Roughly a year ago, a celebrity man I previously quoted and admired, particularly for his inclusion in comedy writing, publicly admitted to treating a woman with callous disrespect on a first date, after she called him out. He didn’t rape her. But he did treat her poorly. And he didn’t deny any part of her account of events.
Right after this broke in media, I was approached online by a male friend of mine whom I’ve known for three or four years. I’m somewhat of a people collector, and he is far and away my newest ‘real life’ friend. He’s a Christian who’s very serious about it, like many of the folks in J’s and my close proximity, but he’s what I’ll call (for lack of a better word) pretty ‘woke’ for a serious Christian. No LGBT+ hate. No overt racism or ‘other’ hate. He’ll own and apologize for it when he does get called out on lesser, more passive exclusionary and privileged transgressions. He at least understands progressive policy ideas if he’s not actually advocating for them, and he often IS advocating for them. I think he’s a good guy. He’s at least trying his best to be one, which is all we can really hope for people to do and be.
His initial message to me was, “I’ve been struggling with the Aziz Ansari story.” My response was, “Same. He let me down.” The turn our discussion took from there honestly surprised me.
Warning: Long, ranty post ahead. Continue at your choosing.
My friend said he was ‘struggling’ with the story because he’d read the account of the incident, and ‘couldn’t see a clear bad guy.’ He claims he could in a lot of other reported cases of famous men behaving poorly with women. He didn’t doubt the veracity of the account, or the accuser’s motives (even Aziz Ansari himself didn’t deny her account of things or question her motives for coming forward about it); his problem was that what he was reading described behavior that wasn’t in the wrong. Here are some of the things he expressed to me during this conversation:
“It’s not like Weinstein. It’s not like <short list of other famous men he’d never personally identified with who have been accused of harassment/sexual assault>. I mean this is on a spectrum, right?”
“I don’t think in this case, it was entirely his fault. Men have been conditioned to believe that some behavior is fine…but then I guess really it’s not.”
“There has to be a difference in our reaction to a guy that goes too far with kissing on a date and someone like Weinstein.”
“We’ve been taught to respect a woman’s ‘no,’ to show we’re sensitive men, but what if there’s no ‘no?’ How do we know when we’re crossing this *imaginary* line?”
I’ve been called ‘honest to a fault’ multiple times in my life, and I’ve really been working on diplomacy, because my honesty does tend to rub people the wrong way. It’s cost me a fair amount of friends over the past 6 or 7 years. But this got to me. I talked it out in (I think) civil terms with my friend, and at least for today, we’re still friends. But I want to write about it here, where I don’t have to censor my experience to be accepted.
That stuff he said? It’s horseshit. ^^^ That stuff he said about men not knowing what they’re doing is wrong without her clear ‘no,’ and crossing ‘imaginary’ lines… I mean, yeah, I get it. A clear ‘no’ would be nice. But every human being with relatively normal mental and emotional capacity knows when someone is uncomfortable around them, without the explicit clarity. Men know. Because men are people. People can sense when we’re standing too close to someone in a check-out line, so we back off. We can sense when our voice is too loud when we’re speaking on our cell phone in public, based on the reactions of the people around us, so we dial down the volume. We can sense when the person next to us is hot or cold or irritated or sad. We don’t need them to say the actual words, ‘I am hot,’ or, ‘I am pissed,’ or, ‘I am sad,’ although they often DO, and normally when they do, we know it’s a jerk move to then respond by offering a cold person some ice cream or a hot person a coat to wear and a large coffee. We’d know without the words, and most of the time, we don’t even need ‘drenched in sweat’ or ‘teeth chattering’ or ‘screaming and punching’ or ‘uncontrolled sobbing’ to pick up on these cues. *If we’re paying attention to the other person.* We can tell. And if we don’t notice, it’s because we’re self-involved and aren’t taking the other people around us into consideration; not because they aren’t giving us the signs.
Men can tell when the woman they are with is uncomfortable. If they can’t, they either have some type of atypical mental or social function that doesn’t allow them to pick up on nonverbal social cues (not UNcommon…but not common either), or (much more common) they aren’t really considering her at all, and they’ve been passively socialized (or sometimes actively socialized) to think that’s fine. If they ‘aren’t sure’ if she’s uncomfortable, they should *check.* How hard is it to say, “You seem uncomfortable. Is something wrong?” Or “I want to do <this intimate thing> with you…you want to?” And if she says, “No. I don’t want to…” ? STOP ASKING.
J and I have a child and own a home together. We’ve spoken with each other every day for over 15 years and lived together for most of that time. He is my *husband.* I love showing him physical affection and I love it when he shows me physical affection. But there are times when both of us say ‘no’ and ‘stop.’ He respects those words at their face value, and while I know he feels like I don’t owe him an explanation (even though he is my husband and we’ve been together for a decade and a half now), he is always concerned and wants to know why. Not because he feels slighted that he didn’t get what he sought…but because he doesn’t want to repeat that behavior that led to me saying ‘no’ or ‘stop.’ We *communicate.* And we *care about each other.*
I knew this was too much information for an informal discussion about the ‘nuance’ of consent with a (I want to believe earnestly) confused friend, so I’m sharing it here because my blog, my rules…
J still checks in without the words ‘no’ and ‘stop.’
“Is that a good noise or a bad noise?”
“What’s that face mean?”
“You like that?”
“That feel good?”
“Are you alright?”
“Is this okay?”
