This is part two of a series on consent. Part one is here.
The following is a continuation of my answers to many questions men have about the “Consent Pledge” I created (for men who have sex with women.)
I’ve never pressured a woman for sex, violated a woman’s sexual boundaries, or committed any kind of sexual misconduct. Not all men are predators. So why are you encouraging me, and all men, to sign a consent pledge?
First, if you’ve never pressured a woman for sex, violated a woman’s sexual boundaries, or committed any kind of sexual misconduct, thank you for doing the right thing. I hope you take leadership in encouraging other men to follow your example.
I also hope you’ll still sign this pledge, as it is not a commentary about the signer’s past behavior, but rather, a commitment and show of support for creating a new, positive standard for men around sexual consent. And a tool for raising awareness with other men.
However, even if you feel confident that you’ve never pushed past a woman’s sexual boundaries in the past, I would like you to consider the following:
One of the most notable aspects of the online dialogue around the Aziz Ansari incident, was that virtually all women who wrote articles about it—even women who were defending him and did not believe he had committed an assault—stated that they’d had many experiences while on dates with men along the lines described in the original article about Ansari. The widespread consensus among the women I read—including among who were disagreeing with each other about other aspects of the case—seemed to be this type of intense sexual pressure from men while on dates was all too common among them:
Experiences in which a man has been extremely pushy and aggressive about his sexual desires during a date. Experiences in which a man just wasn’t paying attention to (or didn’t even care about) all the subtle and not-so-subtle verbal and non-verbal cues she was giving him that she was uncomfortable and that she wanted him to slow down.
Experiences in which the woman ended up feeling objectified by the man, and used as a means for his own sexual gratification, without concern for her own comfort, desires, preferences, requests, or boundaries–even if technically no law was broken.
The consensus among women commenting online seems to be that the way Ansari is alleged to have acted is extremely common among men when on dates with women. (Note: I am not speaking for any women by saying this; I am merely reporting my own sense of what I’m reading among a wide range of women’s commentary.)
If aggressive pressure for sex by men on dates is as common as women are saying it is—and I believe them when they say it—then it is statistically impossible that this behavior is being perpetuated by just a few “bad apples.” (Note: I’m not talking about violent, forceful, criminal assault here. I’m talking about persistent verbal pressure that does not necessarily rise to the level of a crime.)
Yet few men seem to believe they have ever acted this way. So, there’s a disconnect somewhere. And I believe that disconnect is in our own self-image as men. We may believe we’ve never pressured a woman for sex in a way that made her feel uncomfortable or that disrespected, pushed, or crossed her boundaries—but it’s actually very likely that we did, and she never told us how she felt about it afterwards. (Or she did try to tell us how she felt about it afterwards, and we wouldn’t listen.)
I believe we men need to give ourselves a good hard look in the mirror and listen to what women are telling us, ASAP.
And I believe that if we do that, and are really honest with ourselves, then most of us will indeed have to admit that, on at least one occasion in the past, we have done one of the following: badgered, begged, bothered, bugged, cajoled, convinced, demanded, goaded, guilted, manipulated, nagged, needled, pestered, pleaded, prodded, pressured, or pushed a women for sex… until she finally “gave in” and said “OK”–or at least, stopped saying “no.” In short, we’ve engaged in hard-selling our hard-ons, to women. This needs to stop.
Guys, in a business context, do you feel good when another guy tries to do a high-pressure, hard-sell on you? High-pressure, emotionally-manipulative hard-selling is not illegal. But even if you say “yes” after being subjected to such a hard-sale, you don’t usually feel good about it afterwards. Usually, you feel at least a little used, objectified (as a walking human wallet) and taken advantage of. And you resent the guy who pushed you so hard.
Well, that’s what I believe most of us men have done, at least once in the past, in the sexual realm: high-pressure sales. And we’ve been doing this high-pressure sales towards a group of people who have been socialized to give in to men’s pressure, even if they weren’t sure they wanted to. The reality is that most women have been socialized, since the time they were little girls, to act in certain ways when in the presence of a man.
