I LOVE this statement Samantha Bee made on her segment covering the Ansari situation. And she made many other great points in it too (watch it here), including the point that Ansari has made a career on being able to fuck like a feminist and the fact that he can’t or won’t is a criticism worth talking about. That’s incredibly valid.
But I take issue with the idea that no one gets to judge how women discuss this issue. Because we have to. We HAVE to critically examine how we tackle and frame this issue. We have to because, one, others are going to; they just are. But, mostly, we must because it matters. This topic matters, affecting every person on the planet. How we talk about it matters, because, if we’ve learned nothing from how we talk about race and sexual orientation and gender and [insert minority issue weighed down by eons of cultural baggage here], we should have learned by now that if we don’t have a discussion that sways the other side, all we’re doing is widening the divide and encouraging the worst in them, as well as in us. Because, if we’re more concerned with our own outrage than our ability to communicate, our goal isn’t change. Our goal isn’t the greater good. We have to be honest: our goal is to make ourselves feel better at the expense of making the world better.
And, I get it, it is TIRING to keep having to have this conversation. I feel like I’ve been saying the same things for years. “We need to get better at communication.” “Affirmative, enthusiastic consent is a necessary part of healthy sex.” “If you want to know what someone wants or want something from someone else, ask.” “Even if you do everything right, you are not entitled to a yes.”
I’ve been saying it so long, it no longer feels relevant. How could anyone NOT know about this by now?
Except, if I’m honest, there are lots of ways someone could not know. Starting with the fact that, yes, toxic norms have dominated our culture for eons. Dismantling that kind of internalized culture isn’t easy. Especially when, for all our cultural shifts and movements, it keeps getting reinforced by our media, our society as a whole, and by the people around us.
And it’s easier to get people on-board with cases like O’Reilly, Weinstein, and Lauer. It’s not hard to convince most people right now that no one should whip their junk out in front of people who don’t want to see it. It’s not hard to convince most people at this moment that forcibly raping people is a crime. It’s not hard to convince most people that leveraging someone’s career to get sex is reprehensible. Our culture has shifted enough to be able to recognize the horror in those acts. And it’s about damned time!
But, as many people are pointing out, Ansari’s situation is different. It isn’t as simple. In a culture that, in an effort to simplify the obviously complicated, preaches “no means no” and “yes means yes,” trying to grapple with nuance isn’t easy. If she said yes to some things, but not others, what does yes mean? What exactly does any given yes cover? If she didn’t directly say no, then exactly what does no mean? And how was he, and those like him, supposed to recognize it? I mean, if we’re using coded language and signals that weren’t discussed and agreed upon beforehand, how can anyone trust anything anyone says or does? After all, if something means no to you, but doesn’t to me, how can we ever even hope to avoid this situation? Because you should ALWAYS be able to say yes to some things and no to others and have those choices respected. But, if we can’t even constructively and clearly talk to each other about how to talk to each other, respect doesn’t seem like a likely outcome.
That’s why I’ve always been in favor of learning to communicate more directly. Using clear, direct language to communicate your wants and needs that goes beyond just a simple, often incomplete yes or no. But I also acknowledge another really, crucially valid point people are bringing up, that it often doesn’t feel safe to be direct. Giving a clear, direct yes or no to someone can, in certain circumstances, put people in harm’s way, physically, emotionally, financially, etc. We see it too often to deny it.
So, if we can’t rely on indirect signals and don’t feel safe using direct language, where does that leave us?
To be honest, I don’t know. And trying to figure out an answer that can be universally applied is going to take exhaustive work. It is going to be tiring and feel futile and make outrage feel really good.
And, you know what, be outraged. Rage, as we’ve seen in the past few years, can be effective. It can spark conversations in ways that calm rationality just can’t compete with. We, as a species, are attracted to loud, shiny objects; sometimes it pays off to be the loudest, most sensational one in the room.
But, if you want that spark your rage created to spread into something productive, there’s got to be something behind it. Something beyond it. Because, inevitably, even if you get someone to listen, they’re going to ask, “Okay, you’re mad, I see that. But now what?”
And, like it or not, it leaves you with two options. You can double-down on rage. Shout so loud, you shut down any kind of conversation. When the other side tries to engage or ask questions, you can say that you’re tired of talking about this when no one’s listening anyway. After all, to be fair, there are always those on the other side who are just trolling and aren’t actually interested in communication. And, yes, trolling them back and shutting them down feels so damned good.
But how much good does it do? When you’re not even trying to convince anyone on the other side. Not just the trolls, but the people who have been fed our toxic cultural norms from birth who honestly haven’t questioned it because, until now, they’ve never had to. Not just the trolls, but the people your rage woke up and are listening and engaging for the first time. Not just the trolls, but the people who could actually be swayed. And, who, if you let them, might surprise you and help sway and shape your own opinions in a better direction.
I’ve talked about this before, but the relationship feminism and BDSM have is a great example. When each side dismisses the other as not knowing what they’re talking about and demonizes them as either prudes or predators, no good comes out of that. No problems are solved. It widens the divide and forces those who find common ground in each to choose a side.
But, when they listen to each other, they learn from each other. No other group has helped shape our conversation about sexual ethics better than these two groups. No one has grappled with and explored and examined sexual ethics better than these two groups and they never would have done it as well, if they hadn’t butted heads and debated with each other. If they hadn’t figured out how to communicate with each other. To listen and learn. To talk and teach. Without this, kinksters would never have questioned or learned to combat the rampant sexism and potential for abuse inherent in kink culture. Without this, feminists would still be prioritizing acts over consent, dismissing context and real, lived-in experiences over theory and ideology, demonizing innocent people and loving relationships, all the while helping to stigmatize an already marginalized group. Without this, without the ability to work together and the willingness to see things from other sides, the problems inherent in kink culture—that so often are echoed in vanilla culture, as we are seeing now—would still be pushed to the shadows, hidden under rage, shame, and stigma, making it impossible for either side to fix the problems they both know are there.
I’m not saying that we have to agree with each other on everything. Or that we can’t legitimately think and call out the other side as wrong. But there has to be a better, more constructive conversation that the ones the loudest, most sensational voices are having right now. Because, if we are rightly going to criticize Ansari for not living up to his words and ideals and #FuckingLikeAFeminist, then we should probably make sure we're doing all we can to make sure more people know what that even means.