Ignore Aziz Ansari for a minute---or longer. The story of his alleged sexual assault against a younger, female photographer is an upsetting one, but it’s a story that many women know well.
I know it well.
There was a man, handsome and generous, polite. I kissed him and I liked it (because his mouth was warm, or he smelled lovely, or because his jokes were funny). I laughed all evening, until my sides hurt. I held his hand in the car, on the way home. I smiled at his shadow in the darkness.
And he returned the gestures, because he liked me too. It was a great night, a fun date. He knew he was stepping down a path toward sex, from the moment he helped me on with my coat. Maybe he even knew that I was thinking the same thing.
I WAS thinking about sex, too. Maybe I was brimming with the possibility. It might happen. But in the end, I didn’t want to, because...it was late, or I wasn’t ready, or wasn’t feeling well, or a million other reasons. It just didn’t seem right. But then he was angry, because he thought by then he was entitled to it. He thought he had earned an orgasm for kissing well, or smelling nice or making me laugh. And that is where the story diverges into discomfort, at it’s best. And other times, it diverges into assault.
But the story began for both of us, way back in high school.
Teenage and young adult sexual culture is rife with male pleasure. The idea that the entire breadth of our sexual experience is defined and culminated by male orgasm begins early in our understanding of the world: in music, in film, in conversations with our friends. We come to believe that male orgasm means sex is done, over, and complete,---even a 14 year old with limited understanding has pieced that much together by high school.
In the high school dating jungle, teenagers still play the parts that their grandparents played, a modernized version of hunter and the hunted. The roles have been demarcated over centuries of cultural understanding and experience; as much as they have evolved, the marrow of our narrowed teenage sexual identities hasn’t shifted much in 80 years.The social complexities abound so that it’s nearly impossible to navigate teenage sexuality unscathed. The young man, assuming he is interested in sexual activity (and not all young men are) is the pursuer and is advised to find a young woman willing (or “maybe” willing) and “convince” her to have sex with him. The young woman “should” say no, because she doesn’t want to seem like a “slut.” She “should” say no several times before she says yes, if she wants to maintain her moral footing in the churning high school rumor mill. If she is TOO willing, she might be branded undesirable. Or easy. Or fast. And then she will always be expected to say yes.
Male pleasure is #goals, female pleasure is #extra. Oral sex quickly becomes a point of consolation for both parties in the dating world, starting even in high school for some young women. A young man might believe he can ask his female partner for oral sex if she doesn’t WANT to have intercourse, because in the sphere of male-dominated pleasure, it feels “less than” having sex. Maybe he is happy with this, because it means the goal of sex—his orgasm---is achieved. And if a woman feels terribly pressured, she might agree to perform oral sex just to make an exit, unscathed. To get herself off the hook or to just get away. Perhaps this is what happened in the Aziz Ansari alleged assault. She felt pressured and uncomfortable, because she changed her mind about wanting to have sex. And he made her feel like she couldn’t leave without giving him something.
And afterwards, she felt terrible. Sick. And he didn’t understand that the problem was his definition of sex---as his own orgasm---in the first place.
How do I know this? Because so many women have had this experience, including me. Because from an early age, young women, unsure about their own sexual entitlements and changing boundaries, can get swiftly caught up in the dominating culture that no one is satisfied unless the man is satisfied---and if he is satisfied, maybe that should be enough for her also.
High school juniors, with no understanding of female anatomy, aside from the clinical names and biological functions they memorize—red faced---in health class do not know the palpable difference between a clitoris and a vagina. They do not know how they combine or diverge to create pleasure for a young woman. It is a jumble of parts to them. It is a jumble of parts to all of us, as teenagers and young adults, as we figure out our own bodies. Female orgasm—it’s importance, it’s equality, it’s value in every aspect of consent, remains undefined to men, long after college and deep into adult hood.
As parents, we can help to change this.
There has been invigorating conversation lately about how to reshape male sexual entitlement to create a safer place for everyone. We all agree that we can not let men believe that having an orgasm—on a date, with an acquaintance, in a situation of power— is their absolute right. Isn’t this something women have always understood about pleasure? And if a young woman does NOT want to have sex on a date, giving him a “blow job” shouldn’t be a man’s consolation prize. He is not owed anything.
But a simple way of shifting the conversation for our children will likely have parents shifting in their seats. Yet the truth is clear: it is time to talk to our teenagers about sexual pleasure, before they are having sex.
Here is what we must teach our daughters: that their sexual satisfaction is okay. That it is more than okay, it is necessary. We must, as parents, be willing to explain to our children that female bodily pleasure is an important, essential part of all sexual experiences. That when a young woman decides to have sex, it is vital she finds pleasure and that it feels good to her. That it is okay to want sex, for pleasure’s sake. And okay not to want it too. We have to redefine for our children, against the press of social media’s objections, that sex is about feeling good, for men AND WOMEN.
Here is what we must teach our sons: that sex is not defined by you and your pleasure. That male orgasm or enjoyment alone does not a sexual experience make. That you are not entitled to getting off at the end of the night, just because you made her laugh, or paid for dinner, or she made you think she wanted it. We should teach our sons that female pleasure should be equal to their own, every time, without exception. However that is defined, between two consenting partners.
Conversation about pleasure does not have to usurp a parents conversation with their teenagers about waiting to have sex, or virginity or even religious values. It can accompany any other conversation with our daughters and sons about sex, but it needs to happen. Now.
When both young men and women can come to the table of an adult relationship with an understanding that everyone should be pleased, every time, everyone wins.