ThinkProgress

Op-Ed: The Aziz Ansari story proves that our traditional ideas about consent are flawed

Actor Aziz Ansari poses with the trophy for Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series - Musical or Comedy during the 75th Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, California. (credit: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

When a story about a woman’s account of “the worst night” of her life with actor Aziz Ansari was published on Saturday, it led to a flurry of indignant defenses of Ansari’s persistent sexual advances. Those defenses — some offered through the voice of self-identified feminists — largely chalked the story up to a “lousy romantic encounter” and seemed to deliver a common message: What a shame! What a disservice to the #MeToo movement this trivial, inarticulate story does through its sheer mundanity!

The arguments reminded us that almost every woman has gone through a similarly unpleasant and traumatic experience. And if it’s only your first time, they tell us, consider yourself lucky. It is as if the commonality of the experience somehow weakened the legitimacy of the woman’s claim, instead of bolstering its urgency.

Women need to toughen up, the Ansari defenders contended. They argued that the burden of consent lies with the person who is having doubts, that, within the context of heterosexual relationships, it is up to the woman to learn to communicate more clearly, more forcefully. Because men are not mind readers, it is up to her to take action to extirpate herself from the unpleasant situation. Caitlin Flanagan, in the Atlantic, took the argument one sarcastic step further, deploring a “whole country full of young women who don’t know how to call a cab.”  

What these arguments miss is the responsibility of the other party to make sure that their partner is consenting to the sexual interaction they are about to initiate — and, even further, to care about it. What would a culture which recognizes that responsibility even look like? A common response to the #MeToo movement by men on social media has been an expression of anguish at not knowing how to envision a culture in which the traditional power dynamic will no longer be acceptable: We are so afraid of talking to women these days, they lament. How can we know our entreaties are welcome?

In 1990, a group of students at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, became fed up with the administration’s lackluster response to sexual assault on campus, and got together to write their own Sexual Offense Prevention Policy (SOPP). Over the next couple of years, they drafted a rather revolutionary policy which required each person engaging in any sort of intimate activity to obtain clear verbal consent from their partner before proceeding to each new stage of the interaction — from kissing them, to undressing them, to getting undressed, to oral sex (even if both parties were already naked and oral sex seemed like the only place the interaction could go). Blanket preemptive consent was not allowed. And, obviously, consent implied consciousness and sober possession of one’s faculties.

The idea was that the onus of establishing consent should not be left to just one person in the interaction — that there is always a relationship of power undergirding sexual relations and that this relationship is usually gendered, although the policy applied to all genders. It meant that it’s not just up to one person to feel self-possessed enough to say no, it’s also up to the partner to make sure there is a clear “yes.”

When the policy was passed through the college’s shared governance system and eventually approved by its Board of Trustees, Antioch became a national laughing stock. The policy was mocked on national media — even on Saturday Night Live – for being preposterous and unworkable. It was seen as an instance of “political correctness gone wild.” The most common criticism seemed to be that obtaining verbal consent was akin to a radically un-sexy bureaucratic red tape that would kill the buzz and ruin all hopes of sexual satisfaction for everyone involved.

As a student of Antioch College in the mid-2000s, I can attest to the fact that there was no danger of anyone’s buzz being killed on what was perhaps the most sex-positive campus in the Midwest. Every term, community government organized a “sex week,” complete with queer porn evening shows in the college’s theater, free trips to local sex shops and BDSM (bondage and discipline, dominance and submission) workshops. On orientation day, when first years were taught about verbal, affirmative consent and safe-sex practices, they were also told: “the spirit of the policy is not no; the spirit of the policy is yes, yes, yes!”

Living in a community with a culture of open, verbal consent structuring all intimate interactions meant that we were all challenged to think differently about gender roles and the relationships of power involved in sex. It was not perfect or infallible — sexual assault still happened. But the knowledge that we lived in a community that upheld a different set of expectations about how it is appropriate to behave in intimate situations was empowering.

The SOPP is still upheld at Antioch College today, and many colleges across the country have come to adopt versions of the policy as the paradigms around consent and sexual assault have slowly begun to shift.

But reading the Op-eds defending Aziz Ansari, I can’t help but think that we are still stuck there, culturally, in this “boys will be boys” and “all we can do is save ourselves, sisters” mentality. We ought to refuse that. It is not an admission of weakness, or a victimizing move, to say that it isn’t only up to women to know when to run and to be assertive enough to say “no” loud and clear. It is not weakness to say that the burden of consent should be shared and that men should shoulder theirs. Defending that stance is not a distraction from the real issues of the #MeToo movement, but its logical continuation. It’s what happens when we follow the tangled thread of rape culture all the way to its roots.

Jeanne Kay is an alumna, staff member, and adjunct faculty of Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio.