#AzizAnsari 6: It Didn’t Count

Bonus material accompanying #AzizAnsari 6: Denying Female Agency

(Or, Common Reasons Some Rapes/Sexual Assaults Don’t Count)


“It didn’t count because it wasn’t bad enough

This one sometimes comes from people who have themselves been victims, or are ‘survivors’ (and no, I don’t intend to communicate disdain with those quotation marks, only to mark the word out as a term chosen and popularised by the feminist movement for a particular purpose. It’s a term I respect and often use, though there are equally feminist arguments against its use in at least some contexts).

Tiffany Wright, for instance, contrasts Grace’s story with experiences of her own that she would call assault: “This summer, I fell asleep in a man’s bed after telling him I didn’t want to have sex, and woke up to him inside of me. A few months before that, after I passed out at a college party, a stranger stuck his fingers inside my unconscious body and used my limp hand to get himself off. Some time during the aftermath of those two events, my now-former boss (who had 57 years to my 21) kept me after work, grabbed my waist and tried to kiss me.” She also claims to have “experienced the kind of situations Grace described. And while they can be distressing, and confusing, and humiliating, they are not assault.” I actually sympathise and agree with much of Wright’s thinking, but not the implication that assault only occurs when someone is unconscious, severely inebriated or an employee of the perpetrator. The degree of choice or constraint experienced by a person prior to or during an action or event that harms them does not fundamentally alter the labelling of that action or event: if you live in the Bay of Naples and Vesuvius erupts, destroying your home, you are a victim of a natural disaster whether or not you were free or not free to have gone to live elsewhere. The degree of choice you had may alter our perception of the severity of the harm, and how sorry we feel for you, but not the fact of the disaster or your status as victim of it. Neither do I agree with Wright’s position that our own experiences should dictate the terms of a debate: ‘these are my experiences, and they provide the lens through which I view all discussions of sexual assault.’

As I pointed out in my last post, ‘sexual assault’ can legally speaking cover a broad range of behaviours of very diverse severities. This desire (which Wright shares with my friend Anonymous 1) to protect the purity of a category to which we feel we belong is understandable, but perhaps not always entirely defensible, intellectually or ethically. And the notion that some assaults or rapes are ‘real’ while others are not is, I think, more dangerous to women than the legally justified application of these terms to a wide range of scenarios.

This proposition is also made by those (often but by no means exclusively men) who fear that behaviours they think are reasonable will be criminalised or condemned, that therefore their own sex lives may have to change, and sex might lose its fun. This is, essentially, a conservative attitude: one that doesn’t want our sexual culture to change too much. Kyle Smith, arguing that Grace simply regretted the evening and framed it as she did to get revenge, clearly falls into this category.

Then there are the many women who like Bari Weiss argue that ‘I too have had lousy romantic encounters, as has every adult woman I know’, and that the most ‘useful term for what [Grace] experienced’ is ‘“bad sex”’. These seem to fall somewhere between the Kyle Smith desire to conserve the culture of sex as it is, and the Tiffany Wright desire to protect the purity of the victim/survivor category. I suspect that Bari Weiss falls closer to the conservative end of the spectrum; her arguments are actually very similar to Kyle Smith’s. But for others it seems to be less conservatism and more a reluctance to accept unpalatable ideas such as ‘many men don’t require their partner to want sex in order to enjoy having it’; they prefer to believe that men are simply a bit dim and women aren’t making themselves clear enough.


“It didn’t count because you should have expected it (and got out sooner)”

Bari Weiss: “If you are hanging out naked with a man, it’s safe to assume he is going to try to have sex with you.”

Compare Michael Portillo on BBC Radio 4 The Moral Maze episode ‘Moral Complicity’ 18.10.17: the culture of sexual harassment in Hollywood is “not just engendered by the people at the top: it’s understood by the people at the bottom, who have come to Hollywood, you know, they’re jolly good-looking, they come from the middle of Iowa, they have an amazing opportunity to make millions of pounds, and they’re entering a situation which maybe they understand.” He derides the suggestion that the women who accused Weinstein might not have known what they were getting themselves into: “you think they would have been – you know, having arrived in Hollywood, Tinsel Town, you think they’d be surprised by it – you think so?” Their foreknowledge, he argues, makes them more complicit than victims.

