Sunday, March 18, 2018

On the Necessity for a Public Takedown

When, a couple months back, I read Katie Way's depiction of a date between "Grace" and Aziz Ansari, at first I felt badly for him to be outed as such a crappy date. How embarrassing. Then in the New York TimesBari Weiss responded that Ansari was being asked to be a mindreader. My rejection of that idea led me to a more nuanced understanding of the issue. I commented there,

But then, as is so often the case, a discussion with students in my class clarified the issue even further.

This is an important issue to be raised. It's still seems, based on this conversation with a room full of teenagers, a common problem on dates. Guys will ignore body language and use subtle leaning, pushing, guiding, and grinding as a way to progress an event that isn't explicitly desired by the pushed and leaned upon party. By using movement rather than words, it feels easier to act as if they merely misconstrued the situation. By taking it out of the realm of verbal communication, they can better claim a problem with interpretation instead of straight up consent.

Back in 1943, Sartre wrote about a very similar situation (Being and Nothingness pp 55-56)
"Take the example of a woman who has consented to go out with a particular man for the first time. She knows very well the intentions which the man who is speaking to her cherishes regarding her. She knows also that it will be necessary sooner or later for her to make a decision. But she does not want to realize the urgency; she concerns herself only with what is respectful and discreet int he attitude of her companion. She does not apprehend this conduct as an attempt to achieve what we call "the first approach;" that is, she does not want to see possibilities of temporal development which his conduct presents. She restricts this behavior to what is in the present; she does not wish to read in the phrases which he addresses to her anything other than their explicit meaning. If he says to her, "I find you so attractive!" she disarms this phrase of its sexual background; she attaches to the conversation and to the behavior of the speaker, the immediate meanings, which she imagines as objective qualities. The man who is speaking to her appears to her sincere and respectful as the table is round or square, as the wall coloring is blue or gray. the qualities thus attached to the person she is listening to are in this way fixed in a permanence like that of things, which is no other than the projection of the strict present of the qualities into the temporal flux. This is because she does not quite know shat she wants. She is profoundly aware of the desire which she inspires, but the desire cruel and naked would humiliate and horrify her. Yet she would find no charm in a respect which would be only respect. In order to satisfy her, there must be a feeling which is addressed wholly to her personality--i.e., to her full freedom--and which would be a recognition of her freedom. But at the same time this feeling must be wholly desire; that is, it must address itself to her body as object. This time then she refuses to apprehend the desire for what it is; she does not even give it a name; she recognizes it only to the extent that it transcends itself toward admiration, esteem, respect and that it is wholly absorbed in teh more refined forms which it produces, to the extent of no longer figuring anymore as a sort of warmth and density. But then suppose he takes her hand. This act of her companion risks changing the situation by calling for an immediate decision. To leave the hand there is to consent in herself to flirt, to engage herself. To withdraw it is to break the troubled and unstable harmony which gives the hour its charm. The aim is to postpone the moment of decision as long as possible. We know what happens next; the young woman leaves her hand there, but she does not notice that she is leaving it. She does not notice because it happens by chance that she is at this moment all intellect. She draws her companion up to the most lofty regions of sentimental speculation; she speaks of Life, of her life, she shows herself in her essential aspect--a personality, a consciousness. And during this time the divorce of the body from the soul is accomplished; the hand rests inert between the warm hands of her companion--neither consenting nor resisting--a thing.  
We shall say that this woman is in bad faith. But we see immediately that she uses various procedures in order to maintain herself in this bad faith. She has disarmed the actions of her companion by reducing them to being only what they are; that is, to existing in the mode of the in-itself. But she permits herself to enjoy his desire, to the extent that she will apprehend it as not being what it is, will recognize its transcendence. Finally while sensing profoundly the presence of her own body--to the degree of being disturbed perhaps--she realizes herself as not being her own body, and she contemplates it as though from above as a passive object to which events can happen but which can neither provoke them nor avoid them because all its possibilities are outside of it." 
Many people reacted in a similar manner as Sartre, suggesting that if Grace didn't like the way Ansari was behaving, she should have said something. But Sartre seems to better understand why and how and how often we divorce ourselves from ourself in order to ignore our situation. There are social apparatus in place that make it difficult to make our actions clear to ourselves. Being in bad faith from time to time is to be expected given all that we're up against, and the goal is to be aware of our self-deceptions and eventually become more authentic in our interactions.

