The mystery of consent: How long will men take to understand a ‘no’?
It is easy to hate Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer who sexually harassed hundreds of women for decades. The case is clear as day and there is no ambiguity when you hear about his deeds. The same goes for Larry Nassar, who molested scores of young women and has now been given 175 years in prison.
But how do you tackle someone like Aziz Ansari, famous American comedian, self-proclaimed feminist, and considered by many as a “good guy”? That debate erupted after a website published the story of an anonymous woman named “Grace” who recounted how Ansari had ignored her verbal and non-verbal protests against his sexual advances.
For women and sexual minorities who have been at the receiving end of harassment, this is a difficult moment. How do we have a conversation around consent, which is complex and yet establishes clear boundaries?
The debate that followed when Ansari was outed has commentators sharply divided. Even noted feminist Germaine Greer suggested that women were not vocal enough at the moment they were forced into such a situation.
But consent is not a one-time ticket to wonderland; it is prone to change at any point during an encounter between two people.
No means no
Grace was consistent when she said Ansari pressured her to perform various sexual acts, which made her feel “uncomfortable.” She added that he disregarded all her non-verbal expressions of discomfort and lack of interest and she finally left his apartment in tears.
Ansari later released a statement acknowledging the date and said that “everything did seem OK” to him during the course of action he took. “So when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned,” he said.
Men like Ansari end up reinforcing patriarchy while pretending to be feminists. They start telling women what they should or should not feel, while always donning the garb of being sensitive.
They assume they can even validate the experiences of women.
That is classic mansplaining – using male privilege to talk down to women.
In this case, there were repeated instances where Grace expressed her discomfort to Ansari. He pretended not to hear her, or worse, ignored her. That is the nub of the problem, as is evident from the sham apology he issued later. It only revealed that he was deaf to her lack of consent. If it was deliberate, it makes this case even more insidious. His apology sounds like it was her fault that she was not explicit enough when she said she was uncomfortable.
This is exactly how coercion works. You assume that the discomfort is not explicit enough and you end up justifying an act of coercion, even if it is a subtle one.
Eventually, the woman is pushed to question whether the harassment was real or it was all in her head. This is how you silence survivors of assault.
I have had a personal experience of being silenced when I went to lodge a sexual-harassment complaint in a police station.
The harasser was influential in an industry I had just joined. The policewoman who was recording my statement asked me why I had not screamed for help when the harassment took place. Or get out of the situation.
As she continued to speak, the narrative changed. Suddenly, I was at fault, while the act of my harasser receded into the background. The onus was on me and it was my fault that I had not shouted loudly, or had not fought hard enough. The fact that I had resisted and articulated my objection clearly was not enough for her.
In such situations, the nuances of the power of the perpetrator over the victim are completely lost. The shock and trauma suffered by the victim are ignored.
How loud does it have to be?
The Ansari case highlights the sexual dynamics between men and women – the obligations women feel not to disappoint their male sexual partner or the fear they feel to express their discomfort. So even if a woman has consented at first, any act of coercion experienced subsequently nullifies that consent.
Recently, the Delhi High Court acquitted filmmaker Mahmood Farooqui of raping a US citizen, and Justice Ashutosh Kumar remarked that “there are instances when a feeble ‘no’ on the part of a woman may mean ‘yes’ during the course of a sexual act.”
This, unfortunately, is how the privileged think. It renders people incapable of understanding consent in practice.
Moreover, “bad sex” is something we are used to waving off casually. But this can have grievous consequences later on. What men consider bad sex is judged on their levels of pleasure. For women, it translates into coercion and/or pain. Culture critic Lili Loofbourow points out that this difference in interpreting “bad sex” makes women pay a heavy price for a man’s pleasure.
Women are constantly conditioned from childhood to adjust to discomfort. Only a few can overcome this imposed handicap.
That’s why, when a campaign like #MeToo takes off, it baffles most people. They can’t understand why sexual harassment is so widespread. But it was always so. But women were always conditioned to endure and ignore.
Some activists even think that the #MeToo campaign has gone too far and paints a “problematic presentation of women as vulnerable and as victims.”
The moot point remains in understanding that women haven’t been empowered. They are victims in the present set-up and they are the oppressed. That’s exactly why they must fight to break their chains.
First, these activists are in Western countries where “sexual revolution” has taken place, and there is no space for developing countries like India or Pakistan in their perspectives. Second, they want to see women as empowered beings rather than feeling like victims of the existing patriarchal society.
But it is not easy for women in the West. Imagine how difficult this is for women in developing societies such as India and other parts of the world. In these parts, even “minor” harassments and the blatant disregard of consent are a direct manifestation of the prevalent rape culture. This must change. Otherwise, women will continue to be oppressed.