Changing the Script: How cultural influences shape our understanding of consent

‘Bad sex,’ or sexual assault? Our lack of communication over sex has never been so apparent, and we need to analyze the forces that have shaped our understanding of consent.

Recently, the most telling conversation about how our society understands sex hasn’t been about Weinstein. No, that’s too easy.

It hasn’t centered around the brave women – and men – who told their stories of abuse at the hands powerful figures. When news of the abusers broke, it was easy to understand the severity of their actions, to box them as monsters in a collective mindset of contempt. We all like to believe that we can distinguish right from wrong, and labeling blatant abusers as monsters is, in itself, an act of self-assurance. The conversation surrounding the initial #MeToo break of October, 2017 has been incredibly important. But it has also placed all of the spectators on the same team: us, the outraged bystanders and the victims, against the bad guys.

This doesn’t tell us very much about how our society understands sex, though. That conversation came later on. In January, 2018, online publication Babe posted an article accusing ‘feminist’ comedian Aziz Ansari of sexual assault. It described the events of a night shared between Ansari and an anonymous photographer, ‘Grace.’ In what has become expected, social media erupted. Many people interpreted the story as simply a ‘bad date,’ a far cry from sexual assault. Others sympathized with the feelings of violation that Grace described. The response has exposed a gaping breach of communication over society’s understanding of consensual sexual acts.

How can Ansari claim to have ‘misread’ the encounter, when Grace felt grossly sexually violated, calling it the worst night of her life?

The conversation over sexual boundaries and consent is one we need to have right now. Unlike the Weinstein case, the Ansari/ Grace case doesn’t allow us the comfort of instantly joining a team with the good guys. For all of the people supporting Grace and condemning Ansari, there were those accusing her of seeking attention or tainting the #MeToo movement. And then, there were some who didn’t know what to think.

Illustration: Simen Østad

Cultural Influences
Not all sex is created equal.

In recent years, feminism has pushed the notion of consent with snappy phrases such as ‘no means no,’ which, while well-intentioned, paints sex as very black and white. In light of recent events, I’m beginning to interpret this definition as overly simplistic. Why? Because in regards to heterosexual sex, men and women have been subject to a deep-rooted history of conflicting cultural and media influences. As the Ansari/ Grace story confirms, these influences has resulted in a culture of sexual miscommunication.

Historically speaking, men have been socialized to take, to be dominant, to be self-assured. Meanwhile, the ideal woman is pure, passive, unavailable – waiting for the man to make the first move. We see this pattern in films all the time: men with sweeping gestures, never giving up on the women of their desires. A ‘no’ isn’t a ‘no’ – it’s a ‘try harder.’

When women and femme-identifying individuals are portrayed with sexual agency, the depiction is one-note. She’s a man-eater, a sexual deviant. She is unlike other women, hence the shock-factor. Most importantly, she’s an outlier, shamed by the mainstream.

While these two images of femininity are starkly different, they both boil down to the same thing: mythicized conceptions of female sexuality.

This binary has repeated itself throughout history. Today, the social media age has given us terms like ‘wifey material’ and ‘thot.’ I still can’t go on Twitter without seeing photos of women in tightly fitted yoga pants below the caption: ‘Fellas, would you let your girl leave the house like this?’ Just as in the past, these sentiments create an unbalanced power dynamic when it comes to sex and relationships.

These biases are so archaic that it’s almost comical to hear them in a modern context, but they’re hardly surprising when we understand that these tropes are just slightly updated hand-me-downs from ancient civilizations. Like a Hollywood cliché we see again and again: the clueless victim in a horror film, perpetually running up the stairs. No matter how many times we see it, we still sit in fear.

So how does this relate to consent?
In an editorial for The Guardian discussing the Ansari/ Grace article, writer Jill Filipovic wrote something that ties this whole consent mess together:

‘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.’

I say it’s time we change the script.