This proposition engages the idea of default consent: your going to his place, or to Hollywood, constituted consent because you should have known that going to his place/Hollywood meant there’d be sex. This argument serves to reduce the culpability of the alleged perpetrator by proving the complicity of the supposed victim, who is now no longer a victim because they were complicit.


“It didn’t count because you didn’t fight back (hard enough)”

Bari Weiss: “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.”

Compare Melanie Phillips at the How To Academy debate ‘The #MeToo Movement Has Gone Too Far’ arguing that if you are sexually harassed at work you should just punch your harasser in the face and/or leave the job because clearly it isn’t a working environment for you. Staying in the job and then speaking up about it is something she derides (with, apparently, no awareness at all of the fact that some people in this world experience financial constraints).

This argument also turns on default consent and is a close cousin of the above: your passivity constituted consent; only natural for him to have a go, and keep trying, if you didn’t yell ‘no’ in his face, punch him or leave. Again, this serves to mitigate the responsibility of the alleged perpetrator.

#AzizAnsari 6: Denying Female Agency

In my last post I considered whether the interaction that ‘Grace’ of the Babe article described could hypothetically meet the legal definition of sexual assault that her detractors asserted so stridently it didn’t – while failing to provide that definition and not appearing to be very familiar with it at all.

What emerged is that this legal definition – which in the UK and USA boils down to sexual contact without consent – could very well have applied if ‘Grace’ was telling the truth: it was the concept and need for proof of consent that was really at stake, not the definition of sexual assault per se.[i]

This time I’ll be asking why, if these critics didn’t even have a concrete definition of sexual assault (or a reliable picture of what ‘Grace’ and Ansari got up to on the night), they all got so hot under the collar about her using that term (as opposed to just ‘“bad sex”’, which is what Bari Weiss wants her to call it). I suspect that what motivates the heated response isn’t really the pedant’s desire to safeguard a definition: I believe that theirs are emotional reactions to the perceived emotional, ideological and practical ramifications of an unknown 23-year-old woman daring to say of an evening with a modestly famous comedian who calls himself a feminist, “It took a really long time for me to validate this as sexual assault”’.

The objections to Grace’s applying this term to Ansari’s behaviour seem to boil down to the following propositions:

“It didn’t count because it wasn’t bad enough

“It didn’t count because you should have expected it (and got out sooner)”

“It didn’t count because you didn’t fight back (hard enough)”

“You shouldn’t call it assault because that’s denying female agency”

Each of these propositions (which frequently get made in combination) conceals a cluster or clusters of emotions; the tireless or pedantic reader may consult this companion piece for comments on the first three, but it’s the last and least transparent that really sticks out, and which in fact riddles a great many feminist conversations these days.

Let me lay a small sample before you – all highlighting my own:

Bari Weiss:

“The single most distressing thing to me about this story is that the only person with any agency in the story seems to be Aziz Ansari. The woman is merely acted upon.”

She declares the story ‘arguably the worst thing that has happened to the #MeToo movement since it began in October. It transforms what ought to be a movement for women’s empowerment into an emblem for female helplessness.’

She concludes her piece by warning of this ‘insidious attempt by some women to criminalize awkward, gross and entitled sex’ which ‘takes women back to the days of smelling salts and fainting couches. That’s somewhere I, for one, don’t want to go.’

Compare Ella Whelan speaking on BBC Radio 4 The Moral Maze episode ‘Moral Complicity’ 18.10.17, not on the Aziz Ansari story but on the whole #MeToo movement:

“I think it tells us a lot about the very negative view that some people have of women and women’s agency today – the celebration of victimhood that’s come out of the Weinstein scandal – the panic on Twitter, the sharing of the MeToo hashtag […] What it’s doing is something very damaging to women, it’s making us out to be damsels in distress, it’s dragging us back to the Victorian notion of the helpless woman that needs to be saved by the Twitter hashtag – and I just don’t see any good in it.”

(The parallels between Weiss’s and Whelan’s arguments are striking, though one laments that #AzizAnsari is damaging the glory of #MeToo, and the other that #MeToo is damaging the glory of modern womanhood. Check Whelan out: she’s a vociferous anti-feminist.)