And a similar charge of bad faith can clearly be brought to the man who is pushing and prodding against an inert body, all the while claiming there wasn't explicit resistance.

We know when someone's not entirely into it.

In sex, communication is largely gestural. You can request or entice with a motion, once, but you have to also be attuned to the reply whether verbal or physical. As with anything of a sexual nature, if it's not clearly a yes, then back off.

Surely this all goes without saying by now.

But why drag poor Aziz into it the fray? He's guilty of ignoring some important body language, but just as guilty as so many others. And to what extent can we call people guilty for a behaviour that's widely adopted and tolerated without significant complaint?

It's because he's famous and because it doesn't all go without saying yet. Because of his name, we're more easily able to bring some light to this issue. If Grace's date was with Joe Smith, it wouldn't have had any press, and we wouldn't be discussing it in ethics classes. It's not Ansari's sole responsibility for solving this dynamic merely for behaving the way many people believe is acceptable, and he shouldn't really have to bear the brunt of it all, but it is because of him that we can fix this problem.  So, in a way, we should celebrate him for being the fall guy on top of chastising him for being part of the issue. He was merely the last straw.

It's not sexual assault or harassment, as I said in my comment, but it is an unjust sexual encounter. It's insensitive and thoughtless, and we're done with that now. It's not okay to just be boorish. This is a call out that we're holding people to a higher standard of behaviour with one another.

Yes, people have to find their voice when pressured into something they don't want to do - once they firmly decide it's not what they want (a task unto itself). But people also have to pay attention when they feel like they're winning, finally able to sway another to their side, and remember that sex shouldn't be a battle with winners and losers.

This is all ground long covered by Andrea Dworkin's and Catharine MacKinnon (neither of whom said that all heterosexual sex is rape), and it's explored at depth in Nicola Gavey's book, Just Sex? The Cultural Scaffolding of Rape.

Shortly after the original article was published, David Brooks related the issue to the importance of touch for our mental health:
"Everything we know about touch suggests that even with full consent, the emotional quality of an encounter can have profound positive or negative effects. . . . Neglectful, dehumanizing sex is not harassment, but it’s some other form of serious harm. . . . The beginning of good sense is to take the power of touch seriously, as something that has profound good and bad effects. It seems that the smarter we get about technology, the dumber we get about relationships. We live in a society in which loneliness, depression and suicide are on the rise. We seem to be treating each other worse."
After the past few months of mass protests over sexual assaults and gun violence, I think maybe that's beginning to change.


Larry Hamelin said...

I dunno Marie. I'm with Siggy: Aziz Ansari raped "Grace". Whether he should be punished for it is another matter, but (IIRC) he put his penis in her mouth without her consent. That's rape.

I'm a middle-aged man, and no genius at reading non-verbal cues (or even verbal ones!) but to me the standard is crystal clear: I am 100 percent sure I have enthusiastic consent, or I don't do anything. If I am uncertain, I ask outright, and an equivocal or ambivalent response is not a yes.

However important (and I am not convinced of Sartre's position), whether or not people act in Sartre's sense of good faith seems like a side issue. However well or poorly people negotiate courtship or seduction, physical sexual activity requires unambiguous consent.

I cannot empathize or sympathize with people who consider such a standard confusing or onerous. I understood it even when I was a teenager, dumber than a box of hammers.

Marie Snyder said...

I'm not sold on Siggy's drowning analogy. I prefer the 'offering tea' analogy, and, in this case, the response to the offer wasn't clear, so tea was made. He asked her to have some tea, and then the tea was taken and some was drunk, but not enjoyed, which is different than having it poured down her throat. He convinced her to have more tea, which she did, maybe to be polite, but she didn't like that either. But, again, he didn't pour it down her throat.

