After the Aziz Ansari story, we must challenge why reluctance is a “mixed message” in sexual situations
The recent exposé from Babe.net detailing alleged sexual misconduct by Master of None co-creator Aziz Ansari has made headlines, opening up heated (and necessary) discussions about consent. The news was particularly shocking and upsetting because Ansari has used his platform to advocate for women’s safety; he was seen as an ally, as woke, as one of the “good” guys. You can read Ansari’s response here.
Some women who read the exposé quickly recognized that boundaries had been crossed, that the 23-year-old Brooklyn photographer who told her story to Babe had felt coerced into sexual activity. However, some people questioned why Ansari’s date, who went by the pseudonym Grace for the Babe article, didn’t immediately leave Ansari’s apartment when she initially felt uncomfortable. Why didn’t she yell “no” or “stop”? Writers argued that the absence of those words sent a mixed message, blurring consensual lines.
In nonsexual situations, it’s not uncommon for people to find ways of declining without ever saying the word “no.”
Through both the spoken and unspoken, it is possible to clearly receive the “soft no” message the other person is sending, a non-verbal indication of “no” to convey feelings in a way that safely diffuses a situation.
And that’s what Grace did: She moved her hand away multiple times after he tried to put it on his penis. She explained to Babe, “Most of my discomfort was expressed in me pulling away and mumbling. I know that my hand stopped moving at some points…I stopped moving my lips and turned cold.” When Ansari asked if she was okay, Grace told Babe, “I said I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you,” she said.
The article continues:
She told Babe that at first, she was happy with how he reacted. “He said, ‘Oh, of course, it’s only fun if we’re both having fun.’ The response was technically very sweet and acknowledging the fact that I was very uncomfortable. Verbally, in that moment, he acknowledged that I needed to take it slow. Then he said, ‘Let’s just chill over here on the couch.’
This moment is particularly significant for Grace, because she thought that would be the end of the sexual encounter — her remark about not wanting to feel “forced had added a verbal component to the cues she was trying to give him about her discomfort. When she sat down on the floor next to Ansari, who sat on the couch, she thought he might rub her back, or play with her hair — something to calm her down.
Ansari instructed her to turn around. “He sat back and pointed to his penis and motioned for me to go down on him. And I did. I think I just felt really pressured. It was literally the most unexpected thing I thought would happen at that moment because I told him I was uncomfortable.
We need to ask why it’s so hard for men to understand “no” and expressions of discomfort in sexual situations — but not in other kinds of situations. Why does our culture consider women’s reluctance to signal our eventual interest — interest that men are entitled to?
Let’s say, for example, that a coworker invites you along for a weekend of camping, one that you do not wish to attend. Answers such as “That’s not really a great weekend for me – maybe some other time,” or “I’m not the outdoorsy type” communicate that you are not interested. Even a furrowing of the brow or a grimace upon being asked is often indication enough to your coworker that spending two days shacked up in a tent experiencing nature is not for you.
Yet, when it comes to sexual situations, rape culture sees reluctance as a “mixed message.”
Sexual activity may be declined in several ways, without a “hard no” being explicitly stated. This does not mean that consent is ambiguous; on the contrary, it’s there in both the spoken and the unspoken.
Yes, it’s true that no means no. However, “I’m kinda tired” means no. “I’m on my period” means no. And even a “Let’s slow down” means no. “No” can be a wrinkling of the nose, a long awkward pause, or a pinched expression. At the very least, those cues should cause the initiator to ask if the other person is okay before moving forward — and to actually listen to the answer.
Why is it often easier for people to understand the reluctant message behind these types of interactions when it comes to social outings, work gatherings, or family obligations — but not when it comes to sex? Do people truly believe that a “soft no” is a mixed message? That gestures made to safely escape uncomfortable sexual situations are somehow coded consent? Or is this mindset proof of social conditioning at the hands of rape culture? false
Even worse — is the “mixed message” argument simply an excuse used to justify coercion in order to receive the desired result? Because let’s be realistic: If someone is cowering at the edge of a pool, staring bleakly into the water, most people would quickly assume they have no desire to hop in and go for a swim. Why is similar body language at the prospect of sex seen as a “gray area”?
Social cues clearly define what someone is and is not comfortable with, and language that does not contain a “no” can still mean no. Still, we all can benefit from being more vocal to help establish our agency — but it’s the responsibility of the initiator to pay attention to the communication being given, and to refrain from forcing, manipulating, intentionally misleading, or pressuring their partner.
Consent must be unequivocal, continuous, and enthusiastic. This is the only way to make sure that you and your partner are always on the same page, and that no lines will be crossed.