no” twice before she says “yes”’. From Ancient Rome to the Renaissance to contemporary ‘Rom-Coms’, our representations of ‘love’ are infect with the idea that women need to be persuaded.[i]

But all this is pure speculation: we really need our historian Weiss to tell us exactly which earlier and inferior model of consent Grace’s ‘insidious attempt … to criminalize awkward, gross and entitled sex’ is going to drag us back to.

While we’re waiting for an answer to this question (I’ve tweeted it to her but she has yet to respond) I’ll have a go at working out the conundrum myself:

Throughout much of history a woman’s ‘no’ has been understood as a ‘yes’, or simply as irrelevant


Grace’s story: not only should ‘no’ be understood as ‘no’, but ‘next time’ and ‘I don’t want to feel forced’ should also be understood as ‘no’


No resemblance between Grace’s position and the historical positions that Weiss pretends she wants to leave behind.


Which means that either Weiss is ignorant of the meaning of ‘retrograde,’ or of all history; or her argument is just deeply confused.[ii] If she wants to persuade us that Grace’s approach to consent is dangerously backwards, she’ll have to make her case more carefully.

Obviously that last sentence was purely rhetorical: there is no case to be made. The affirmative consent model simply does not take us back in time.

But where does a fixation on the word ‘no’ take us?

When trying to work out the implications of a certain argument (whether I can agree with it, or whether it dangerous) I find it useful to ask myself who is served by it. So, who does it serve if ‘no’ is the only valid means of communicating dissent?

Those who don’t want to get in trouble for non-consensual sexual activity, that’s who.


Which is why I say to you that it is Weiss’s position that is ‘deeply retrograde’ – or, more accurately, profoundly conservative. Note the small c: forget party politics and even the left and right wings; what we’re talking about is the desire to conserve things as they are. Weiss does not want relations between men and women to change.

The idea that ‘no’ is the only valid means of communicating dissent is an innately conservative idea. It allows for all sorts of non-consensual activity to take place, and those who perpetrate to get off on a technicality. So do not be fooled by anyone who claims they want ‘to change our broken sexual culture’ while championing the primacy of that little word ‘no’.





[i] Just for example: in one 2003 novel, The Love Secrets of Don Juan, Tim Lott writes of ‘the first thing’ he (or his narrator) ‘learned about women. If you’re completely determined … they usually cave in sooner or later. You can wear them down. With enough charm, and perseverance, you can bulldoze them.’ He claims to have learnt this from the young woman with whom he first had sex: ‘she said no, and she said no again. But she meant yes. … [we] went to bed, because I pestered her and bugged her, and made a complete nuisance of myself. I pulled it off because I had enough insight to understand that it was what she wanted … We got drunk, naturally … She didn’t say no. Well, she did, but not with any conviction. She didn’t say yes either. She didn’t seem to know what she was doing. Which made two of us. I had assumed that because she had a boyfriend she was fairly experienced but this was not so. She was nervous, and her fear communicated itself to me. We both had to master it. But by now I was beyond listening to the demands of anything other than the sound of my own heart, beyond smelling anything but the rich, earthy, unnameable smell that was her half-hidden desire.’

I include this as a fairly generic sample of a set of ideas that permeate our cultural atmosphere.

[ii] She really does seem to be confused. She claims that ‘the feminist answer is to push for a culture in which boys and young men are taught that sex does not have to be pursued as if they’re in a pornographic film, and one in which girls and young women are empowered to be bolder, braver and louder about what they want’ – and yet she sneers at the young women advocating enthusiastic consent.