Why won’t men listen and consider what a woman is communicating?
This weekend the story of a woman by the pseudonym “Grace” went viral. She said Aziz Ansari—the nice guy, the woke guy, the guy who sported a Time’s Up pin at the Golden Globes—sexually assaulted her. The piece, which ran in Babe, has been parsed for reasons that span from its veracity to “so what?” But these are the details that stand out to me, a woman:
“I know I was physically giving off cues that I wasn’t interested. I don’t think that was noticed at all, or if it was, it was ignored.”
“He sat back and pointed to his penis and motioned for me to go down on him. And I did. I think I just felt really pressured. It was literally the most unexpected thing I thought would happen at that moment because I told him I was uncomfortable.”
“After he bent me over is when I stood up and said no, I don’t think I’m ready to do this, I really don’t think I’m going to do this. And he said, ‘How about we just chill, but this time with our clothes on?”
This is what nonconsensual sex looks like. More so, this is what nonconsensual sex looks like with a man you hoped you could trust. And it makes me feel sad and empathetic and hopeless in its familiarity.
Nearly every woman has a story like this one. Most recently, in Cat Person, Kristen Roupenian’s wildly popular short-fiction story in the New Yorker, it was the older, sensitive guy who pursues a younger woman over text, hoping she’s as close to virginity as possible as she finds herself trapped under his weight in a dirty apartment. In Katie Way’s reported account for Babe, it’s the powerful “woke” celebrity pushing a younger woman to have sex both physically and with veiled banter, as she finds herself glued to a couch, performing oral sex because she “felt pressured.”
Over the past few months, I’ve had many conversations with both men and women about sexual harassment and assault. With women, the conversations are often similar, a cyclical discussion confirming that what we have experienced is real. We exchange the details, often interrupting one another with affirming “yes, me toos” and sighs of relief in solidarity.
In the moment of, or shortly after, these nonconsensual encounters, these are things that have run through our heads: Is this just what bad sex feels like, or did he violate me? I thought it would be over faster if I stopped putting up a fight. I was afraid of what he might say or do. I thought I wanted it, then I didn’t. It felt rude to say no. I was waiting for him to be better. I couldn’t believe he wasn’t better.
With men, however, these discussions often revolve around explaining that feeling that so many women understand instantly, but struggle to articulate. It’s the same feeling I got when I read Cat Person, and again when I read about Ansari.
This is the feeling: the uneasy and complicated hashing out of how someone so smart, so aware, or so kind could be capable of such cruel behavior toward you. It’s the frantic, disbelieving calculations, the bargains you make with yourself as you try to rationalize why someone seemingly harmless is shoving their fingers down your throat. No, I could not believe he, or Ansari, or the man in Cat Person, wasn’t better.
Just like with Grace’s account, after reading Cat Person, so many women cringed at the gross familiarity of this feeling and nodded. More often than not, heterosexual men struggled to grasp what it was that felt so relatable. If you’re a heterosexual man in the #MeToo reckoning, you’ve probably, hopefully, spent some time scouring your sexual history, searching for a time you crossed a line. Even if you’ve done this and come back with nothing, what it comes down to is a vastly different understanding of consent. Men seem to be less literate in the language of sexual consent than women. If it’s not a blood-curdling scream of “no,” they will likely keep on.
One particularly jarring excerpt from Cat Person, in which the main character, Margot, realizes she doesn’t want to sleep with a man after going over to his place, puts Grace’s story into perspective:
The thought of what it would take to stop what she had set in motion was overwhelming; it would require an amount of tact and gentleness that she felt was impossible to summon. It wasn’t that she was scared he would try to force her to do something against her will but that insisting that they stop now, after everything she’d done to push this forward, would make her seem spoiled and capricious, as if she’d ordered something at a restaurant and then, once the food arrived, had changed her mind and sent it back.
Even if Grace went to Ansari’s place with the intentions they would hook up, she was still allowed to be disappointed in his aggressiveness; she was still allowed to change her mind, several times even, and be respected for her decision. But there is the longstanding guilt women feel over not wanting to seem like a burden. So they resist, they show and tell the man they don’t want to go through with this, but for many complicated reasons, they stay.
In an op-ed for the Atlantic today, Caitlin Flanagan argued that the more judicious women of yesteryear may have been groomed to be weak, but in their efforts to brush off a man they didn’t want to have sex with, they were stronger than the young women of today. Flanagan, like many who read stories like Grace’s account and don’t understand this feeling, is asking why this woman didn’t just leave. If you don’t want to have sex with someone, then why don’t you just scream “NO,” and call a cab like a big girl?
This argument is harmful not just because it lacks nuance, but because it makes the assumption that men implicitly understand the language, both verbal and non-verbal, of consent and power. There is a fundamental lack of understanding among men when it comes to power, entitlement, and consent. If anything, this is perhaps the most obvious through-line in all of these stories: Maybe men are socialized to act, speak, and assume, while women are socialized to read people, to listen, and to empathize.
In her piece outlining the “Shitty Media Men” list, Moira Donegan touched on the way this socialization can be harmful. “And this is another toll that sexual harassment can take on women: It can make you spend hours dissecting the psychology of the kind of men who do not think about your interiority much at all.” What we are asking, Donegan writes, is for men to think critically and empathetically about the inner lives of women. This has proven to be a massive challenge.
We can go over the salacious details of these encounters, reprint the celebrity response and, as per the news cycle we’ve come to expect, dissect the validity of the story until it becomes internet fodder for another Twitter thread. Still, we are left with this feeling. This uncomfortable, unsettling feeling that is our own to bear.
It’s hard to take what we know now after 2017—the reckoning of bad men, Harvey Weinstein, our president, #MeToo, shitty media men—and move forward pushing for equity in the way we used to. Even four months ago, I would’ve responded to this differently, praising women who chose to share their stories and urging men to listen. But now, I think we are growing weary of explaining what seem like basic concepts of human communication.
What we can urge is that men learn to be more adept at communication and consent, especially when it’s non-verbal. Watch and listen and understand your partners in sex and relationships, men. Ask if something is OK. Stop when it isn’t. Practice honesty and caution and empathy. Understand what it feels like when you are checking out. You are probably missing what is right in front of you.