It was inevitable. The #MeToo movement was going to collide directly with all the ambiguity and pain of the college sexual-assault tribunals. We were going to read not about sexual assault but instead about a date gone wrong — where two parties had different perceptions, and all we could really know is that another young woman would feel used and traumatized, and a confused man would find his reputation in tatters because of a sexual encounter that never at any point (to him) had seemed inappropriate or wrong.
In this case, the young woman is known only as “Grace,” and the man is comedian Aziz Ansari, a certified “woke” celebrity, a darling of the progressive movement, and a genuinely funny man. In a long reported piece in a publication called Babe, Grace tells her side of the story. She met Ansari at an Emmy Awards after-party, they texted back and forth for a few days, and he asked her out. They met at his apartment, had a glass of wine, went out to eat, and then came back to his apartment, where the evening rapidly turned intimate:
He said something along the lines of, “How about you hop up and take a seat?” Within moments, he was kissing her. “In a second, his hand was on my breast.” Then he was undressing her, then he undressed himself. She remembers feeling uncomfortable at how quickly things escalated.
When Ansari told her he was going to grab a condom within minutes of their first kiss, Grace voiced her hesitation explicitly. “I said something like, ‘Whoa, let’s relax for a sec, let’s chill.’” She says he then resumed kissing her, briefly performed oral sex on her, and asked her to do the same thing to him. She did, but not for long. “It was really quick. Everything was pretty much touched and done within ten minutes of hooking up, except for actual sex.”
I’ll spare you the details of the rest of the account, but the short summary is that she resisted his efforts to have sex, continued to make out with him (and performed oral sex on him again), then finally put a stop to the evening. He called a car for her, and she left, very upset.
Grace says, “It took a really long time for me to validate this as sexual assault.” But it wasn’t sexual assault — not according to any meaningful legal definition. He was clumsy and aggressive, but no jury in the world would convict a man for assault under these circumstances. In fact, it’s hard to imagine any prosecutor deciding to charge Ansari. Only campus kangaroo courts hear cases like this, and the incidents there often involve copious amounts of alcohol, rendering memories cloudy and fact-finding difficult.
But that doesn’t mean Grace is wrong to feel upset. As much as some sexual revolutionaries try to drain the spiritual and emotional meaning from sex, it is still the most intimate form of human contact, and it leaves marks on a person’s very soul. Under no circumstances should a man treat Grace the way Ansari treated her. It was wrong. Full stop. And when one person mistreats another — especially sexually — there is a high emotional cost.
At the same time, however, Ansari would be right to feel both confused and wronged. Even if the relevant moral standard is “enthusiastic consent” or an “enthusiastic yes,” you could almost certainly put Ansari under a lie detector, and he’d still say that he thought her conduct was happily consensual. After all, they engaged in oral sex within minutes of arriving at his apartment. He asked her (even by her own account) for oral sex, and she immediately obliged. What is he supposed to think?
The bottom line is that these kinds of encounters are the inevitable result of consent morality. You can tweak the definition of consent all you want (“enthusiastic yes,” “yes means yes,” etc.), and these fact patterns will arise constantly and consistently.
The reason is simple. If every single human encounter can be sexualized upon consent, then every single encounter is fraught with potential sexual tension. First dates? Of course. Casual meetings at parties? Absolutely. Business meetings? Sure thing.
And how do we know whether there’s consent? Someone has to ask for that consent. Someone has to be the aggressor. And unless it’s one of those rare Hollywood moments — the kind of organic encounter that happens effortlessly on screen but almost never in real life — one person (usually the guy) is more enthused about the moment, and the other person (usually the girl) feels a degree of pressure and discomfort.
It’s easy to then say, “Well, show that you’re an autonomous, strong person and reject the advance. A truly ‘woke’ man won’t hold it against you.” Yet this stance completely ignores the confusion and uncertainty of the moment. Sometimes people don’t immediately know what they want. Sometimes they don’t want to risk relationships. Sometimes what starts as desire turns into revulsion as an encounter gets awkward.
I’m reading accounts from feminists who scorn Grace. It turns out that lots of women have had similar experiences, and some have come to view them as just the price you pay for sexual liberation. They can absorb the disappointments and move on. Lots of other women (and men) cannot. They’re scarred. They’re wounded. And they don’t really heal.
Human beings have a desperate need for a sexual morality that transcends consent.
Human beings have a desperate need for a sexual morality that transcends consent. There is no real price for delayed gratification. There is enormous cost inherent in encounters such as that between Grace and Ansari. Under no circumstances should a man pursue sex on a first date, much less at business meetings, at the office, or at restaurants.
Even if men and women reject Christian morality and believe that waiting for marriage is a bridge too far, the decision to delay sex until well after the formation of a healthy relationship will protect people from an immense amount of heartbreak. When the relationship forms first, people actually talk about their sexual morality and talk about their limits. This happens routinely in Christian relationships, when boyfriends and girlfriends discuss how far is “too far” and take precautions to avoid temptation.
But to ask some people to refrain from seeking sex whenever they want it is like asking ancient pagans to melt their golden idols. The pursuit of sex is a central focus of their lives, and the liberation from sexual morality is for them a central achievement of modern ethics. Even as the collateral damage mounts, they insist that just this or that tiny tweak to their fundamentally libertine hedonism will protect people from shame, guilt, and rage while still preserving absolute sexual freedom.
It won’t work. It can’t work. Human beings were not created to live like that. Morality based on consent alone has always been doomed to fail. How many more souls have to suffer before we rediscover that simple moral fact?