CN: sexual assault, sexual violence, rape culture, sexism, mention of sex acts, Me Too movement, trauma
Warning: Many links in this piece lead to articles that include graphic descriptions of sexual assault, in depth discussions of rape culture, and videos of rape apologists. Some have content warnings, some do not. Click at your own risk.
I’ve noticed some men seem a little lost as news of the Me Too movement pours in. Why are so many celebrities getting outed as perpetrators of sexual assault and was what they did really that bad? What behavior is expected of men going forward? Why is what happened with Ansari such a big deal? Isn’t this all going a little too far?
But for the men who are reading this article, I hope that most of you want to understand why the women in your life are dedicated to this movement, or at least how they are affected by it. I’ve put together a compilation of resources, such as articles and videos, as well as brief summaries and some information of my own, that cover all the really important pieces of information that you need to understand in order to participate in the Me Too movement and respond to the women close to you on the topic.
This article is for men who are scared, confused, blindsided by a movement dropping into their lives with very little context or education to help them make sense of the new changes, or for women who want to give the men in their lives a place to start learning. Women have been fighting different versions of this movement for decades, but now that it’s supported by institutions willing to fire you if you get it wrong, I hope you’ll take this opportunity to learn as much as you can.
I realize that this list is a lot of information and some of it might make you uncomfortable. Some of the writers offer you the benefit of the doubt, some of them will openly mock you. I hope you can accept our anger as part of your learning process. There are more than 30 articles and other resources linked in this piece. I recommend handling it just one piece at a time. Incorporate reading an article a day into your routine. But please, make a point to look at all of it.
Background on Me Too and Ansari
As Lindy West discusses in this New York Times article, the battle against sexual assault and the efforts to educate the public on the topics of rape culture and consent have been going on for a very long time. West says, “The notion of affirmative consent did not fall from space in October 2017 to confound well-meaning but bumbling men; it was built, loudly and painstakingly and in public, at great personal cost to its proponents, over decades.”
But as Stephanie Zacharek, Eliana Dockterman and Haley Sweetland Edwards detail in their Time Magazine article, “The Silence Breakers,” this centuries old issue came to the forefront of everyone’s awareness over the course of 2017, during which, extremely successful men in the entertainment industry began to face institutional consequences for their long history of assaulting women. It became harder and harder to ignore the movement as names we all knew and respected, such as Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Louis C.K., one by one came to be associated with sexual violence.
But what changed? It’s not as if women haven’t been coming forward in order to out their abusers and harassers, but in the past, employers were unwilling to take victims’ claims seriously or pursue any real consequences.
From the Time’s article: “In June, Bill Cosby was brought to trial on charges that he had drugged and sexually assaulted a woman named Andrea Constand, one of nearly 50 women who have accused Cosby of sexual assault over several decades. Although the case ended in a mistrial—it is scheduled to be retried in April—the fact that it happened at all signaled a shift in the culture, a willingness to hold even beloved and powerful men accountable for past misdeeds.”
People at the top of the pecking order began considering “sexual misconduct” a fireable offense, even when it involved highly successful and well protected men. This response was a drastic shift from the world women moved through for centuries, in which speaking up came with the risk of more violence to them or their families, and very little chance at justice.
Then, on October 15th, 2017, actor Alyssa Milano tweeted, "If you've been sexually harassed or assaulted write 'me too' as a reply to this tweet." The hashtag #MeToo, originally created by social activist Tarana Burke, went viral, spreading to facebook and instagram in addition to Twitter. In just a few hours, these platforms were plastered with accounts from women of their stories of sexual assault . Nearly every woman had one. They were violent. They were heartbreaking. The dialogue around sexual violence had changed in a way that could no longer be ignored. Men were facing consequences for their actions, but they were also facing the reality that most of the women they knew had been a victim of sexual violence at least once in their lives.
On January 14th, 2018, Katie Way with Babe.net published an article interviewing an anonymous woman calling herself Grace. In the article titled, “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life,” Grace describes in graphic detail how comedian Aziz Ansari turned their pleasant date into a sexually aggressive nightmare. After multiple attempts to de-escalate his sexual advances using varying degrees of verbal and non-verbal communication, Grace left in tears. In their communication after the fact, Ansari apologized and said he, “clearly misread things in the moment.”