I think enthusiastic consent is the ideal, but I don't think Ansari, or the many other people in that situation, should be criminally charged for that type of encounter - but they should definitely be schooled. Maybe the difference between you and I is that many friends and I (and apparently many students - so it's not just a generational thing) have been on the receiving end of that type of behaviour enough times to suspect if we equate pressuring with raping we'll end up with more males in prison than out.

I think it's important to have a distinction between convincing someone to do something they're not really into and forcing them. The former isn't cool, but it's also not rape. Without that distinction, I also fear it suggests that women don't have the fortitude to make their own decisions, which can be a dangerous road to go down.

I like this line from Samantha Rose Hill about the same issue: "If one thing can be said about sexual mores, it’s that they’re constantly changing. Power is at play throughout a sexual encounter. There is no golden moment of consent that greenlights an experience and assures participants everyone will be happy afterward."

Things aren't always as clear as we intended, and a little forgiveness can go a long way.

Larry Hamelin said...

if we equate pressuring with raping we'll end up with more males in prison than out.

I find that statement astonishing. If true (and it may well be true; I most definitely have not experienced western sexual culture as a women), it just says to me that rape culture is deeply embedded in our society and will require tremendous effort and sacrifice to extirpate.

As for prison, well, I'm categorically against punishment for the sake of punishment: I don't want Ansari to go to prison, but not because I don't believe he raped someone, but because even if he did rape "Grace" (and I think he did), prison will neither unrape her nor make Ansari a better person.

Whether something is or is not rape is, I think, a different discussion than whether someone should or should not go to prison.

I think it's important to have a distinction between convincing someone to do something they're not really into and forcing them.

Personally, I just cannot imagine wanting to have sex with someone who wasn't really into it. But I have no reason to suppose my sexuality is or ought to be universal.

Still, I think the dividing line is consent. If someone (usually, but I suppose not always, a man) wants to "convince someone to do something they're not really into," they have to actually convince them, and elicit (somehow) explicit consent.

But I think one problem is that our present society is so laden with coercive relations — especially patriarchal relations that coercively subordinate women — that except in unusual cases, it's often nearly impossible to separate out "convincing" and "forcing" in the sense you mention above, and I think this difficulty is present in the Ansari case.

Without that distinction, I also fear it suggests that women don't have the fortitude to make their own decisions, which can be a dangerous road to go down.

I don't see the connection. If "Grace" had said, "Having Ansari pressure me was an unpleasant experience, but I did consent," then I would not have challenged her decision. I'm going by her own statement that she felt coerced and did not consent.

There is no golden moment of consent that greenlights an experience and assures participants everyone will be happy afterward.

I think Hill's addition of the last part is somewhat disingenuous. The goal (here) is not to make sure that "everyone will be happy afterward"; the goal is to make the experience not coercive.

[A] little forgiveness can go a long way.

No argument there. I think both a moral and legal case could be made for forgiving Ansari. But if we're going to forgive him, I think we should forgive him for what he did, which was rape.

Marie Snyder said...

I think rape culture IS deeply embedded in our society. But I also don't think it's necessarily rape culture that has people cajoling others into participating in sex. Sometimes people say no, but can be seduced or enticed with further efforts. Sometimes we're not into it...yet. And there is a murky area between enticed and pressured. I think it's possible that Ansari could have thought his jokes about another glass of wine counting as a second date might count as a form of seduction.

I don't think I've ever actually given or been given explicit consent. It's typically more of a dance than a contract. I've said "No thanks," explicitly, but otherwise a "yes" is often gestural. It's leaning in to a touch instead of pulling away. But maybe that's a generational thing.

Larry Hamelin said...

As far as I can tell, you and I are in the same generation (mid 50s).

Consent does not have to be explicit in the sense of actually saying, "Yes, let's have sex." But it's not hard to tell when the consent is definitely present. I've never had a problem knowing, at least on the positive side. Perhaps I've foregone some opportunities where consent was present or obtainable, but I was not confident enough to proceed, which seems like a small price to pay for not raping anyone by accident.

As to Ansari's state of mind, well, It seems that he probably did not intend to rape her, and probably not provable that he did. I'm not a lawyer, but that looks legally more like negligence than intent, but so what? Murder is different from negligent homicide, but in both cases someone is dead.