The recent Aziz Ansari assault case highlighted how some people don’t know when to stop and check in with their partners in a sexual context, if they do at all.
According to the survivor Grace’s widely-discussed interaction between herself and the comedian, Ansari ignored Grace’s verbal and non-verbal cues, resulting in her crying over the non-consensual experience to her friends afterwards, and later going to the media with her story.
Following the publication of Grace’s account, Twitter exploded with tweets condemning and defending Ansari. Now the issues raised in this case have snowballed into a much larger debate around consent.
The controversy has been further fueled by Ansari’s own presentation of himself as a feminist and progressive thinker. At the Golden Globes, for example, he was seen wearing a “Times Up” pin, signifying his solidarity with the movement against sexual violence in Hollywood. Ansari’s work in his show, Master of None, also added to this façade, where he tackled issues like sexism and sexual harassment.
Because Grace never used a hard no in the sexual encounter with Ansari, but still says her boundaries were violated, a situation arose in which only one party was satisfied, and the other was left feeling deeply uncomfortable.
It is this supposed gray area of consent which Grace’s story highlights. People who support Ansari questioned their own actions around consent, while those who have been hurt by men like him questioned what they themselves have been through. Uncertainty and defensive behavior characterize both sides of the debate.
The Ansari case isn’t the only example, either. What we’re looking at here is more than a few negative sexual encounters: we are dealing with a culture that encourages people not to take no for an answer. Recent cases involving Harvey Weinstein and Larry Nassar further demonstrate how prevalent sexual violence is, and how much damage a single person can do.
These three recent cases reinforce how pervasive rape culture is in our society and how it’s backed up by prominent discourses in media. For example, articles like “Sexual Body Language” from the “dating coach” website The Modern Man encourage the idea of using masculinity rather than consent as a means to make people want to have sex. The website’s usage of “convince” rather than “seduce” reinforces the idea that sex is something people are entitled to.
Other popular discourses promote the idea that women doing anything to their appearance, be it makeup or style of dress, is for male attention. For example, in “How to Read Body Language of Women” from The Body Language Project, a site on non-verbal communication, the author states, “While women might not be aware of the reason for dressing provocatively, most women are aware of the signals they give off to men, and therefore shouldn’t be surprise[d] to receive additional attention when they show more skin.”
Articles like these, coupled with commonly shared beliefs that there’s any type of gray area within consent, have left millions of Americans dealing with sex-related trauma.
“There is persistent confusion among U.S. adults about what constitutes both consent and sexual assault,” says one Planned Parenthood expert in an article on the topic.
“On average, women had a clearer understanding of what actually constitutes consent,” the author states. “For example, women were statistically significantly more likely than men to strongly agree that consent must be given at each step in a sexual encounter (women 27%, men 19%). Women were also more likely than men to strongly disagree that consent for sex one time is consent for future sex although a strong majority of both women and men strongly disagree (women 75%, men 64%).”
This idea of a gray area existing in consent directly contributes to rape culture. There are no nuances in consent. Either it is fully enthusiastic and reciprocated with all parties, or it’s coercion. If someone has to repeatedly insist that another person engage in sexual activity with them, that’s coercion.
Questions of consent and coercion also often arise on college campuses. “It’s so different for every person,” says college student and Burlington, VT resident, Charlie Harper, when asked what a hard no looks like to him. “I don’t even fuck with [sic] body language. I verbally check. I’d rather ruin the mood than get in trouble.”
People not knowing where boundaries lie or when to ask for consent is partly a result of America’s sexual education curriculum. Current education frames sex as a giving and taking experience, and when you introduce sex this way, there’s an immediate power imbalance. There’s something to be taken, and something to withhold.
“We aren’t taught anything,” said Harper when asked about consent education. Indeed, more people learn about consent through a different means than school. According to the results of a survey on consent conducted by the Seattle Times, 46.8% of a 250-person sample reported learning about consent somewhere else besides high school, and 39.2% reported they didn’t learn about consent until adulthood.
“Kids need to understand consent at an early age to understand how to deal with their own bodies and other individuals’ bodies,” said college student and Burlington, VT resident, Kurt Militi.
In an article from the University of California, Santa Barbara on teaching consent in the classroom, the authors explain, “Learning to give and receive consent, or even just being aware about the concept of consent, can help children and young adults better understand their bodily rights while also giving them the courage to speak up if those rights are ever violated.”
Reframing the way we teach sex, and actually teaching consent, will also help prevent future sexual violence.
“Viewing sex as something to take, while being taught to never take no for an answer creates toxic environments,” says college student and Burlington, VT resident, Kiera Hufford. “But if we implement consent education in schools, in health classes where kids learn about their bodies, we’ll be able to start solving the problems that create cases like Aziz Ansari’s.”
Evania Meehan is a New York born and Maryland raised freelance writer. She’s passionate about social activism, cat adoption, and good caramel lattes.