What’s becoming clear as crystal is people are realizing just how many men would be behind bars if sexual assault and coercion were treated as the serious crimes they are.
One of the most disturbing things that emerged from the debate around “Grace” and Aziz Ansari’s date was how normalized coercive sexual encounters have been, especially with regard to women’s pleasure and safety.
After a year of Trump’s regime, my capacity for shock has been whittled down, but during the Ansari brouhaha I found myself at peak stunned by all the people—and women in particular—who have accepted men’s sexually predatory behavior as a matter of course. Worse, they go to great lengths to defend this misogynistic paradigm.
You know you live in a patriarchy when feminism is akin to a swear word. The case is made further when a simple fact like “coercion is not consent” becomes a divisive and controversial statement to both men and women. Color me flabbergasted.
That is, until I took a couple steps back to analyze everything that the Ansari situation brought up. For me personally, I had to come to terms with the fact that more than half of my limited sexual encounters had in fact been non-consensual due to coercion or lies. It’s a horrible feeling to look back and realize that things were not what I thought they were. At all. And that I had considered those terrible encounters “simple” bad sex when they were far worse and even criminal encounters. It felt like being violated all over again, and I spent more than a few days sitting with my pain, grieving and acknowledging it, and trying to figure out how to put it all into place.
Lili Loofbourow recently wrote in “The female price of male pleasure”:
“Research shows that 30 percent of women report pain during vaginal sex, 72 percent report pain during anal sex, and ‘large proportions’ don’t tell their partners when sex hurts. … The studies on this are few. A casual survey of forums where people discuss ‘bad sex’ suggests that men tend to use the term to describe a passive partner or a boring experience. … But when most women talk about ‘bad sex,’ they tend to mean coercion, or emotional discomfort or, even more commonly, physical pain. Debby Herbenick, a professor at the Indiana University School of Public Health, and one of the forces behind the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, confirmed this. ‘When it comes to ‘good sex,” she told me, ‘women often mean without pain, men often mean they had orgasms.’”
Loofbourow’s conclusions about how male sexual pleasure comes at the price of women’s pain would be chilling, except that every woman on this planet has been there at some point or another. Despite the frequency of these systemically entrenched behaviors and experiences, this isn’t something any of us openly talk about. At least until the Aziz Ansari situation.
In American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus sociologist Dr. Lisa Wade discusses how hookup culture has the potential to be empowering and even a feminist act, except for the fact that the white male gaze and male pleasure at the expense of others tends to frame the discussion as it stands. A growing body of research about the so-called orgasm gap—that women having heterosexual intercourse on average report far fewer orgasms than their male counterparts as well as gay men and women—drives the point home further that hetero women are getting shafted in the pleasure department at the expense of their male partners.
I chatted over the phone with Dr. Wade about the #MeToo backlash and she says:
“One of the cultural zeitgeists making it difficult to think intelligently about this issue is this commitment we have, or this fear we have, around questioning men’s right to seek sex from women. Earlier this year I tweeted something to the effect of, ‘The reason people don’t like rape laws because they cockblock men.’ It’s this concept of cockblocking and patriarchal entitlement to get sex from women—by what means? You’re not allowed to put a gun to our head, but…are we really gonna tell men that they aren’t allowed to lie, beg, force? What happens when we tell them, ‘No, actually, you’re not allowed to lie, to manipulate, to coerce, just to get what you want?’”
I asked Dr. Wade what she thinks women in particular gain from upholding these male-centered paradigms that ultimately don’t benefit them, and she sees the issue as four-fold:
“First, women have an intersectional identity. Women are mother to a son. Sister to a brother. Daughter to father. They have to reconsider the things people they love do or have done. Next, we have internalized sexism. A lot of women just buy into the idea that this is how men are. And you can’t criminalize men’s natural state. Third, patriarchal bargaining. One of women’s patriarchal bargains is, ‘I will take pleasure in being objectified, being wanted.’ For example, how would American women feel if men stopped giving validation to their appearance? It’s a question of, ‘If I have to rethink these things, then my whole world goes out of whack.’”
Dr. Wade goes further:
“Finally, one of the only things that women have to feel good about anymore is that men are pigs, and that’s just how they are. How dare you ask a man to not act like a pig! Men are pigs! There’s a kind of narcissism in not wanting to hold men to their higher selves, being better. That women are morally better by virtue of not being so carnal, and that’s where our sense of moral superiority comes from. Women lose one of the pillars where their own values lie by asking more of men. We don’t have a lot. So this is one thing we’ve had since Victorian times. That we are better than men because we don’t harm people in sex-seeking behavior.”
And it is specifically this sex-seeking behavior that Dr. Wade says is one of the primary dehumanizing and objectifying factors of women. Men go out into the world with a goal to get sex by any means necessary, and this makes people targets, less than human. Moreover, our society and legal systems go to extreme lengths to protect men’s sex-seeking behavior.
At the moment we are hovering over the precipice of a colossal cultural and social reckoning when it comes to women’s places in the bedroom and in the workplace. We are also at a tipping point of rule of law where we risk descending into anarchy. Why haven’t (alleged) rapists, serial sexual predators and harassers like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Danny Masterson, and so many others been arrested yet? Their offenses are felonies, and yet their only punishment has affected potential future income and their reputations. It is not an accident that Donald Trump’s regime is also chipping away at our legal checks and balances at this particular time in American history—it’s never been clearer how fragile our justice system is and where its particular vulnerabilities lie.
What’s becoming clear as crystal is people are realizing just how many men would be behind bars if sexual assault and coercion were treated as the serious crimes they are, and especially in the context of partners, colleagues, friends and other known associates. Dr. Wade notes the future of the #MeToo movement depends on there being harsh consequences for sex-seeking and sexually coercive behavior starting in the workplace and moving outward from there. “Weinstein and company have felt a little too safe,” Dr Wade says. “And they need to start feeling a little scared instead.”
“Collective change requires individual sacrifice. Nobody wants to sacrifice their individual rights for setting new norms,” Dr. Wade explains. “It’s never in individual self interest to do better for the collective. So people have to make an individual decision and accept those negative consequences for taking a principled stand, for the greater good.”