Thursday, January 18, 2018

Well, What Was She Doing There Anyway? (On Buying Cars and Owing Sex)

By now, you've probably read all about "Grace" and her unpleasant encounter with Aziz Ansari. You've likely also read, or at least heard snippets of, the responses, many of which revolve around tried and tired tropes like "Well, why did she go to his apartment if she didn't want sex?" "What kind of mixed signals was she sending?" "Why did she give him a blow job if she didn't want sex?" "Why didn't she just leave?" (Even though she did, um, leave guys. That's literally what she did.) 

Writer Ann Glaviano had a reaction to these reactions that she published on Facebook. The whole post is worth a read, but I want to specifically focus on one part that really resonated with me. Glaviano wrote this:
it sounds to me like she was expecting some sexual encounter to take place, but at a pace that perhaps included her own arousal (!), and with some amount of skill (!). when he made it clear that he wasn't about those things, she perhaps had second thoughts about continuing to have what sounds like objectively terrible sex. (not terrible because of his moves - terrible because of his complete refusal or inability to notice his partner and how she was responding.)
So many of the conversations about whether or not Aziz's behavior was acceptable (it wasn't) or indicative of a larger problem (it was) ignore this crucial point: Grace didn't owe him sex even if she initially wanted to have sex. Grace could have gone into his apartment with every intention of having sex all night long, and that doesn't make what happened once she got there any less disturbing. All those "Well what was she doing there anyway?" questions are really saying, "Come on! She wanted sex!" as if that somehow makes it all okay.

I have been vocal in the past about the problems with analogies that turn bodies into physical property. I stand by those assertions. That said, I'm going to give an analogy here that veers into that territory just because it seems like the kind of thing that might make this understandable.

Let's say I see an ad on the internet for a used car. The car looks awesome. The pictures are taken from just the right angle. It lists the amenities like a sunroof and a Bluetooth-enabled audio system. I decide to go check it out in person and show up at the dealership.

Now, I want to buy a car. I have every intention of buying some car. I might want to buy this car, but I haven't decided yet. I have certainly walked into the dealership in a way that communicates the possibility of buying a car.

The car dealer comes out. He's rude. He's pushy and aggressive and not very friendly. He rolls his eyes when I tell him which car I would like to see and huffs as he goes and gets the keys for me to test drive it. When I get to the car, I see that it is not as advertised. There's a huge dent that those pictures conveniently hid. The sunroof isn't operational. The engine doesn't turn over right away when I try to start it, and the whole thing reeks of cigarette smoke.

At this point, I'm going to leave the dealership. If the dealer cornered me, pressured me, tried to force me to sign a check, he'd be wrong. I am not going to buy that car.

"But why did you even go in the dealership if you didn't want the car?!" "Why did you ask to test drive it if you weren't going to buy it?!"

Do you see how silly these questions are?

Maybe if I really, really want a car and the dealer changes his attitude and starts showing me better cars, I'll stick around and consider a different purchase, but at some point, I'm likely to realize that this isn't the place for me. They don't have the car I want. This whole dealership is full of shitty cars, and I am under no obligation to buy a shitty car.

We are under no obligation to have shitty sex. Even if we have made plenty of indications that we were considering having some sex, we are under no obligation to have this particular sex. We are probably likely to reject this particular sex if the signs start to demonstrate it is likely to be particularly shitty sex.

I'm not going to presume to know what "Grace" intended to do when she went to Aziz's house, but there are plenty of Graces in the world, and there are lots and lots of Azizes. That's the problem. This is a very common story, and our collective reaction to Grace is a very common problem.

We are still operating under some Puritanical ideal that women's virtue is the foundational reason that rape, sexual assault, and rape culture are a problem. If we can demonstrate that a woman was not quite as virtuous as we thought, then we can excuse whatever else happens to her.

Rape culture isn't bad because it sullies virtue. Rape culture is bad because it promotes rape. Rape culture is bad because it violates another person's autonomy and boundaries about what happens to his/her body.

Wanting to have sex is not an obligation to actually have sex, and indicating that you might want to have sex does not excuse anything else that happens after that if it become non-consensual. When we can fully wrap our minds around that apparently very difficult concept, I think a culture of consent might start to emerge. Until then, we'll be hearing a lot more people saying "me, too."

Photo: Michel Curi

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