The Ansari scandal will be a particular focus of this article because the conflicting reactions from the public to the story are representative of many issues heterosexual men and women are navigating in their everyday lives. Half of Babe’s audience read the article and saw a horrifying account of boundary violations and sexual violence. The other half saw an account of what was nothing more than a bad date.
How does such a disconnect between the two interpretations happen? How could there be such different understandings of what consent is and what kind of negative sexual experience is bad enough and invasive enough that it qualifies as traumatic? The reasons the reactions are so polarized is because the issues involved are complex, emotionally charged, and very influenced by the different ways our culture has taught men and women to behave with regards to sex.
Breaking Down the Basics
There hundreds if not thousands of think pieces about what happened between Grace and Ansari. But why do we need to hash out individual instances of sexual assault? Aren’t these just two people who need to work out the problem on their own and we should all butt out?
Stories like Grace’s about Ansari or Ashley Judd’s about Weinstein are not one-time events. Each case is representative of larger scale problems which have affected millions of women, sometimes repeatedly. If we look at these stories collectively, we notice patterns and identifying those patterns is the key to tackling sexual assault as a widespread social problem. But we need to establish some basic concepts before we can formulate any solutions.
The Importance of Consent
“Consent” is a little bit like the word, “privilege” in that it’s thrown around so much by activists that some people have tuned it out, but the concept is central to understanding what needs to change in order to decrease sexual violence. If you don’t read any other link from this article from top to bottom, read this one:
From Loveisrespect.org: “In a healthy relationship, both (or all) partners are able to openly talk about and agree on what kind of activity they want to engage in. Whether it’s holding hands, kissing, touching, intercourse, or anything else, it’s really important for everyone in the relationship to feel comfortable with what’s happening.”
Sex is not one thing or one arrival point. Sex is many small arrival points. Agreeing to one thing such as, “let’s go back to my place,” is not the same as agreeing to a particular sex act, a range of sex acts, or sex at all. Affirmative consent means that just because you don’t hear the word, “No” does not mean the answer is yes. You need a positive, enthusiastic response in order to proceed, as opposed to a neutral or hesitant response.
Seeking affirmative consent means that there are more sources of information to perceive that the answer is no than just hearing the word, including other verbal and nonverbal cues. As Sady Doyle explains, in the situation between Grace and Ansari, “She said “not tonight” and “I don’t want to feel forced” and many other synonyms for “no.” Most of us understand, by age 5, that if your mom says “maybe later” you won’t get what you’re asking for. Any socially competent adult understands those cues.”
Doyle also goes on to explain that non-verbal cues, such as physically pulling away or going stiff are also understood as clear signs of discomfort in non-sexual situations, and so should be considered to mean, “No” or at least be a reason to slow down and check in. If someone is following the rules of affirmative enthusiastic consent, then Ansari’s actions were clearly boundary violating.
Differentiating Types of Sexual Violence
Ansari’s actions do not qualify under the legal definition of sexual assault, and many people are afraid of the implications of lumping Ansari in with the likes of Weinstein. But as Emma Gray explains in her HuffPost piece, "On Aziz Ansari And Sex That Feels Violating Even When It’s Not Criminal:"
“This is a kind of sex that is not only worth talking about but necessary to talk about. Behavior need not fall under the legal definition of sexual assault or rape to be wrong or violating or upsetting. And when nearly every woman I’ve spoken to about the Aziz Ansari story follows up our conversation with a similar story of her own, it’s worth thinking about why that is.”
The Me Too movement is looking to address more than just sexual misconduct that falls under the illegal category because so much trauma and hurt has been accumulated from actions that are nowhere near illegal. It does not have to be illegal to be harmful.
As Samantha Bee explains on her show Full Frontal, women know there’s a difference between physical force and nonconsensual encounters, that there’s a difference between assault and harassment, between abuse and uninvited dick pics. Women aren’t trying to lump all of these actions together (and nor are women trying to shut down the practice of having sex or expressing sexuality). Women are however claiming that all of these actions are on a spectrum of sexual boundary violations, most of which are caused and influenced by the same set of factors, and that we deserve to pursue relationships of all kinds without this threat constantly present.
Power Dynamics Matter
In any exchange between two people, the amount of power each person has is going to influence the dynamic between the two of them, and what the behavior of each person is. Social, financial, and institutional power are the three primary forms of power. Typically, the person that has more of one or more of these types of power has access to more choices, more influence over the actions of others, and is generally more likely to be able to go after what they want without much resistance. The person with less power has fewer choices, not much ability to change the behavior of others, and is frequently in the position of having to provide what the more powerful person wants, regardless of whether they want it themselves.
