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.