Of course, they don’t always act in these ways—thank goodness—but this is how women have been told to act when in the presence of a man: to be charming, delightful, pretty, available, and pleasantly flirtatious, yet also demure, indirect, and coy. To not speak up for herself in front of a man; to listen to him closely—without interrupting or inserting too many of her own opinions or objections. To be selfless, needless, desireless and supporting in the face of other people’s needs and desires—especially those of men. To caretake and placate a man’s emotions, which often take a turn for the worse when he doesn’t get what he wants. To cheerfully and pleasantly give him what he wants, without “putting up too much of a fight.” To base her sense of self-worth and self-approval on the sexual approval she receives from men. (Once again, women don’t always act in these ways—but that’s how society has tried to get them to act.)
Add to this, the reality that—as we’ve seen from #MeToo—many women are carrying around trauma from past sexual violations. This trauma has been made worse by the fact that there’s been no safe legal or therapeutic resolution for this trauma en masse for women, which makes many women feel generally unsafe among men. Given that environment, if you as a man then hard-sell your desire for sex—even if you’re not close to committing a crime—it can activate past trauma and trigger a traumatized person into what’s called a “freeze and fawn” response (the counterpart to the more widely-discussed “flight or flight.”)
In a “freeze and fawn” reaction, a person carrying trauma, when triggered, freezes up, dissociates from their body, smiles and “plays nice” with whoever the source of the perceived threat is, placating and going along with their demands peaceably, so as not to put themselves in further danger by arousing the perceived aggressor’s anger or force. As online discussions around cases like Aziz Ansari demonstrate, some version of this “freeze and fawn” response, when under stress or fear in a sexual situation, is vastly more common among women than we men realize.
And then add to all of this alcohol or other drugs–which often are taken by women, and/or offered to women openly by men, in social and sexual settings, specifically in order to lower inhibitions. Put all of this together and you have a potent mix of factors that can lead to the woman feeling that her boundaries were violated, pushed, crossed, disrespected, overruled, disregarded, and just basically run over with a truck–even if the man didn’t do anything that fits strict legal definitions of assault or rape.
This kind of hard-selling of sexual desires on the part of men, often mixed with alcohol, aimed (consciously or subconsciously) at wearing down a woman’s sexual resistance and getting her to give in and have sex, may not be illegal (or in some cases, it may be.) But “not illegal” is not a good enough standard. Not anymore. Not after #MeToo has revealed to us men—in a way we can no longer deny—just how utterly unsafe so many women feel around us.
Anyways, why would we want to have sex that is merely “not illegal”? Why not wait until a woman is truly excited and enthusiastic about the idea of having sex with us? And if that time doesn’t come with a particular woman, then why not wait until we find a woman who is enthusiastic about having sex with us?
There’s a saying in sales: “The sale doesn’t start until the prospect says ‘no.’” In a business context, that’s a workable, optimistic, ambitious, rah-rah attitude. In a sexual context, that’s a predatory attitude–but one that many men hold nonetheless.
If we’re desperate for sex in a particular encounter, and we’ve got a “one-track mind” in that instance, and if she says “no” to our desires, we convince ourselves that if we just keep persuading, pressuring, and convincing her verbally, maybe we’ll “get lucky” and she’ll “change her mind.”
Or maybe we think she might be “playing hard to get,” in which case we convince ourselves that deep down, she really “wants it,” that her “no” is just some “game” she’s playing, and that her “real” yes will come around in due time if we just keep making our desires and intentions known again and again. Or, we keep pressuring because we’re afraid to find out that she “just doesn’t feel that way” about us–and we just can’t bear one more rejection, and don’t want to hear it.
I’ve been that guy. I’ve been the guy that kept pressuring and pestering for sex while on dates. I regret it deeply. I will not be that guy anymore.
Signing this pledge is a commitment to not being “that guy” in the future.