Institutional power tends to be the most relevant when discussing sexual assault and harassment in the workplace because in many of the cases such as Weinstein, the perpetrator occupied a place of authority that allowed him to avoid consequences or dole out punishments to people who tried to out him. People at the top of the pecking order are also more likely to believe authority figures over low-level employees, making any assault claims more likely to go nowhere. A woman who is the employee of her assaulter lacks institutional power and has to balance keeping her job with defending her own safety.
When it comes to boundary violations in the context of dating, power dynamics still matter. In the case of Ansari, he had a great deal of social power by virtue of being a beloved celebrity, and Grace was an avid fan of his. It’s much more difficult to risk upsetting someone you respect and admire.
But even if Ansari were just your average guy, in general men possess more social power on a baseline level than women do. Given that only 6 out of 1000 sexual violence perpetrators (who are by and large male) see any jail time for their actions, an institutional power imbalance applies here too. In a sexual exchange between a man and a woman, the woman is more likely to feel societal pressure to be accessible, to say yes, to make sure the man gets what he wants, and the man is more likely to be direct about going after what he wants. This dynamic is part of why boundary violations like between Grace and Ansari are so incredibly common.
What Does Normal Mean?
Jessica Valenti (@JessicaValenti) put it best when she said, “A lot of men will read that post about Aziz Ansari and see an everyday, reasonable sexual interaction. But part of what women are saying right now is that what the culture considers "normal" sexual encounters are not working for us, and oftentimes harmful.”
In the aftermath of Babe’s publication of Grace’s account, there was a huge outpouring of stories from women who said they had been through uncannily similar situations, and they too had come away traumatized. Una Dabiero published a follow-up article on Babe the next day including dozens of tweets from women who were all too familiar with what Grace had gone through.
But as the tweets point out, the definition of “normal” gets distorted in discussions like these. Does normal mean okay or does normal mean common? Even a significant number of women walked away from the original Babe article thinking the situation sounded, as Katie Holmes put it, “Not that bad.”
“This is a common, normal hookup. A shitty, painful hookup where Grace's comfort and pleasure were like #7 on the priority list. Mean, punishing sex is normal. And awful. Our normal is awful.”
But the important takeaway is not that this form of sexual interaction is common therefore it’s okay, but that so many women experience it, nearly all of them feel traumatized by this experience, and we need to take that problem seriously. It’s one thing to dismiss one person’s experience as not that bad. It’s quite another thing to look at thousands if not millions of women coming forward to say, “this was incredibly awful and I never want to go through that again,” and decide that every one of them is overreacting.
Josephine B. Yurcaba in her piece on Romper entitled, “Everyone Is Asking The Wrong Question In Response To The Allegations Against Aziz Ansari,” suggests that we spend too much time dissecting the victims’ experience in order to ferret out whether or not sexual assault has occurred, rather than looking at what is happening in interactions between men and women that is causing so many women to walk away from sex traumatized.
In order to figure out why sex between men and women so frequently turns toxic, we need to look at the differing expectations and differing methods of communication that men and women use when they have sex.
Why Don’t Women Say No?
One of the pivotal disagreements in conversations about rape culture is the idea that women aren’t communicating clearly enough that they don’t want to have sex and the responsibility lies with them to effectively communicate what they want and don’t want. And yet, it’s common for a woman to feel coerced into a sexual activity during which she does not directly or clearly say, “No.” What causes this pattern? Why isn’t saying No more often a valid solution to societal patterns of sexual assault?
No Support System
Moira Donegan discusses in her piece for The Cut how women have set of social systems to warn each other away from dangerous men as a substitute for institutional systems to protect us.
“Too often, for someone looking to report an incident or to make habitual behavior stop, all the available options are bad ones. The police are notoriously inept at handling sexual-assault cases. Human-resources departments, in offices that have them, are tasked not with protecting employees but with shielding the company from liability — meaning that in the frequent occasion that the offender is a member of management and the victim is not, HR’s priorities lie with the accused.”
As a result, women take on the bulk of the responsibility of assessing risk in a sexual situation, as well as the majority of the cost if they guess wrong. This lack of institutional support applies to dating too. As Robot Hugs talks about in their comic, “Risky Date,” society will automatically place more scrutiny on the actions of the woman and ask why she didn’t do more to protect herself, rather than supporting her through a difficult time.
