As an older man, I believe in mentoring younger men, which is not always easy, since younger men have a tendency not to listen to anybody. I have been following the very fascinating Aziz Ansari story and controversy, many people think it is a turning point for good and bad in the Metoo movement.
Nobody needs me to jump in on this story, hundreds of people have already done that, and I have nothing to add to what I know of his encounter with a young women who accused him of harassing her by pressuring her to have sex when she didn’t really want to.
She claimed it was harassment to her, there is a great argument about that.
It seems nothing Ansari said or did was illegal, but there is much discussion about whether it was right.
Many women have come to his defense, suggesting this was an unfair overreach, that the real problem is that many women have not yet learned to speak up for themselves and take responsibility for themselves and walk away.
I was reminded of a discussion I had recently with a young man – yes, I do mentor him – about the awakening and social revolution surrounding the question of sexual harassment and male violence towards women.
We were talking about all of the stories coming out, and he and I were both a little stunned about the intensity of what we were seeing.
He said he was confused about what the line was between wanting to have sex and being a sexual harasser or predator. And this week, he is trying to make sense of the Ansari story, he and his friends couldn’t grasp what Ansari did that was so wrong. He didn’t force anyone to have sex with him, and nobody told him not to. So what was such a big deal? Wasn’t it just bad sex, or a bad date?
I said where the line was under great discussion right now, and was probably going to move around for awhile. I said I thought this conversation was healthy and long overdue, and I urged him to pay close attention.
But since I remember what it was like to be a sexually active teenager, I told him I thought the thing he might take away from the story was not about what she thought, but what goes on in his own mind.
Like me, I said, he was probably encouraged to find women who will have sex with him. His father probably winked proudly at him, his brother probably told him he was a stud, his friends clapped and cheered admiringly whenever he any other young man he knew talked some women into having sex.
For many men, including me, this was the hallmark of a real man, this is what it means to be a real man.
Getting women to have sex with you was considered a benchmark sign of virility, persistence and attractiveness. I asked him if anyone in his entire life had ever told him it was wrong to pressure a young woman into having oral or other consensual sex. He said no, no one ever had. His uncle called him “romeo,” and bought him a new Iphone when he told him he was having sex with women.
I’m not getting into the Ansari details, the issue is whether or not he pressured this person into sexual interaction – in this case, oral sex – that she didn’t want or felt comfortable about having. I wasn’t there.
I told my young friend that this was not rape or anything like rape, but it did suggest to me that young men like him had to understand having sex in a completely different way now, if they were to be safe themselves, and keep women from getting hurt.
I do believe that few people – men or women – understand the biological and social — and psychological – pressures young sexually active men experience about sex. I had an erection day and night for nearly two years when I was a teenager, it was the most uncomfortable I have ever been with my body, and I felt like some kind of caged animal. At times, I would have done almost anything to have sex.
I remember telling my daughter to be vigilant and thoughtful around sexually active young men, any one of them could be dangerous. Then, it seemed like an extreme thing to say, but now, it just seems like common sense.
I would have done almost anything to have sex as opposed to masturbating in bed or alongside the bad writing in Playboy and Penthouse magazines. No one ever spoke to me about it, helped me learn how to handle it, or more importantly, helped to me to see how dangerous and aggressive such bodily impulses could be.
I felt the women I was trying to have sex with had absolutely no idea what was going in in my body or the body of my friends. Talking to my young friend, I remembered plying drinks into a female classmate in the back seat of a car and aggressively kissing her and pressing my body against her. She mostly lay rigid staring up at the ceiling, as if she were only barely conscious.
I was in an awful fever at the moment, but I did see the fear and confusion in her eyes, and took in the fact she couldn’t even look at me, let alone touch me. I remember thinking this isn’t something we are doing together, it was something being done to her. I was revolted by it, there was nothing sexual about it.
And I never did it again.
I stopped , sat up, and took her home. We became good friends. It could have easily been very different, and she never at any point told me to stop or said she was uncomfortable. And I am so relieved I did not harm her or left her with horrible memories of me.
I urged my young friend to consider comfort as well as specific permission. Just because somebody doesn’t say anything doesn’t mean they want to submit to you. It is your job to consider whether it seems like something she really wants to do, or is something she really is being pressured to do.
And don’t kid yourself, I said, you can usually tell the difference. And if you’re not sure, ask.
When someone really wants to have sex, there is little doubt about it. And good and real sex is quite wonderful for both of you. If it’s only good for you, something is wrong.
But should the girl be able to speak for herself, he asked? Yes, I said, sure, but that’ s not your business or problem, that’s for her or other women to sort out.
I can’t judge Ansara, I said (he and I are both fans) but I can judge myself, and I can judge you, I said.
It’s a confusing time. This kind of social change brings good and bad, veers one way and then the other. Mostly, you just have to think about what you are doing and how you are doing it. You will make mistakes and there will be miscommunications. But you don’t want to be hurting people or forcing anyone to do something they don’t wish to do.
If you thought you had a great time after pressuring and cajoling someone into have sex with you, and she (or he) didn’t, then something is wrong and you have some thinking and some work to do.
You need to be aware that you have enormous cravings and drives raging inside of you, and that can make you dangerous and insensitive and prone to real trouble. The only way to not be insensitive, I said, is to be sensitive. You have to put yourself in her shoes.
You have to make sure your love is truly consensual, not just the result of your own lust and cravings. You have to remember that no is no, period. And so is “I’m not sure,” or “not ready,” or “not comfortable.” Perhaps one day, we will teach young men to understand themselves and their drives, and perhaps young women are learning how to stand in their truth and say what they really feel.
Until then, I told him, men have to get in their own minds and make some repairs. When I got off the phone, I was glad I was me, and not him, that I don’t have to stand in his shoes right now. Or the shoes of a young woman navigating some pretty choppy water.