This is a really great piece from Jill Filipovic about the sexist power dynamics surrounding sex and what must be done to change and move forward:
It was only a matter of time before the focus of the #MeToo movement turned to sexist sexual experiences more generally. And here is where there remains much feminist work to be done.
After centuries of feminist activism, it finally seems like most of society understands that sexual assault and harassment are wrong; we increasingly understand that it’s not just about sex, but about power, and that harassment in the workplace isn’t about sexual desire, but about women’s rights to participate in the workforce.
What we haven’t touched on nearly as thoroughly is heterosexual sex for women in a society that still sees sex as primarily about male pleasure; that continues to position women’s bodies as sexual objects, receptacles and stand-ins for sex itself; and that encourages sexual aggressiveness in men and congeniality and passivity in women (perhaps the best – and one of the few – pieces written on the sexist power dynamics within consensual sex was by Rebecca Traister in New York magazine, back in 2015).
When we haven’t yet agreed that female pleasure and clear enthusiasm are prerequisites for a sexual encounter, we lack the ability to peel back the layers of sexual experience, and we end up with two bad options: accept sexual inequity as just how sex is (or just how men are) or wedge truly bad sexual experiences into the category of sexual assault.
Reading the story about Ansari, as well as the New Yorker’s viral Cat Person short story about a twentysomething’s confusing and often unpleasant flirtation turned sexual encounter with a thirtysomething man, I was struck by how much I could relate, and how I’ve heard similar stories from nearly every woman I know.
Girls are raised with a contradictory set of expectations: be kind and acquiescent, but also be the brakes on male sexual desire. We are taught to reflexively say yes except for when we’re supposed to definitively say no, but we don’t learn how to know when we want to say either.
In the Grace/Ansari story, this dynamic was on full display. Grace may have been interested in some sort of sexual interaction, but she found herself turned off by Ansari’s actions, and communicated that to him verbally and non-verbally – pulling her hand away, telling him to chill, saying: “I don’t want to feel forced.”
In a perfect world, Grace would have walked out the door. But women are so strongly socialized to put others’ comfort ahead of our own that even when we are furiously uncomfortable, it feels paralyzing to assert ourselves. This is especially true when we are young.
When feminists do try to talk about this sexual imbalance, we get written off as anti-sex prudes. This is strange, because what we actually want is a norm of good sex for everyone involved, instead of the status quo of sex as a male-led endeavor, centered on male pleasure. Women seem to have two sexual possibilities: yes or no. Note that men never have to say “no means no” or even “yes means yes”. They’re the ones posing the question, not answering it.
Men aren’t morons, and they know as well as anyone that a woman who is silent, physically stiff, or pulling away is not exactly aflame with desire. But they also know that we are collectively invested in a social script wherein men push to get sex until women acquiesce. And so they push, even when they know it’s unwelcome, because they can.
The language of “a bad hookup” fails to capture the unequal power dynamics and the deep sense of disorientation and betrayal that comes when someone treats you as a hole rather than a person. Nor does it adequately measure the weight of centuries of misogyny that have shaped our most intimate moments.
Feminists have been on the forefront of tackling these knottier issues of sex, consent, pleasure and power. And so it’s up to us to lead the way in confronting the private, intimate interactions that may be technically consensual but still profoundly sexist. This will only happen if we move beyond being reactively “sex positive” and recognize that human sexual interactions are not always clearcut: yes or no, good or bad, empowering or not, either assault and worth worrying about or technically consensual and therefore not at a problem.
We can – we must – wade into the messy, complicated nature of sex in a misogynist world. What a shame that opportunity was wholly missed with this breathless celebrity exposé.
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