What was that?
I asked myself that question after each interaction with my former manager.
Was it sexual harassment or was it merely inappropriate workplace flirting?
I thought it was sexual harassment in the sense that if I was a male employee, he would have undoubtedly treated me differently. He wouldn’t have commented on my appearance or attractiveness. I thought it was harassment in the sense that the comments occurred over a period of time – the treatment was ongoing in nature. I considered it harassment because of the power differential at play.
I thought it wasn’t harassment because it didn’t reach Weinstein/Lauer levels. There were no overt sexual innuendoes. No sexual talk. No coercion into sex. He only ever told commented on how “smart” and “amazing” I was, in addition to “beautiful” – things that could be seen as compliments.
Did he just have a crush on me, or was he trying to get into my pants? Did he just have “a soft spot for me” as he once told me, or did the thought of me make him hard? Was I overthinking, or was I under-enraged?
Was it harmless banter? Was it just a middle-aged man in an unhappy marriage who saw an opportunity to feel young and desirable again by hitting on a young, naïve and vulnerable employee half his age?
Was it mutual? I mean, I didn’t recoil. I didn’t ever get to sit him down and say, “Your actions are inappropriate.” I probably even flirted with him too at times.
It was inappropriate in the sense that he was/is married and he was my boss. But just because it’s inappropriate doesn’t mean it’s harassment, right?
But he was a manager, a mentor, a supervisor. Surely he knew his actions were wrong.
Is it “either/or” or is it “both/and”?
I don’t know.
What was that?
Seems like women are the ones always asking the question: “We had such a good time but he stopped calling all of a sudden. What was that?” “He asked me out, but now he’s ghosted. What was that?” “He seemed so into me but now he’s with someone else. What was that?” “We were together for x amount of years, and now he says that he doesn’t want to be with me anymore.”
What was that?
More along the #metoo movement: “I went in for a hug and he grabbed my butt. What was that?” “We were kissing and then he started to finger me and I said stop and he got mad and left. What was that?”
I read the Babe article in which Grace tells her story of being sexually assaulted by Aziz Ansari and I asked myself the same thing.
What was that?
On one hand, she was clearly uncomfortable. Phrases like, “Whoa, let’s relax for a sec, let’s chill,” “I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you,” and “no, I don’t think I’m ready to do this, I really don’t think I’m going to do this” don’t scream “yes!!” to me.
On the other hand, if I were Ansari’s defense lawyer, I would point to the whole notion of going back to his apartment, the multiple instances of oral sex, not leaving immediately after sensing alleged danger, the “oh, yeah, sure” response to a second date, the delay in calling the Uber, and sitting with him on the couch as instances to intimate that perhaps she was okay, albeit a little unsettled, with what was going on. I can even imagine Ansari’s defense or internal dialogue, “I mean, she does not look like she’s liking this but then again she did give me head – so what does that mean? She’s okay right?”
Some even allege that Ansari is being unnecessarily humiliated and that the only thing he is guilty of is not being a mind reader.
Unfortunately, when it comes to men and women, encounters and interactions are too often ambiguous.
In fact, in a Quartz article entitled “The Truth About False Rape Accusations,” it would seem that many instances of sexual assault take place in scenarios that are murky, rife with miscommunication, with drinking often involved, but it’s no less sexual assault:
“…if a woman without any history of dramatic falsehoods says she went home with a man and, after they’d kissed a while consensually, he held her down and forced her into sex—in the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary, you can just assume it’s true. This is not because of any political dictum like “Believe women.” It’s because this story looks exactly like tens of thousands of date rapes that happen every year, and nothing at all like a false rape accusation.”
Many of these situations are not clear-cut, often to the detriment of those sexual assault survivors who try to have their case prosecuted.
Grace did mention her discomfort verbally. But then again she performed fellatio. And yet I still hesitate to even call that consent. Sometimes we women flirt back or give head, not necessarily because we want to or because we enjoy the attention, but because we want to survive. It’s a self-preservation tactic. And sometimes we do not say no because we are too scared to, or we are stunned or any of the other multifarious reactions to someone showing you their unseemly underbelly. I think all reactions are legitimate reactions. And, unless there is a clear “no,” none of that counts as consent in my books.
Many of these men knew and know their actions are not appropriate — problematic at the very least — but they do it anyways. They go forward anyway, without any thought as to whether or not their interactions and intentions are clear and if the subject is willing and comfortable.
There is an underlying assumption that men always want sex and that women secretly want to give it but they pretend not to and so men have to coerce, trick, and manipulate them into getting what they (the men) want because on some basic level they are entitled and if they don’t penetrate a pussy regularly they will die.
“Here we go again with the man-bashing… Why is it always the guy’s fault?” It’s not always the guy’s fault actually.