Back to the Ansari story, we have Tiffany Wright:

“Maybe this is callous to say, but labeling every unpleasant sexual encounter an assault infantilizes women. I’ve been a victim, I understand how coercion and power dynamics work, but I also believe in female agency, and I feel insulted by the direction this discussion has taken.” (Tweet sent January 14th)

“in the months following Harvey Weinstein’s fall, I have seen many well-meaning people echo the supposedly feminist rule that consent can only be given when sober, never while intoxicated. I am well aware that alcohol can be a form of coercion and a contributor to assault, and that people who are too drunk to know what they’re doing shouldn’t be taken advantage of. “I’ve been assaulted while drunk, [but] I’ve also had drunk sex I fully agreed to,” I said in the thread. “Feminism means allowing women the agency to tell the difference,” instead of treating them like children who need to be coddled with arbitrary standards for acceptable intimacy.” (From her Guardian Opinion piece, citing her own tweets.)

Compare a friend of mine, Anonymous 1, still on Aziz Ansari and why it wasn’t assault:

“I guess at this point I am thinking of my own experiences. I have allowed bad sex to happen to me. I have also had sexual encounters that I would classify as assault because there was no space for me to allow anything. I believe there is a difference, and conflating the two is to diminish the seriousness of the latter and deny female agency.”

And then another friend of mine, Anonymous 2, on why campaigning to end the international sex trade is damaging to women:

“To say cash invalidates consent is to deny women agency.”

This last may seem like an odd one out, but I was struck by its similarity to Anonymous 1’s phrase, as well as the fact that it makes the identical error in definition that Wright does.

This may be a good moment to establish what, precisely, ‘agency’ is.

2 [ mass noun ] action or intervention producing a particular effect: canals carved by the agency of running water.

But, in philosophical terms, human agency is commonly distinguished from the agency of something like water by the fact that it is intentional: our mental states produce intentions, we make decisions to act in certain ways. This doesn’t mean, however, that the intentions and decisions behind agency are always fully conscious or thoroughly reasoned. Often, the concept of human agency refers to the capacity to act and produce effect, rather than to particular instances of action and effect as in the dictionary definition involving water. It’s important to note that agency isn’t the same as choice, neither is it free will. And it isn’t, as Wright or Anonymous 2 seem to think, the capacity and the right “to tell the difference” between consent and dissent, or between anything else for that matter. That would be something like discernment, or moral judgment, or moral autonomy.

There’s also a little confusion or slippage going on with the word ‘deny.’ Is the problem that we are actually depriving women of agency, or only that we are speaking as if they never had any? Say if we called what Ansari did a sexual assault, or criminalised the men who buy and sell women’s bodies: is the problem that this would be depriving women of their capacity to act, or that it would be treating them as if they had no capacity to act in the first place? Much of the time the phrase ‘denying female agency’ seems to be levelling both accusations at the same time, which doesn’t make much sense. Bari Weiss seems to be particularly confused on this front: recognising and lamenting that socially speaking women have less power than men, while also castigating ‘Grace’ for having wielded less power than Ansari, or perhaps even more than that for having made public her experience of feeling powerless.

But I digress: a number of voices are crying out that calling Ansari’s behaviour assault is damaging to female agency; that the entire #MeToo campaign is damaging to female agency; that fighting to end demand for prostitution is denying female agency; that feminism itself denies female agency. Victim mentality. Taking us back. Infantilising. Damsels in distress.

But how, exactly? Let’s try to reconstruct the logic of that argument – because, funnily enough, none of them have built a clear, step-by-step case.

Part of it seems to be that we struggle to reconcile our idea of agency with our idea of victimhood. But why? What is a victim, actually, and why do so many people perceive the term as a badge of shame signifying utter uselessness?

a person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action: victims of domestic violence | earthquake victims.

The fact is that ‘victim’ in its primary sense classifies a person in respect of the agency of someone or something else. It doesn’t pertain to the agency of the victim at all. It has nothing to do with the choices they’ve made, contrary to what Weiss, Wright and my friend Anonymous 1 seem to suggest. Neither the legal definition of sexual assault nor the term ‘victim’ dictate that a person must have been choiceless either prior to or during the event: only that they didn’t choose or consent to that sexual touching. The term ‘sexual assault’ says no more about the implied victim than that they did not give their consent to the sexual touching.

