Women and femmes learn how to please others, and cisgender men learn to be pleased or to discard us until they are.
A Babe dot net article (a site I’d never heard of until a few days ago) broke a story about Aziz Ansari allegedly assaulting a young woman named Grace* and a media frenzy followed.
One of my favorite articles about this incident was one by James Hamblin at The Atlantic titled “This Is Not a Sex Panic,” and one of my least favorite was an abhorrent opinion piece by Lucia Brawley on CNN which basically claimed that if you don’t physically fight, you cannot claim to be a victim of coercion. Because, y’know, real victims (of assault/rape) fight — or as she put it, are “stubborn.” Brawley goes on to applaud “actual victims,” writes briefly about how she and her husband put their daughters in karate or whatever and teach them to “fight back,” while completely glossing over the fact that even they have to learn how to fight back because we live in a sexist society where women like their mother invalidate or dismiss women like Grace who are taught, like most women, to protest men indirectly, gently.
And consider this lovely excerpt: “Ansari is not Harvey Weinstein. He’s not even on the same planet. We have to differentiate between the two if our #MeToo movement is to succeed. If we don’t, no one will take our valid claims seriously and things will get worse for women.” Juxtaposing the nice guys who “just made a mistake” and “actual rapists” promotes the distancing of regular, “normal” men from the lurking-in-the-dark insidious predators and subtly shifts the blame over to women while making us constantly question the validity of our experience — the burden of proof is always on the victim in these “grey area” cases.
The Brawley article has white faux feminism dripping all over it — note that Brawley briefly mentions privilege but neglects to probe deeper. A whole conversation could be had about who had the privilege in the Ansari encounter: the pristine, victimized, presumed white woman Grace, or the famous, powerful “nice guy” of color. Brawley does mention Ansari being a man of color but then compares that to Grace’s “sexual power,” a throwback to the idea that our power as cis women lies in our pussies, our “sex.” This is a patriarchal fallacy. She also emphasizes how much he has uplifted women in the industry — something that many people do to invalidate claims of assault, racism, or sexism by an oppressed party.
But that’s a topic for another day.
The topic today is how, similar to BIPOC, women and [queer] femmes must learn from a very young age to recognize minute indications of danger in order to avoid harm and/or to placate or coddle the people (read: cisgender men) around us.
It’s how women and femmes must always be on our guard around cishet men because there’s always a small chance that we won’t survive a negative encounter, and we can never know which man they’re gonna be.
It’s how men knew what true consent was when it was a white woman stroking random men’s beards in public, but are now crying (along with certain women) that “soft” or “ambiguous” claims are ruining men’s careers and making dating hard (sarcasm).
It’s how women and femmes and minority groups develop our own cues and language (sociolect) because we are taught to demur, and men and boys learn from a very young age that what they have to say matters — especially if they are white, male, cis and able.
In the same way that retail workers are taught that “the customer is always right,” women and femmes are taught to just deal with the antics of cishet men, even when they are wrong or grossly incompetent or rude. We are taught to fix, to soothe, to woo. We are taught the fallacious idea that our power lies in our femininity — the very thing they denigrate on a daily basis.
We learn how to please others, and they learn to be pleased or to discard us until they are. Men learn that they are important, and we learn to make them feel important, while they impose on everyone around them. And these things are not a biological binary. Queer femmes of all genders are also socially taught — though perhaps to a lesser extent depending how they physically present — to placate cisgender heterosexual men in their communities, lest they be abused, bullied, ostracized, assaulted or murdered.
Hamblin mentions in his piece for The Atlantic that the Ansari situation is the type of situation we (mainly men) desperately need to hear about, because it does describe those “gray areas” that happen, instead of the pop culture Lifetime movie sanctioned “scary calculated predator.” We need to acknowledge that all abuses aren’t calculated, that sometimes what one party feels is perfectly consensual is actually them, as Brawley put it in her CNN piece, “willfully [ignoring their] partner’s nonverbal cues.”
What this Ansari situation shows us, in light of many other situations that have been exposed to the media, is that many men do know what the difference between assault and consent are: they just don’t care.