But this power imbalance also makes it potentially dangerous for women to say no. In addition to lacking institutional support and the power dynamics inherent to interactions between boss/employee or men and women, women are killed or physically assaulted for rejecting men’s advances astonishingly frequently.
“No” Is Inaccessible
Women are socially conditioned to always be pleasant and accessible, and when that socialization is added to the threat women face any time sexual engagement is initiated, it means that the answer “no” is not accessible to women in the same way it is to men. Women use what is called a “soft no” in order to indicate they’re not interested, in order to defuse the severity of the rejection. But as Grace experienced, even when women use clear repeated soft no’s that would be understood in a different context, such as “Can we go get some take out?” “Not tonight,” this type of answer is regularly ignored by men in the context of sex.
Let me let you in on a secret. When a woman uses a soft-no and you do not listen, she begins to worry that you won’t listen to a hard-no. She worries that you’ll respond with force and violence. When you ignore the answer she’s giving you, she loses faith that you’ll listen to her even if she escalates.
No Doesn’t Mean No
When Grace began to realize how uncomfortable she was, she said, “I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you,” and Ansari agreed to slow things down. However, within just a minute, Ansari pressured her to perform oral sex on him again. She did, stunned and confused about how her expression of discomfort could have turned so quickly into doing what she just said she didn’t want to do, and Ansari said, “Doesn’t look like you hate me,” turning her own words around on herself. Despite being clear with Ansari that she was uncomfortable and didn’t want to feel pressured, Ansari pressured her again, and then used the fact that she had given in as evidence that she was actually fine with it.
Culturally, we gaslight women into thinking they didn’t say no, or didn’t say no enough, rather than put responsibility on the man for not listening. If a woman uses body language cues to communicate the answer is no, and the man doesn’t listen, she’s told she should have used her words. If she uses her words, she’s told she should’ve been more clear and direct. If she clearly and directly says no, she’s told she should’ve continued to say no repeatedly. If she clearly and repeatedly says no, she’s told she should’ve just left. If she tries to leave and is prevented, she’s told she should’ve physically fought harder to escape or she never should have been there in the first place. It’s as if when women say no, it is meaningless, no matter how we say it.
Why Doesn’t She Just Leave?
The next question is why Grace, and other similar victims, don’t just leave the situation to protect their safety. As Katie Anthony discusses on her blog KatyKatiKate, because of our survival instincts, leaving is significantly harder when there are clear signs of a threat. Thinking in a logical clear way becomes more difficult. And even if the woman does not yet fear for her safety, going against social conditioning and intentionally being rude by abruptly leaving, shouting, or physically fighting back is incredibly difficult, even when the person in question is already breaking basic social boundaries.
When a woman is faced with pressure to have sex and not given a sure fire way to say no, she is forced to evaluate whether going through with the sex act and getting it over with will be easier than trying to get out of doing it or handling the stress of being asked over and over to do it even after she’s said no.
It should be a pretty powerful statement that for many women, grinning and bearing sex they don’t want to engage in sounds less awful than the fatigue of saying no repeatedly or the risk of attempting to leave.
Though Grace engaged in oral sex after Ansari prompted her to, this action is not a sign of her consent and is not in conflict with her verbal hesitation. When someone has already stated they don’t want to be doing something, it is not an indication that they actually want to do it if they start doing it after all. It means they are doing something that they don’t want to do and are counting down the minutes until they can stop.
Mismatch in Socialization
Before you started reading this blog post, had you read the original article on Babe?
If so, did you believe the woman’s account of Ansari’s behavior? Did you believe Ansari’s follow up statement? Why or why not?
Culturally we tend to place scrutiny on the person in the interaction who is a member of more oppressed groups. In an interaction between a man and a woman, we’re more likely to examine the actions of the woman under a microscope, looking for what she did wrong. But what happens when we place the same scrutiny on the man in the interaction?
As Angus Johnston (@studentactivism) said, “Come on. It’s 2018. You invite someone to your house, you take off her clothes, and then you act like an asshole. What did he expect was going to happen? Seriously. Who’s that naive? Ansari couldn’t be bothered to look out for his own interests in that situation. It’s unreasonable to expect anyone else to look out for him.”
If we place a similar level of responsibility on men in a sexual interaction, it becomes clear that there’s a lot of room for improvement.
