The #metoo conversation, at least the parts I’ve seen, has often forgotten to call out the general power dynamic, which is, I think critical, and what makes the difference between ‘bad sex / poor communication all around’ and ‘coercion.’
Think of the black man driving, pulled over by a white cop. How careful he must be to keep his hands on the wheel, to note that he is reaching into the glove compartment for his registration, or into a back pocket for his license. A white man pulled over, or even me, doesn’t have that extra level of ‘must try not to get shot in this interaction’ as background terror. It’s not fun for me to get pulled over by a cop, but the worst I’m worrying about is a big fine. This is why in academia, we say that racism is prejudice + institutionalized power. We live in a racist system, and that extra weight presses down far more heavily on some of us than others.
Similarly, I have had bad sex with both women and men. I have failed to communicate with both women and men. I have, perhaps, even been pushy or not-paying-attention with both women and men. But while my partner can rightly call me out for that kind of thing, and while I might even owe them an apology for my boorish behavior, the most they have to worry about is that I will yell at them or cause a scene.
Even if I were far stronger and more skilled at fighting than I am — I could, in theory, be a highly-trained martial artist — history and culture show that turning down women for sex is unlikely to result in grievous bodily harm. Whereas we all know that turning women turning down men may well result in those men escalating the situation, that those women’s bodies may be in real danger of rape or injury or death. We live in a sexist system, and when a woman is trying to say no to sex, she has to push back against the entire system, not just the man she’s talking to.
Given that, it’s incumbent on us to be aware, and to take extra care. When I walk across campus, I find myself smiling extra broadly at the women in hijab, because I know that in their daily interactions, even on a college campus, they are more likely to get people pushing against them, questioning their right to be there. When good white cops pull over black men in the course of their normal duties, I hope that they take extra care to be pleasant and reassuring, to defuse the tension of the situation, as they discuss just how many miles over the speed limit the driver was going.
And if you’re a man, on a date with a woman, and sexytimes appear to be on the table, I hope you’re aware that if she’s feeling uncertain about things, if she changes her mind partway through, that it is going to be very hard for her to say no to you, to say no to the entire weight of the culture. And it’s incumbent on you, if you like to think of yourself as a good person, to make sure that she is enthusiastically consenting to everything you do together. You may not be intending to pressure her, but intent is not the same as effect. Every gesture you make towards sex has additional weight piled behind it by our cultural expectations. Sometimes it can feel like a battering ram.
A final note to the insecure geeky boys and men, many of whom I have loved. I know that for many of you, sex can be similarly fraught. That after years or decades of feeling like no woman would be interested in you, when one finally is, there may be a temptation to clutch on as hard as you can, to lock this down before she can change her mind and get away. Breathe through it. You don’t really want a woman you’ve coerced into bed; you could pay a prostitute if all you wanted was sex. You want a woman who likes you, and who is happy to be there in that bed with you. If you slow things down and check in with her, you are far more likely to get what you actually want out of the sexual interaction.
One of the saddest things about the Aziz Ansari interaction (which was, I have to say, very poorly reported by Babe Magazine, in a sensationalist and deeply frustrating way), was that I’m pretty sure that if he had slowed down and talked to her a little more at a few points during the evening, they might well have had terrific, enthusiastic sex that they could have both walked away happy from. And sure, she could have been clearer, she could have communicated better too. But the weight of the patriarchy is heavy on our necks, pressing us down.