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.
I want to talk about ‘the Ansari story’ too. I’m late to this party; I’m always late to this kind of party. I don’t keep up to date on the news, let alone on social media movements and storms. Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s too late to add my penny’s worth, which is this:
the reactions to the story reveal that most of us – even those of us who are committed to feminism – are still stuck thinking in sexist modes of thought.
(And what I mean by ‘sexist’ is ‘male supremacist’ or ‘misogynist’, not something vague that ‘cuts both ways.’ I could have said ‘patriarchal modes of thought’, but I’m not a big fan of the term patriarchy: I find male supremacy more descriptive of a culture in which the male is the default human, the male perspective is the perspective, and male comfort is prioritised.)
Just in case anyone else is even later to the Ansari party than I was:
I’m talking about a piece called, ‘I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life,’ as told to Katie Way of the feminist website Babe in mid January. It’s the story of the night that a 22-year-old photographer – not a public figure, known as ‘Grace’ – spent with Aziz Ansari (a comedian of whom I had never heard). It went viral, often attached to the #MeToo tag (I haven’t quite got to grip with hash tags yet so I can’t say whose fault that was, or what hash tag etiquette or orthodoxies may or may not have been violated). Predictably, there was a backlash.
I’m interested in dissecting the complex response so as to sketch an anatomy of its sexism.
This is my brief summary of the events as related in the article:
After a first date dinner Grace went back to Ansari’s place with him but was made uncomfortable by the speed with which he undressed her and himself, repeatedly sticking his fingers down her throat (to wet them?) before trying to penetrate her with them, and asking her over and over ‘“where do you want me to fuck you?”’ She describes finding this difficult to answer, because she didn’t want to be fucked at all, but did manage to say, ‘”next time”’. He is supposed to have said, ‘”Oh, you mean second date?”’ and, “Well, if I poured you another glass of wine now, would it count as our second date?’” Upon which he resumed his offensive. She went to the bathroom, collected herself, came back and told him ‘“I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you.”’ She relates that he said ‘”Oh, of course, it’s only fun if we’re both having fun”’ and she was relieved, thinking he had understood and would now be simply affectionate. But his next move was to tell her (non-verbally, by pointing) to suck his penis. Unhappily, she complied. Then he told her he had to show her something, led her over to a mirror, bent her over in front of it and asked her if she wanted him to fuck her right there, while pushing his penis against her behind in the motions of intercourse.
She straightened up and told him she really didn’t want to “do this”. They dressed, but once again he started kissing her, sticking his fingers down her throat, and tried to undo her trousers. She recalls saying, “‘You guys are all the same, you guys are all the fucking same’” and got up to call herself a taxi. She began crying on the way home and told some friends what had happened.
That’s quite a dry sample, not including all the details, but I’ve provided it because what other writers include or leave out or emphasise in their retellings of Grace’s telling is revealing. I do suggest you read it for yourselves if you haven’t already, or possibly re-read it carefully, so that you’ll be able to judge whether others are misrepresenting the narrative. (I think that many are.)
Some of the backlash came from other women committed to feminism; some of the responses that came from powerful quarters like The New York Times and HLN were unpleasantly retaliatory: launching what they framed as a counter-attack against a threat to the #MeToo movement, or feminism, or women in general – but, as far as I can make out, against a very young woman who was unarmed and hadn’t made a single aggressive move.
I’ll start with the New York Times opinion piece ‘Aziz Ansari Is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader’, by an NYT editor, Bari Weiss.
First off, I object rather strongly to the suggestion that Ansari’s greatest failure was ‘not being a mind reader.’
If you come over to my place and I say ‘where do you want to sit while I cut your hair? and you say, ‘next time,’ I do not need to be a ‘mindreader’ to know that you don’t want me to cut your hair on this occasion. Actually, you have told me so, verbally, albeit without using the word ‘no’ (which my question did not invite anyway, because it was a leading question).
If you come over to my place and I say ‘where do you want me to fuck you?’ and you say, ‘next time,’ I don’t need to be a ‘mindreader’ to know that you don’t want me to fuck you on this occasion.
If you come over to my place and I say ‘where do you want to sit while I cut your hair?’ and you just keep moving away from me, trying to avoid my scissors and pulling your hair out of my hands when I grab hold of it, but say nothing at all, I still don’t need to be a ‘mindreader’ to know that you don’t want me to cut your hair on this occasion.
If you come over to my place and I say ‘where do you want me to fuck you?’ and you just keep moving away from me, trying to avoid my kisses and pulling your your hand away every time I put it on my genitals, but say nothing at all, I still don’t need to be a ‘mindreader’ to know that you don’t want me to fuck you on this occasion.
You’d think that the much-mentioned ‘common sense’ of conservative talk, and the anti-feminist variety of conservative talk in particular, would be enough to establish that we all, women and even men, use – and understand! –non-verbal cues on a daily basis. We also frequently express dissent verbally without using the word ‘no.’ As I’m not really into the rhetoric of common sense, however, I’ll mention that studies have demonstrated this particular bit of utter obviousness. I’ll even insert not one, not two, but three relevant links if you want to check. (I pinched them from Emma Gray’s piece on the topic, which I find admirably measured and sensible.)
And I’ll ask you to just think about it a moment: do you actually use the word ‘no’ every time you want to express your dissent? Have you ever answered ‘just milk, thanks,’ when someone asked ‘how many sugars’? Were you quite confident they would understand you didn’t want sugar? Even if they were a man?
Imagine just such a scenario: the sugar-holder is indeed a man, and he goes ahead and plops three sugars in your cup: wouldn’t you feel that he had, in however minor a way, shown scant regard for your wishes?
You could be forgiven for getting shirty with him for deliberately ignoring your ‘just milk, please.’ It’s unlikely anyone would jump down your throat for asking him to be ‘a mindreader’. At most they’d suggest he was only absent-minded, thinking of other things. (Not really listening, possibly not all that interested in how you wanted your tea?) If it were absent-mindedness, some people would overlook it; plenty would still give the guy a hard time.
So we do expect men to be able to read indirect verbal cues, and non-verbal cues, in non-sexual situations. But there’s some kind of intellectual interference like a magnetic field that messes with our critical compasses when it comes to analysing relations between women and men. When we’re talking about sex, if men are involved, we can’t see straight. (I’m willing to bet that the response would have been rather different if it were a woman who had behaved as Ansari did. Her conduct wouldn’t have been overlooked as standard.)
But, long story short: Ansari didn’t need to be a mind reader. Grace gave multiple non-verbal and verbal cues that he ignored, in a way with which most girls and women are familiar from their encounters with boys and men. (I’ve had sexual encounters with women, too, and only once did I meet that kind of steam-rolling heedlessness in a woman. She was so much an exception that I remember thinking in surprise, “oh, she’s acting like a man.”)
And if it really was absent-mindedness rather than callous disregard that made Ansari ignore the signals? Perfectly possible. But what I’d say is that to allow yourself to be absent-minded in a sexual encounter is not so benign as when you’re making coffee. Especially when it’s a systematic sort of absent-mindedness affecting almost one half of the global population in their relation to the other half.
I’ve got plenty more to say on this: I’ll be back next week.