During my first college hookup, my crush repeatedly tried to convince me to go down on him, physically pushing my head and saying “come on” when I said “no.” Eventually, I gave in because it seemed easier than arguing and safer than making him angry and potentially more aggressive. Six years later, a friend and I were recounting our first oral sex experiences when I said, “I’m not sure if mine was consensual.” After I described it, she replied, “I don’t think it was.” That hadn’t even occurred to me until then. The hookup had seemed normal.
Soon after that conversation, an OKCupid date took me to the park, kissed me, stood back, gave me an up-and-down look, put his hand on my breast, squeezed it, and said “my place?” I told him I had to go, and he texted me later to ask me out again. When I told another friend about this, she said, “Give him another chance. He didn’t know.” But wasn’t that the problem? He didn’t know if I consented. And he did it anyway. To her, though, that seemed normal, too.
I could go on and on with stories like these, as could practically any woman. After all, our culture views a “normal” heterosexual relationship as one where a man wants sex and a woman acquiesces. We get this message depressingly young: A quarter of people ages 12-20 in one Our Watch survey said it’s normal for guys to pressure girls into sex. Our culture has collectively bought into the idea that it’s a man’s job to push as hard as he absolutely can and a woman’s job to stop him with all her might if she doesn’t like it — rather than both of them actually enjoying it.
Gender stereotypes provide the fuel for this toxic conception of sex. Women are stereotyped as passive, leading people to wonder, “How will a guy ever have sex if he doesn’t get pushy?” Meanwhile, men are stereotyped as violent and uncontrollably horny, leading people to excuse sexual coercion as “natural.”
Overhauling our view of sex requires overhauling our view of gender. It requires thinking of women as people who have strong sexual desires and want sex, and taking these desires into account. It requires thinking of men as emotional beings who seek connection through sex, which includes wanting a partner who is present and connected themselves.
It requires thinking of women and men as equal, and thus giving them an equal say in how a date ends.
Ansari pressured Grace in multiple ways: by putting her hand on his penis repeatedly after she moved it away, by following her when she backed away from him, by motioning for her to go down on him then trying to initiate sex after she said “I don’t want to feel forced,” and then by trying to initiate sex yet again after she said she wasn’t ready. Not to mention, he touched her breasts, undressed them both, and went to get a condom immediately after they started kissing — before he had any information to gage whether she’d be into that.
After the story was published, my social media feeds blew up with women telling similar stories of men who pressured them and pressured them until the men wore them down. My feed was also flooded with defenses of Ansari — even with an #AzizDidNothingWrong hashtag for people arguing that what he did was a normal part of a heterosexual interaction.
Yet, even some who believe that the story doesn’t describe sexual abuse still concede that it does show “aggressive” or “pushy” or “manipulative” behavior, not realizing that aggression, pushiness, and manipulation can be abusive.
Cook adds that the actions Grace details should not be undermined by calling them “peer pressure.” LoveIsRespect’s definition of sexual abuse includes “pressuring or forcing someone to have sex or perform sexual acts.”
Hearing people say that Ansari’s behavior was no problem conveys to me — to every woman — that what happened to us was no problem either. Clearly, it is common. But there’s a difference between common and normal, and we shouldn’t treat an abusive behavior as normal just because it happens often.
Another argument I’ve been hearing — most notably in Bari Weiss’s New York Times op-ed “Aziz Ansari Is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader.” — is that Grace acted helpless, and the narrative around her experience paints women as helpless.
I can’t say why Grace didn’t resist more aggressively, but I can say why I didn’t.
I really liked the guy and desperately wanted him to like me, and he made me feel like going down on him wouldn’t be such a big deal. He seemed so sweet, and I trusted that he wouldn’t tell me to do something I wouldn’t like. Throwing a fit and storming out seemed like an awful way to end the night with someone who I hoped — in my 18-year-old naiveté — would become my boyfriend. And if telling him “no” led him to push my head down, what might he do if I physically protested?
In that way, acting like I consented may have actually been a defense mechanism. Because maybe, if I didn’t do it, he would’ve kept pushing my head until I was truly physically restrained. And then that night would’ve ended in an even worse way — because I wouldn’t even have the illusion that I’d consented.
Ultimately, though, whether I or Grace or anyone could have fought back harder doesn’t matter. Yes, as Weiss’s op-ed argues, women are strong and smart and capable enough to finesse our way out of scary situations. But we shouldn’t need to, because we shouldn’t be in those situations in the first place. I don’t want to live in a world where avoiding sexual assault requires kicking and screaming. I want to live in a world where people aren’t trying to assault me.
Whether it was the result of being confused or scared or drunk, or wanting him to like her, or simply a lifetime of being socialized to please men, remaining in Ansari’s apartment was not a moral failing on Grace’s part. It was proof that sexual coercion plagues our society. And the fact that women are routinely put in this position is not normal. It’s effed up.
From Fifty Shades of Grey to “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” male sexual aggression has been romanticized, but Grace’s story shows that, in reality, it’s anything but romantic. It’s disrespectful at the very least, and, in some cases, traumatizing.
We can say that Grace’s story “sounds normal,” and take this apparent normality to mean nothing’s wrong. Or we can decide that, when someone repeatedly tries to stop a sexual encounter, gets pressured into it anyway, and leaves in tears, something clearly is wrong. And we can think: “If that sounds normal, we need to change what ‘normal’ means.”