Women need to say “no.” Women need to be clear with their “no’s.” I don’t dispute that. It would humbly seem to me, however, that women have been saying “no” many times and in various ways over the course of history, and men have chosen not to listen.
So yes, I put the onus on the man, because, like it or not, he often has the upper hand in sexual relationships. He is often the aggressor. He is often the one who ignores the “no”, who persists, who harasses, who rapes, who is not left feeling violated or objectified or used, who, comparatively speaking, has less to lose.
Sexual aggression is, and always will be, about entitlement, power, and usually male privilege and toxic masculinity.
In terms of power, I can only imagine a woman doing this same thing to a man or a child if she too were in a position of power.
On toxic masculinity, I speak of it in the sense that one’s masculinity – one’s maleness or how one defines one’s maleness or how it presents itself and is made manifest in society – is poisonous and harmful to those around the man in question (and, might I add, to the man himself). Among other things, toxic masculinity shows up in the idea that men are violent, unemotional, and sexually aggressive. That does not necessarily mean a man who exhibits toxic masculinity is necessarily a “bad person” per se – it just means that he needs to become a better man.
Toxic masculinity permits the male subject to bask in his entitlement and have the great privilege of not having to care about the comfort of the other party (“real men aren’t empathetic or show emotion”). Women also don’t have to care and don’t have to play along, but we often do in order to keep our jobs and save our lives. For women, it’s about self-preservation.
As the saying goes, the stakes are different for men and women: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
And so, while I think the issue of consent (and affirmative consent at that) are of primordial importance, I think our conversation needs to go beyond the act or the event itself and what happened and we need to take a hard look at the foundation — how do we dismantle a culture that allows men (largely) to settle for and justice systems to take advantage of this perceived ambiguity in sexual relationships?
The fact of the matter is that many men are more like Aziz Ansari than Harvey Weinstein – going with the flow, never asking for consent, never making things clear, okay with some level of discomfort from their partner, allowing ambiguity to persist, and then surprised when the woman comes back and says she was uncomfortable.
Our culture allows men to take such a scenario and see nothing wrong with it, to be revisionists of history, to see this too as another successful sexual conquest where all parties are happy and where both parties consented.
And so we’ve created a culture where it’s perfectly normal to persist when the lines are blurred, for both men and women to be unsure, but men more so, for men to assume that the sexual act is welcome and wanted and is always welcome and wanted, and for men to accept half-hearted consent and unenthusiastic participation – sex where your partner just goes with the flow and you can tell she is not into it and probably wouldn’t consent were you to ask her directly — as normal. Because unenthusiastic sex is better than no sex at all right?
Yes, I agree — it’s for her to tell you if she is uncomfortable. I would also so daringly posit that it’s also for you to ask if she doesn’t.
And so if any man misreads a pulling away of the hand or “whoa let’s slow down”, then he really needs to learn how to read. I can’t recommend a book, unfortunately. There are books that will tell you how to be a better sexual partner, but unfortunately, there is no book out there that I can prescribe that will tell you how to be a better man.
Good sexual partners ensure the comfort and enjoyment of the other party. If you are not doing this, you are not a good sexual partner.
“She didn’t say no.” But she didn’t say yes either.
“So what do you want me to do?” Ask for clarification. Ensure you are both on the same page.
What more was the Grace to say? “I don’t want to feel forced…” sounds like a “no” to me. And if you are with someone where you are getting a “yes, yes, yes, yes, umm no…maybe” then both partners need to clarify boundaries. That’s not a “full speed ahead” response.
A “yes” with a “no” is still a “no.” We need continued consent. Affirmative consent.
As unsexy (or sexy) as it may be, sexual activity should not happen unless there is a yes at the beginning, middle, end and throughout – a consistent “yes.” Not just when climaxing, but throughout. Consistent consent. If there is any shadow of a doubt, it’s non-consensual. Even if it isn’t non-consensual, it’s best to assume that it is and ask.
The goal must be to have an encounter where there is no possibility of misreading, where there cannot be any misinterpretation. Encounters with suggestive hints don’t cut it — as unromantic as it may be. Hinting is not enough. In the words of mama Oprah, “Doubt means don’t.” Make sure you hear “yes.” And if you don’t, or you’re unsure, or you hear “no,” stop and listen. Ensure consent.
In the age of Weinstein, common sense needs to prevail. It would have been wise if Ansari, as a celebrity and high-profile individual, made doubly sure that any sexual activity in which he’s involved is clearly consensual. But he didn’t. And now the proverbial cookie has crumbled.
And so it’s a call for men (and yes, I peg this squarely on the man) to do better.
My hope is that one day there will be less of the “What was that?” between men and women, and we’ll live in a world where boundaries are drawn and respected and intentions are made clear, and should any sexual activity ensue, it would be enjoyed and indulged – without question.