Tuesday, January 16, 2018

This aggressive sexual culture is sadly banal

The Aziz Ansari bad, coercive date account makes me really sad. Not even specifically in the larger context of the deluge of allegations and revelations about famous, powerful men who – not surprisingly, but sadly – have abused power. While men are, willingly or unwillingly, consciously or unconsciously, the beneficiaries of patriarchy and sexism, it’s not surprising that celebrities may leverage male privilege on a disproportionate scale: if sexism and patriarchy has made men feel entitled and immune, it follows that more powerful, wealthy, famous men may feel even more entitled and immune. 

Image of statement from babe.net

It’s because, more so than other publicized accounts of sexual misconduct, it feels so sadly mundane.

For many people, the shock of what is often being referred to as the #metoo movement isn’t specifically the nature of the revelations and allegations themselves, it’s simply that they’re actually, finally being disclosed, and that harassment, assault, abuse of power, and rape are being revealed and discussed openly.

It’s that no matter how much any of us – women of varying intersecting social positions and identities and levels of privilege – were taught to internalize guilt and shame and socialized to take undue responsibility for things done to us, slowly but surely we’re unlearning internalized misogyny and toxic gender norms and discovering that mistreatment and pain and close calls aren’t due to our shortcomings and failures. That the amount we’ve been taught to be vigilant and safeguard ourselves from inevitable sexual attack has normalized the expectation that sexual violence is inevitable.

And what’s the alternative – abandon vigilance? Just because sexual violence and harassment shouldn’t be ubiquitous, ever-looming threats doesn’t change the practical, immediate, safety and well-being concerns for women’s physical and emotional survival.

In a post in late 2016 called the continuum of consent I finally articulated my thoughts on what I might now, wryly, also call consent relativism. I was thinking about how I had learned to feel lucky I’d never been raped. So many experience I’d had, I decided were Not That Bad. In that post, I grappled with realizing, in hindsight, what events I understood to be consensual, as in not blatantly and completely forcible and non-consensual, were not that consensual at all based on an ever-expanding, feminist definition that pivots around the revolutionary notion of consent as enthusiastic and continuous.

In writing that post, I tried to understand why we’re so afraid to risk presenting an experience as Yes, That Bad and why our minds work so relentlessly to rationalize horrific predatory behaviour (something I dug into in this post).

As I was thinking about my own gut reactions to the Ansari story, I came across this post by Katie Anthony on katykatikate, aptly titled “not that bad,” that so perfectly encapsulated and enlightened my complicated feelings about how we characterize, understand, and file away these kind of encounters:
“I have had my fair share of what I'd call 'crappy dates.' And what I call crappy dates looks an awful lot like what Grace calls sexual assault. It's like we went on the same dates, wrote down the same details, and told two very different stories.”
“And yes, guys, what Grace described is totally normal for a woman. This is a normal sex encounter. The women that you're seeing scoff at her? They aren't scoffing because they think a guy would never do that. They're scoffing because they believe every single word she said. They don't have to imagine it either.” 
 “What I'm realizing now, after reading Grace's story and the responses to it, is that when I shrink my own pain, I also shrink my empathy for women who feel the same pain and feel it full-size. I resent Grace for talking about her hookup as if it's an assault. I'm mad at her for talking about it at all.”
As Anthony so astutely synthesizes elsewhere in the post and I’ll paraphrase here: bad, presumptive, non-communicative, heteronormative sex needs to be analyzed in the context of sexism, patriarchy, gender norms, and our sad, aggressive, masculinist sexual culture that exalts men’s needs and tramples on women’s.

I can think of so many experiences that were bad dates in my more formative years of dating guys outside those I grew up with and trusted, because my fear of embarrassing the man, looking inexperienced, or escalating an uncomfortable situation made me inclined to comply and get through it.

I think of how this conversation wasn’t on my radar in 2004, 2005, or 2006. How two girlfriends drove to a house where I was on a bad, weird date and showed up after getting my text SOS. How, daring to let my guard down once, I was once almost dragged away from a party by a stranger when vigilant and loving friends, male and female, physically intervened (you know who you are – thank you). How for a long time I was more embarrassed about this situation than being enraged by a potential close call with date rape.

In 2005, I only knew “no means no” and that was about it. I was a fairly empowered young person with a lot of access to education and access to the reinforcement of good self-esteem, but I didn’t know consent should be explicitly given, and could be withdrawn.

Still, my mind knows others have experienced worse, and tries to file these under Not That Bad.

Women’s experiences of heterosexual sex that is aggressive, uncomfortable, dismissive of needs, non-communicative and that privileges men’s expectation and desires may be what women know as simply, regular sex, particularly while dating/ hooking up or at the start of a relationship. To men, this may just be sex. This is a problem and it is unacceptable. Men have defined the terms for too long.

As I was writing this my partner, who is a man, looked over my shoulder and said he felt exhausted by what I was writing, but also said he recognized and understood that it wasn’t his place to be exhausted. In other words, this topic, while exhausting, is not his exhausting everyday reality, an exhausting reality that disproportionately affects women depending on race, class, ability, and other intersecting identities and privileges or lack of privileges that impact safety, wellness, and access to supports.

I said, yes – having this self-awareness on this topic is not the arena for men to strive for bonus points and extras and leverage their feminism for social capital and praise, but rather we should expect men to participate in such a way that to support, champion, self-analyze, and make strides of sincere and dedicated allyship gets them up to zero.

A solid baseline. Strive to show up, and be there.