Neither does the term ‘victim’ in its primary sense describe a person’s mentality, attitudes or feelings. That would be another, secondary sense of the word:

  • a person who has come to feel helpless and passive in the face of misfortune or ill-treatment: I saw myself as a victim | [ as modifier ] : a victim mentality.

There is absolutely nothing which dictates that this feeling or mentality must be present when we use the term ‘victim’ in the first sense: neither in the mind of the person using the term, nor in the mind of the person to whom it is applied.

And, funnily enough, no one is bemoaning the terrible agency-denying use of the label ‘victim’ to describe people harmed by earthquakes, or even those harmed by human acts such as murder or fraud. In fact, no one seems to get at all upset about the use of that term unless it is applied to those harmed by offences that are sexual or gendered (perpetrated by men against women) in nature.

To speak of an offence is to imply the existence of both a victim and an offender, but it is to describe the choices and actions of the offender, rather than those of the victim.

A concrete example: a person has committed burglary by entering a home uninvited with the intention of stealing/committing damage/causing bodily harm, whether the door was locked or not (the victim’s choice), and whether the inhabitants chose to fight or not (the victim’s choice). The inhabitants may exercise their agency to the full, choose to repel the burglar with the utmost of assertive pluck, and yet the burglar remains a burglar and her actions may be tried as burglary. And these courageous inhabitants who have successfully repelled the burglar, or restrained her until the police arrive, remain the victims of a burglary.

The label ‘victim’ describes neither the agency nor the feelings of said victim.

A victim may be active or passive; conscious or unconscious; brave or cowardly; deserving or undeserving; sweet and innocent or deplorable in every way.

Long story short: victimhood and agency are not mutually exclusive.

But we already knew this. We know that when someone tells us “I have been the victim of a burglary,” they are not saying “I am helpless. I am by nature a victim of burglary. I will always and forever be getting burgled because there are lots of nasty burglars and I have no agency. Oh, and everyone else who lives in a house is also by nature a helpless victim of burglary who has no agency.”

We understand that to say “I have been the victim of a burglary” may signify nothing more melodramatic than, “Someone broke into my house and stole stuff. They did something wrong that harmed me. I hold them accountable for it. I’m also going to get an alarm system so it’s less likely to happen again.”

So why is it that when a woman says “I have been the victim of a man’s sexual aggression” so many of us seem to panic and hear her say “I am helpless. I am by nature a victim of male sexual aggression. That’s because all women are by nature helpless victims of male sexual aggression”?

Perhaps because it isn’t really women that Weiss and Whelan and the rest are defending when they bluster about movements that “deny female agency”.

Because to speak of a sexual misconduct and its victim, rather than of “bad sex,” is to declare that the woman was entitled not to have experienced what she experienced: that she had the right to expect it would not happen, and to have behaved accordingly. It is to hold the man in question responsible as a perpetrator; it is to say, “he ought not to have done that, and other men ought not to do that in future.” It is a statement about male rather than female behaviours and mentalities: a criticism of them.

It is, if anything, an attack on male agency.

And why we can so little bear this, I’ll say next time.




[i] To disqualify her use of the term one would have to

  1. believe that she consented just by going to his place, and
  2. believe that the words ‘next time’ and ‘I don’t want to feel forced’, as well as her repeatedly moving his hand away from her genitals and retreating from him bodily, were not enough to withdraw that consent; or
  3. prove that she was lying about having said and done the above-mentioned.

Personally I don’t believe that a. and b. can leave anyone with a reasonable belief that the other person wants to have sex, but plenty do. Kyle Smith writes of ‘sex willingly embarked upon by both parties’ (even though no sex was actually had at all, which says a lot about how much attention he paid to Grace’s account); television host and former prosecutor Sunny Hostin pronounced that ‘she went willingly back to his apartment, they did engage in sexual activity consensually, and then somewhere along the lines she decided that she had had enough and wanted to go home.’ They do not offer to substantiate their assumptions of willingness, which does nothing to dispel my suspicion that their assertions are unfounded and more emotional than rational.

And I’d just like to reiterate for the umpteenth time that using such a term does not signify that one wants to have the perpetrator tried for the offence in court.  


#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.

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

#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.

#AzizAnsari 2

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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

  1. ideals of masculinity haven’t required them to demonstrate emotional intelligence and sensitivity to the desires of others
  2. 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.