The Slippery Slope Between Yes and No: Unpacking the Necessary Nuance of Consent
By Bailey Hosfelt
The day the Aziz Ansari sexual misconduct news broke, I was at a mutual friend’s apartment party. Spring semester was about to start, and, there I was, two gin and tonics in, reading Grace’s expose over the shoulder of a boy who I would sleep with for the first time later that night.
We sat closely as he scrolled through the story on his phone screen. I remember feeling weird about the interaction. After all, this was someone who had taken a strong liking to me, and I liked him too. Reading about miscommunication and sexual coercion didn’t exactly seem like the ideal foreplay.
Whatever, I thought. Maybe he’s also a fan of the dialogue in Master of None and never expected Ansari’s name to be the latest mentioned amidst the reckoning of the #MeToo movement.
He’s reading it and saying that he thinks what happened was abhorrent. Surely that has to mean something positive, I remember assuming to myself.
We got a third of the way through before deciding it was a bit too graphic given our social setting. He closed out of his browser, changed the subject and we carried on with the night.
Little did I know that the remaining two-thirds of Grace’s narrative would soon resonate with me on a rather personal level. Reading the article in its entirety the following morning, I was now alone and filled with an underlying sense of discomfort, perhaps guilt even.
I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what felt wrong let alone string together articulate thoughts about the situation. I’d said yes and the sex was consensual, so why did this particular encounter feel so off?
But then, The Cut shared an Instagram post. The pull quote immediately drew me in, as if I was its intended and only audience: “Seriously, God help us if the best we can say about the sex we have is that it was consensual.”
I inaudibly gasped as my roommates spooned ten feet away in a college dorm twin XL, unaware of the details of the hookup I had six hours ago and the confusion increasingly churning in my stomach.
“Why sex that’s consensual can still be bad,” read its caption. “And why we’re not talking about it.”
I couldn’t click on the link fast enough.
It was an old article (October 2015, to be exact). But the outlet understood that this particular story’s subject matter – equal parts evergreen and pervasive – was practically begging to be recirculated onto the timelines of some 455k followers in 2018.
As I read it, I felt a profound sense of clarity. Author Rebecca Traister described our society as being a “neatly halved sexual universe.” On one hand, we have sexual assault, and, on the other is sex positivity.
While sexual liberation is certainly a constructive outcome of contemporary feminism, it has also left a large fault line. A grey area not only exists within our culture but persists. As Traister underscores, in our society, “outside of sexual assault, there is little critique of sex.”
Herein lies a problem. In this regard, so long as a sexual encounter is consensual, it is okay. Some would argue it is more than okay. It is feminist. It is liberating.
But it cannot be this simple. This construction fails to consider the murky, unexamined space between sexual assault and bad sex, the slippery slope between yes and no: the place where we assume saying yes eradicates the possibility of things going south.
This is the place where Grace’s experience found itself. Perhaps this is why her story was so difficult for many people to categorize.
Some readers said it was sexual assault and Ansari rightfully belonged to be among other men accused of misconduct. Others weren’t so quick to attach guilt. Like this op-ed in The New York Times, which argued women cannot expect men like Ansari to be mind readers.
While I agree with Bari Weiss’ opinion that we must encourage women to be more verbal about their needs and desires (especially in situations where they are being overlooked), we must also understand why not everyone can “stand up on two legs and walk out his door.”
As Reina Gattuso explained in her Feministing article “Rape Culture is a Contract We Never Actually Signed,” women often find themselves having sex where they don’t feel they matter, where they might as well not be there.
Gattuso describes this as; “Sex where we don’t say no, because we don’t want to say no, sex where we say yes even, where we’re even into it, but where we fear — some little voice in us fears — that if we did say no, if we don’t like the pressure on our necks or the way they touch us, it wouldn’t matter. It wouldn’t count, because we don’t count.”
She concludes that this feeling, though not technically assault, is “certainly on a continuum with it.” And, in this regard, it demands recognition.
Traister would agree.
“A vast expanse of bad sex – joyless, exploitative encounters that can be hard to acknowledge without sounding prudish – ” Traister wrote, “has gone largely uninterrogated, leaving some young women wondering why they feel so fucked by fucking.”
This is what I felt that night, I thought to myself. This is what I feel.
It was like a lightbulb went off. Fucked by fucking. There was the eloquence I couldn’t previously conjure.
It felt like a crescendo – a realization I had slowly been piecing together, looking for clues that ultimately came together as a loud, momentous crash. It was an eye-opening, watershed moment of sorts, but it was also frightening and unsettling.
I couldn’t help but wonder what would be different if I had figured this all out before the onset of so many public claims of sexual assault and misconduct.
Would I have poked and prodded for why I felt violated despite consenting? Or would I have let it go, filing it under bad sex where my needs weren’t considered and, as a result, I left feeling regretful despite wholeheartedly wanting and consenting to the encounter.
If I didn’t follow The Cut on Instagram, would I have realized that I was not alone in feeling physically uncomfortable after consensual sex that was aggressive and unfulfilling?
If I didn’t see the article, would I have realized that while you can physically participate, you can also feel entirely nonexistent, as if your body is there but you do not have equal stake in the situation?
I remember telling a friend of mine that it was as if my body was sitting across the room, watching myself in a situation I felt I had increasingly less control over.
He said, “I’ve been waiting for this for so long,” and I was grimacing, waiting for it to be over.
That same friend texted me back this article.
“Not that bad,” its headline read. I assumed it would be a scathing, anti-feminist retort of Grace’s story. But as I read on, I was compelled by Katie’s argument. She described a situation that was nuanced and messy in a way that was, well, nuanced and messy.
This part that really got me:
"What I'm realizing now, after reading Grace's story and the responses to it, is that when I shrink my own pain, I also shrink my empathy for women who feel the same pain and feel it full-size. I resent Grace for talking about her hookup as if it's an assault. I'm mad at her for talking about it at all.
But that's not because she was wrong to talk about it. And it's for sure not because she was wrong to go on a date, drink wine, or try to have a pleasurable sexual encounter. She wasn't. She wasn't wrong.
It's because if what happened to her is a violation, then we are all violated. And everyone is a violator. And that's a scary fucking world to live in. I don't want that to be the world I live in.
If you shared my hesitation to stand up with Grace on this one, I'm just asking you to hang out and ask yourself why. You don't have to come up with answers. It's enough to notice and wonder.”
I came out of that particular sexual experience with more questions than I would have liked to, and finding conclusive, contradictory-free solutions seemed near impossible. It still does. But it was a wake-up call to something I have felt before and may unfortunately feel again.
Grace’s story was one that forced us to not only reflect on the society we operate within, but also forced us to look inward at our own sexual experiences.
These conversations are difficult and far from smooth but they must be had. We can no longer talk about yes and no like they are straightforward and mutually exclusive.
We must confront sexual power imbalances, whether they take place in our own lives or the world at large.
There is no question that consent is crucial. But we must also acknowledge that the quality of women’s sex lives will not advance until a wider scope of talking points are considered.