I’ve been reading a lot of commentary about a date with comedian Aziz Ansari, as described recently by a woman on Babe.net, and many people have asked me whether or not this was just a bad sexual encounter or truly sexual assault. “How can men be mind readers?” “What does consent really look like?” “Why didn’t she just tell him to stop?” But one question I haven’t heard talked about much is: “Why weren’t the non-verbal cues enough?” So, in a special Ask Natalie segment, let’s dissect what went wrong on the date described by the women going by the alias “Grace,” and how we can avoid these types of negative interactions.
What people say and what people do are two different things. The idea of going out with such a big celebrity like Aziz, someone who has been held up as a feminist ally, someone who has made jokes on stage about “creepy men,” may have given “Grace” the wrong impression. She assumed he was “one of the good guys.” Therein lies the problem. People say all sorts of things. But people always show you who they are. Getting to know someone first can help you deepen your understanding of him as well as help you make a more informed decision about whether they would make a good romantic partner.
Shouldn’t consent be verbalized? While in a perfect world it should be, many times women are afraid to speak up when finding themselves in a precarious situation. In this instance, she was alone with him in his apartment, unsure of how he would react to a strong “NO”. As I read her account of him moving her hands to places where she didn’t want them on his body, I felt as though I was reading a story that had been written many, many times before. Women are raised and socialized to appease men. We are conditioned not to humiliate. We are told to be helpful and caring and think of them first. Verbalizing our own needs often isn’t taught at all or taught in a way that comes second to all else. As last in line, it is often difficult for many women to speak up when they need to. Instead of continuing this way, why don’t we socialize young women and girl to stand up for themselves and teach young men and boys to cherish and respect women? And let’s be frank. Non-verbal cues are expressed by all of us, all day long. Eye rolling, smiling, crossing our arms, pushing someone’s hand away, these are all ways of expressing our pleasure or disdain. You can’t tell me he was so dense that he didn’t understand what it meant when she moved his hands away from her body or moved her own hands off of his body. He has been socialized to think of himself first and she was socialized to think of him first, as well. The entire article was about how she felt she was relating to him. Her experience was relational. His was not.
Think of this example: Recently, the women from the United States gymnastic team came out against a team doctor who had sexually assaulted dozens of them over the course of many years. The (now) women were mostly young girls when the assaults took place and after reporting it to the United States Olympic Committee and other adults in positions of authority, they were ignored. For years. So when someone says, “why didn’t she just speak up?” the truth is, many times women and girls have, and it still hasn’t made a difference.
Please do not use pornography as a blueprint for romance. It was very clear reading the article that Aziz (and he is not alone in this) was staging a show for himself. “Where do you want to do it? Over here on the couch? On the table in the kitchen?” Putting his fingers into her mouth and mimicking things that he saw online might have colored his vision for what an intimate encounter would look like. Here’s something to keep in mind: Pornography is mostly directed by men for a male audience. Women in that space are used mostly as props or objects to satisfy male desire. This was exactly what was happening in this situation. She was a prop, not a person. We socialize women to be objects for male desire and we socialize men to recognize their desires as the only ones that count. What if we experienced intimacy as relational to one another? In the case of Aziz and Grace, this gratification was seemingly once sided.
This goes much deeper than “it was just a bad date”. This is a systemic issue that needs to be addressed. The framework upholding experiences like this does not serve women or men. Men are isolated from their own feelings as they are socialized to “be tough”. This lack of self compassion breeds contempt for others. Women, on the other hand, are conditioned to give to everyone else first, lending themselves to ignore their own needs and desires. In turn, interactions become sullied with resentment and fear, aggression and frustration. No one wins. But what is the solution? While there isn’t a clear cut answer for avoiding “bad” dates, I would say that the ritual of dating should return. “Hanging out” or “hooking up” diminishes social interactions and reduces the physical experience to something casual and unimportant. What’s wrong with going out on a first date with no expectations of an intimate encounter until getting to know that person better? The world of online dating has created a “hook up market” where you can swipe past people without getting to know them, basing your interest on a single photo or one cheeky phrase. This way of engagement has made many lonely and afraid to communicate in person with one another. Pairing this with the unrealistic expectations that social media has placed upon us, many are left looking for the bigger, better deal, often times leading us to a space of depression and inability to be present.
We can do better by holding ourselves and each other accountable even though these discussions are uncomfortable, complex and oftentimes do not have immediate resolution. While you may not be able to go back and fix your bad dates from the past, you can become more introspective in this moment and decide not only what kind of person you wish to be, but who you want your children to be. We can start with removing gender labels from toys. In fact, studies have shown that when boys play with dolls, they grow up to be more nurturing, loving men and fathers. When we open our daughters’ eyes to a world of experiences outside of the domestic toys, we broaden their dreams and nurture their sense of independence. We can dismantle framework that harms all of us, but this collective power begins with each of us saying: “I’m willing to listen, I now know better, I will and can do better.”
Please send your relationship and lifestyle questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet them to @NBSeen. You can also send postal letters to Natalie Bencivenga, 358 North Shore Drive, Pittsburgh, PA 15212
(This column was originally published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)