I’ve had my fair share of ‘bad sex’. Most women have, I think.
I’ve had sex with a guy who lied about being single so I’d sleep with him. I’ve had sex with guys sooner than I thought I would because they were persuasive or I was a little bit drunk (just enough to lose my inhibitions – not so much I was incapable of consent) and thought it was a good idea or because I was just really turned on in that moment. And I’ve had lots of sex that hasn’t lived up to my physical or emotional expectations.
So yes, I’ve had sex with guys and regretted it.
And I wouldn’t call any of this sexual assault.
I say this because I felt viscerally uncomfortable when I read the story about Aziz Ansari that has blown up in the media this week.
A young woman who was 22 at the time and is 23 now, has anonymously told a website about the night she went on a date with Ansari. The details are explicit and yet familiar to most women – you were hoping to be romanced and maybe have a relationship and he is pretty much focused on having sex with you and you’re disappointed because you hoped it might play out differently. You’re not that into it but you don’t really know how to express that clearly and you’re hoping he’ll get the message from your body language.
What’s different about this account is that it has been published in the context of the woman being a victim of sexual assault.
Ansari has commented on the story, and offered a statement about his actions.
With the #metoo and #timesup movements that have been so empowering for women and so revolutionary in many industries, particularly the entertainment industry, there is a huge appetite for these stories, for women being able to speak up.
Listen: We need to talk about Aziz Ansari
This is a good thing.
What went on in Ansari’s apartment that night is complicated. According to the woman’s account, clearly signals were misread and expectations were wildly different. In their text exchanges afterwards he agrees that he misread the situation and expresses regret for the mismatch of expectations. He thought she was up for it. She tried to be but she wasn’t. Of course, every woman is allowed to change her mind at any point during sex or during a date. Are men allowed to try and persuade us to change it back? Or are heterosexual sex acts only ever acceptable and truly consensual if they are initiated by the woman? Does a man putting his hand on the back of your head and gently trying to push you down towards his crotch to express he would like to progress to oral sex warrant sexual assault?
These are genuine questions raised by this story.
Surely, we need to be mindful and careful about what we classify as sexual assault. So many of the accusations against powerful men have been in the context of workplace harassment – where initiating or pressuring a person to have sex is indisputably inappropriate. But when we start talking about dating, we enter different territory.
There is a far more nuanced discussion to be had about consent and mixed signals and miscommunication and if every bad sexual encounter is considered a ‘violation’, we risk the term quickly losing its meaning. If you’ve ever had sex, you’ll be well-versed in managing the occasional gap in expectations that can occur when one person wants to have sex more (or sooner or in different ways) than the other. We need to empower young women how to handle those situations without ubiquitously viewing themselves as victims and all men as predators.
It’s not black and white. Feeling uncomfortable about a sexual encounter is legitimate. Wishing you hadn’t taken part in certain sexual acts is legitimate, too. But these experiences are possible without the encounter being classified as sexual assault.