Written by Ozzy Etomi
It was the early weeks of January, fresh off the post-Christmas holiday high, and yet another viral topic was sweeping the Internet, sparking a hot debate with strongly opposing views that was the anchoring conversation at dinner parties, lunch dates, Whatsapp chats, and generating dozens of think pieces and twitter threads.
A woman had recounted her experience on a date with the talented and likable comedian Aziz Ansari; a very uncomfortable and cringe worthy recollection of a situation that many women are all too familiar with: an overly persistent man who just won’t stop making sexual passes at you, even when you are visibly uncomfortable, resulting in a sexual encounter that leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
It was not a clear cut & dried rape incident, one in which Ansari used any undue physical force, and neither did the narrator make it exceedingly verbally clear that she was an unwilling participant in the affair, until she requested to leave, to which he immediately acquiesced. However, the retelling was full of non-verbal cues, a lack of enthusiasm and a general discomfort with the sexual experience, one that left many triggered but which many scoffed at, that brought the topic of consent once again to the forefront.
What exactly should consent look like?
In the wake of the revival of the #MeToo movement; a hashtag created to empower women and give sexual assault victims a voice, we have seen giants in Hollywood toppled by the sheer will of women who broke their silence in staggering numbers, and the resulting limelight on the pervasiveness of rape culture, and inciting discussions on what constitutes rape and assault.
But an area that people still insist remains “grey” is that of consent. When is a no really a no and not a yes that needs to be coaxed from a “tease”? If the “yes” isn’t completely enthusiastic, should one proceed?
If she never actually says no, is she permitted to be unhappy and even accusatory about the encounter? To answer these questions, we cannot ignore certain factors, such as the societal conditioning that grooms women from a young age, to believe they exist for the pleasure of men.
I had a conversation about this with a friend *Lara. Lara, who lives in New York was out at a party one night when she made a connection with *Emmanuel. A few drinks, some dancing and lots of flirting later, including a drunken breakfast at a local diner, they exchanged numbers. Fast forward past a few message exchanges, they met up for dinner at a restaurant. Emmanuel was in New York for business, and Lara was swept up in great conversation, flowing wine and a handsome new friend in the city of lights.
When he invited her to his hotel for a nightcap, she didn’t really think twice about it. She wasn’t the ‘type of girl’ to get herself in sticky situations, she knew how to handle herself, and she had 911 on speed dial. A drink or two at the bar, she decided to follow him up to his room because at this point,with the date going great, she didn’t mind some light petting, but she had zero intentions or desire to have sex with him.
What ensued left her feeling, in her own words, dirty and used, and resulted in her being celibate for over 2 years. However, she still felt torn about calling it sexual assault. He never forced himself on her. He exerted the sort of pressure men are taught to believe women need; A little cajoling, buttering up, some heavy insistence and seemingly non-threatening overpowering, even when she did not seem to be enthused. Halting when she seemed really resistant, but trying again soon after, until she eventually gave in.
He laughed away her claims of not wanting sex like a man accustomed to the cat and mouse games between the sexes, and in the end she felt unseen; tawdry and defiled. When I asked her why she didn’t say a firm ‘no’ and leave: “Well, I liked him… and I didn’t want to seem like a prude or like I was overreacting.”
In the simplest terms, we have reduced consent to a simple “yes” or “no” in which victims that do not give a thorough audible refusal are made to shoulder the responsibility of the encounter. Therefore, we must have a new conversation about this so-called grey area that exists in consent: The area that implies that sexual assault varies on a spectrum of “very terrible” to “up for debate”, and in order to do that, we must take into account social behaviours that have been normalised, which often leave women with scars that they can not quite explain but have never quite healed, and with experiences that are then chalked up to “bad sex”.
The blueprint for the interaction between men and women is already rotten at its core. While men are encouraged to “sow their wild oats”, women are not taught to prioritize themselves sexually. Women are taught likability from birth; and part of this narrative is molding themselves into mindless playthings for men to take
This has resulted in women who have no agency over themselves and who aim above everything else to please the opposite sex. In the incident with Lara, her ingrained desire to not be branded as crazy, hysterical or dramatic made her put her likability above her own comfort.
Men on the other hand are taught that they are takers; they are entitled to governing the bodies of women and those who internalize that entitlement think it is their right to take what has not been offered to them, by force. If we explore sexual language, it is clear that we think that sex is something that men do, while it is something that simply happens to a woman, that it is something a man must actively seek out, while a woman is a passive recipient.
All this has created a delicate minefield around the area of consent, and the grey area, which is really coercion.
If we disabuse ourselves of the notion that assault only occurs when force is involved, we will be able to address the elephant in the room; the big question of why men continue to persist on sexual encounters when they have to beg, cajole, pressure and coerce their partners, and the belief that this is some sort of pre-sex ritual dance that women need to feel comfortable.
Did Emmanuel think he was assaulting Lara? Most likely not. He was doing what men do in situations when they are aroused and they have a woman they believe they can convince if they exert the right amount of pressure. The question is, if it leaves your sexual partner feeling violated, does that make it okay?
In outwardly conservative and sexist countries like Nigeria, we are light years behind on this conversation. The culture of silence and secrecy that shrouds the topic of sex and assault has resulted in an alarming rape culture that is now out of hand. Even in cases where children report being abused, they are often treated like the assailant, and it seems that there is more concern about “fake charges” even though real charges rarely, if ever, result in conviction.
Women are conditioned culturally and religiously to be submissive to men, and young girls find themselves in sexual situations they are not ready for because they want to be liked by boys. We teach young girls to prize virginity, not because it is something that belongs to them, but something they must save for their husbands, which in turn teaches their husbands that they have ownership over the bodies of their wives. In Nigeria, still, legally, a husband cannot rape his wife.
We have come to think of these “grey area” incidences as normal, and it is time we acknowledge the fact, that they are not. It is time we empower women to take agency over themselves.
There is no need to sigh heavily, turn your head away, grimace uncomfortably, or squirm in annoyance when an overture that you did not approve of is being made.
It is time for us to break the culture of silence, and break the chains of likability. No means no. But all the responsibility must not lie with women. Men must share in this burden, and stop pretending they do not understand social cues and the boundaries of consent. Sex education is sorely lacking in our society, and pretending that kids do not start to encounter sexual incidences from a young age is doing them a great disservice. Open and honest conversations around rape, sexual assault, consent and coercion are crucial to addressing the alarming rates of assault in our community.
And most important, we cannot depend on morals and conscience alone – legislation must follow; actionable laws that ensure harsh penalties for perpetrators. To coerce an unwilling woman into engaging with you sexually is being a perpetrator of rape culture.
There is no grey area; there are either two willingly active participants or there is sexual assault.
“There is no need to sigh heavily, turn your head away, grimace uncomfortably, or squirm in annoyance when an overture that you did not approve of is being made. It is time for us to break the culture of silence…”