Changing Your Behavior
The information men and women have regarding sex and consent is totally different. This video by Dialogue, a branch of Buzzfeed, covers in depth the difference in the socialization men and women have received and how this problem manifests in sex.
“The problem is that while this is so obvious to women it hasn’t even been taught to men. Men haven’t been taught how scared and nervous a woman is when she’s alone with a man she’s just met. They haven’t been taught that a woman can change her mind about having sex with you even halfway through having sex with you…They haven’t been taught that if she hesitates the right thing to do is to pause. In fact, culture has taught them that if she hesitates, the romantic thing to do is to power through and over power her.”
Women are trained from an early age to pay very close attention to social cues, to mind read, to perform emotional labor for the people around them. Men are not taught the same skills. For women, it is blatantly obvious when a woman is uncomfortable. We use these cues to rescue each other and seek escape from sexually charged social interactions we don’t want to be in. If men aren’t paying attention to those same cues, they don’t know that they should be, or they don’t know how to, then men need to start putting focus on acquiring these skills in order to avoid sexual boundary pushing.
What We Need from Men
I’ve covered a lot of information about what not to do and how to better empathize with problems that women face that are likely to be foreign to men. But most importantly, you need to find out what you can do going forward to decrease the severity of these problems.
1. Action Instead of Apologies
Julie DiCaro offers a list of suggestions in her piece on The Establishment, including accountability and good modeling for young men and boys:
“But look, women don’t need your insipid apologies, faux shock, and awe at things you’ve known about for years, or explanations that you understand so much better now because you have a daughter. If you, man who has been a creep in the past or has stood by and laughed while his friends were creeps, really want to help change the world, here’s what we need from you.”
2. Self Reflection
Also at The Establishment, Ijeoma Oluo points out that while you don’t control what behaviors you were socialized to see as normal or desirable, you do control what you choose to do from here on out.
“As I watch countless men (and sadly, quite a few women) jump to the defense of other men who have been outed for their coercive, demeaning, and abusive behavior towards women; as I watch them debate the fine points of whether or not a woman said no loud enough, whether her “I’m not comfortable” was strong enough, whether she was at fault for being mistreated by not yelling, or hitting, or running — I want to ask them all this question: Is this the type of man you want to be?”
3. Challenge Preconceived Notions About Women
Anne Victoria Clark hits the nail on the head with her comedic piece on Medium about how women are people in a way media has not taught you about.
“Oh shoot! She’s pretty! In the face, even. What to do?? I mean, you know it’d be inappropriate to treat the coffee meeting as a date, since her clearly stated intentions were professional. But on the other hand, she’s blonde, and so was your last girlfriend! This is so confusing! What a minefield you are in.”
4. Believe Survivors
Don’t dismiss the women in your life who confide in you about the harassment and violence they’ve experienced at the hands of men. It’s more likely than not that they are telling the truth, very unlikely any harm will come to the man she’s accusing, and it is very likely to harm her if you don’t listen. False rape accusations are exceedingly rare and the people who do make them follow certain behavioral patterns that makes them easier to spot. As Sandra Newman details in her article on Quartz:
“In the most detailed study ever conducted of sexual assault reports to police, undertaken for the British Home Office in the early 2000s, out of 216 complaints that were classified as false, only 126 had even gotten to the stage where the accuser lodged a formal complaint. Only 39 complainants named a suspect. Only six cases led to an arrest, and only two led to charges being brought before they were ultimately deemed false.”
5. Walk the Walk AND Talk the Talk
We need men’s actions to back up their words. Aziz claimed to be feminist, as did Louis C.K. and both men based a significant part of their career around material that supported feminist ideals, including consent. As Lindsey V. Thompson said in her article on Glamour:
“These are men who have worked overtime to gain the trust of female fans. Today, it’s not just the overtly sexist men that women in entertainment have to fear. Even the “good guys” are using different means to the same end: They’re profiting off of women’s bodies and ideas, coercing them into silence because they still hold all the power.”
6. Treat Sexual Interactions with Care and Consideration
From Elizabeth Bruenig on the Washington Post: “We ought to appreciate that sex is a domain so intimate and personal that more harm can be done than in most social situations, and that given that heightened capacity for harm, we should expect people to operate with greater conscientiousness, concern and care in that domain than in others.”
As you are reading these articles, notice the suggested related articles that pop up. Read them too. Keep reading. There are so many articles because women have so much to say. We’ve been trying to get you to listen for a very long time. Please, start listening and keep listening.