It doesn’t ruin the mood for me (I admit I’m weird, but I don’t think I’m THAT weird). It makes me feel cared for and respected that J wants to have *certainty* that I’m into (or at least ok with) what he’s doing. Even though we have all of this time and trust invested in our HAPPILY MARRIED relationship, and I am always honest with J, if he still feels unsure, he’ll check *again.* ‘You sure this is good?’ This doesn’t show me a lack of romance or highlight insecurity on J’s part. He alleviates MY insecurity when he checks. Any meeting that could potentially lead to romance or sex, and most meetings between people in general don’t have that kind of time, trust, and upfront communication invested. So if J, as a man married to his wife for over a decade, is checking, other people certainly have to ask and check on a first date to at least several more encounters with someone.
My friend’s argument was that men are socialized to believe that asking and checking isn’t ‘romantic,’ but when they don’t ask and check, now they are overstepping, and they just ‘can’t win.’ He even went so far as to claim he really had no idea when people around him were feeling uncomfortable and there were no ‘tells.’
“What are we supposed to do if she doesn’t say ‘no?’”
If you truly are a person who can’t read nonverbal social cues, you should work on it, if for no other reason than self-preservation. But in the mean time, you’re supposed to not do whatever that thing is you want to do until your partner says ‘yes.’ And if you’re not sure they’re saying yes? They’re not. Err on the side of caution for your partner and yourself. If you ask for permission and your partner tells you you aren’t romantic? They’re the wrong person for you. Get you a partner that appreciates that you revere informed consent. I promise there are a lot of us. It doesn’t have to sound like, ‘Hurr durr, can I kiss you now?’ People know (or at least they should) that 30 seconds into an initial meeting/the first time she enters your apartment/the first time he <basically insert anything here> is not a good time to proposition romantic or sexual contact. We know that (but many people unfortunately seem not to care). But after some TIME, saying, ‘I want to kiss you/I can’t stop thinking about kissing you/etc…’ If that person is into you? That’s highly likely to be well received.
I don’t want to speak for all women, but I can speak for me when I say, every time in my life that I’ve overtly enforced any kind of social boundary (clear, direct ‘no’), other than my time with a handful of recently cultivated friendships with other women, and with J, I’ve received pretty harsh, immediate negative reinforcement for it. Including from my own family members. I developed a reputation as a ‘bitch.’ I’m ‘so sensitive.’ And I think, based on how many women have made claims to relate to things I write, I’m not alone here. Men are socialized to believe that just taking what they want is ‘romantic’, and that disregarding the nonverbal cues (and sometimes even the verbal ones other than a clear, direct ‘no,’ and sometimes not that one either) is acceptable and expected? Well, women are socialized to believe that enforcing boundaries is unattractive at best. We learn, very early on, that saying no to ANYONE about ANYTHING, particularly demands for our time, attention, and affection, is selfish. We learn, very early on, that saying no, particularly to people bigger and stronger than us, or with more power or authority than us is potentially if not actually dangerous. Saying ‘no’ could (and has) cost us jobs, friends, networking contacts, promotions, respect…
Refusing and rejecting men without the right degree of politeness and finesse could lead to physical assault or even literal death. We’ve not only seen media coverage of those stories, we’ve HEARD first hand accounts of them from people we KNOW. So a lot of us, at least some of the time, don’t say a clear, direct ‘no.’ We don’t push big guys away with force. We don’t feel safe ‘just walking out.’ That doesn’t mean we want whatever they’re coming at us with. We cross our arms and look away. We move so other people can see us/are in between us and the man making us uncomfortable. We nervously giggle. We say things like, ‘Let’s just chill,’ or ‘We’re going a little fast,’ or ‘I don’t think I’m ready for this,’ instead of ‘Back the fuck off.’ Men should take some initiative about learning these ‘soft’ cues of discomfort. They are used to carefully negotiate with THEM and maintain personal safety.
Again…J and I have a long history of commitment together, and he’s my *husband,* but he still seeks the ‘yes.’ And again…it’s not too much to share on MY blog, so…what J really wants is a ‘please.’ He likes the certainty. And obviously, so do I.
The point I’m trying to make with all this wordiness and potential oversharing is, in order to have certainty with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in a romantic relationship, men need to do some of the mental and emotional work to actually make it a relationship. It’s not all on women to communicate in ways that are easy to understand for men (which are still ignored, discounted, dismissed, and critiqued, in addition to costing a significant number of women their literal lives). Learn to read nonverbal cues, and when you aren’t sure, ASK. Check. If she doesn’t appreciate you checking on her well-being, she’s not the right girl for you. And to gain certainty without directly checking, if it’s ever even possible, takes TIME and WORK. If you are on an early date with a new acquaintance, you don’t know enough about that person and their unspoken signals to move without checking. Get the knowledge and do the work. Don’t assume that what you want is what they want because ‘she didn’t really say ‘no’.’ And take the responsibility if you go in without certainty. It’s always possible to be certain. And it’s not always about men behaving badly. I know it’s ‘not all men.’ Because J is a man and he doesn’t do this shit. And I know women can definitely be self-involved and dismissive of soft no’s, nonverbal social cues, and even overt consent violators too. I’ve even experienced it. It just seems like a lot of men value getting what they personally want over having certainty when it comes to sexual contact.
The men I write value the certainty. They value a ‘yes,’ over ‘not a no.’ They have emotional intelligence about soft ‘no’s’ and nonverbal cues, and understanding of why the important women in their lives don’t always feel good about giving them clear, hard ‘no’s.’ Because that’s what a romantic fantasy man looks like to me.