Dear Young Adult Women Who Have Sex With Men,
By now, you’ve probably read about the account of an anonymous 23-year-old woman (called Grace) regarding her sexual encounter with proclaimed feminist actor and comedian Aziz Ansari—as well as the firestorm of controversy surrounding this. In a nutshell, the two had a sexual encounter that they describe in vastly different terms. Ansari says, “I met a woman at a party. We exchanged numbers, we texted back and forth and eventually went on a date. We went out to dinner, and afterward, we ended up engaging in sexual activity, which by all indications was completely consensual.” Grace, on the other hand, describes the evening as “violating,” telling Ansari the next day via text that “You ignored clear non-verbal cues; you kept going with advances.” There’s been a massive response to this story—summed up succinctly in the New York Times: “Everyone seems to have an opinion about what she did, what he did and whether talking about gray-zone sex, where the man believes that everything that happened was consensual and the woman feels otherwise, spells the end of the #MeToo movement."
Despite all the controversy, undebatable is the fact that, as powerfully stated by writer Anna North, “Situations like the one Grace describes, in which a man keeps pushing and a woman, though uncomfortable, doesn’t immediately leave, happen all the time.” Also indisputable is the fact that the commonality of this situation makes it a cultural problem—pointing to need for massive cultural changes. As eloquently stated in a fantastic video by Samantha Bee, “We need to set a higher standard for sex.”
In a prior blog, I provided young men who have sex with women a seven-point list to help them set a higher standard for sex and to make sure that no woman ever describes an evening with them as the worst in their lives. Several readers asked why I had not also addressed women in my blog. Truth-be-told there were two reasons. The first is simple: There was not enough room in a short blog to address both what women and men can learn from this. The second reason is much more nuanced. That is, I feared that giving women advice about avoiding or dealing with coercive sexual encounters would come across victim-blaming. Still, in the end, I decided that the fear of how I might come across isn’t reason enough to not write this blog with the goal of empowering young women from my vantage point as a sex educator and licensed psychologist---and as an older woman who herself experienced coercive sex as a younger woman. (Yes, indeed, this is a sadly old phenomenon).
Let me start out by saying loud and clear that I don’t blame my younger self or current young women or men for these sadly common Aziz/Grace situations. I blame a culture where, again in the words of Anna North, we are socializing young women, who learn “from an early age that it’s rude to reject boys and to put their desires second—especially when it comes to sex” and young men who think they “should be pushing for as much sex as possible at all times and …. that it’s normal to have to convince a woman to have sex, and that repeated small violations of her boundaries are an acceptable way to do so….” Indeed, again let me emphasize that, I strongly believe that it is culture we need to change. But, since changing culture takes a long time (and, sadly, might not ever fully happen), I offer this letter to young women about how they can more successfully navigate this often toxic culture.
1. The sexual revolution doesn’t mean that you have to engage in casual sex if it isn’t in your comfort zone. It only means you can if you want to. I’ve talked to many young women who don’t enjoy or feel comfortable with casual sex yet feel “obligated" or “expected” to engage in it, for fear that they will be judged or judge themselves as “uptight” if they don’t. And, on the flip side, are young women who do enjoy casual sex and fear being labelled or labelling themselves “slutty” for doing so. It’s incredibly difficult for young women today to reconcile what they want to do sexually from the conflicting sexual messages they are receiving (i.e., “Be sexually adventurous and engage in casual sex!”; “Don’t be a slut!”). As a result, as Lonnie Barbach wrote in the 1970’s (see this stuff is age old!), “Many women find themselves sexually experienced but not experiencing sex as the comfortable, carefree experience it is billed to be.” So, what to do? As Amy Schumer advised Glamour magazine readers, “Do what you feel you want to do while also considering how you’ll feel the next day.” Yet, you might be wondering, how do you figure out how you’ll feel the next day? And, just as important—whether you decide casual sex if for you or not—how do you reconcile this with deeply ingrained cultural attitudes (for and against casual sex)—once you do? Likely through some good and bad experiences with casual sex (which hopefully the tips below will prevent from being on the coercive or painful side of bad), some soul searching and talking to good friends, and some sex-positive self-talk (e.g., telling yourself that you have as much right to enjoy casual sex as any male partner, or, on the flip side that you have no obligation to engage in sex that you don’t want to engage in).
2. Whether in a hookup or a relationship, prioritize your pleasure as equal to his. The entire weight of the culture is against you on this one, so it’s going to take some concerted effort but it’s effort that is well-worth it. Frankly, I’ve written an entire book about how to adopt the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to make sex an equal opportunity encounter (Becoming Cliterate: Why Orgasm Equality Matters—And How to Get It) and so it’s a bit difficult to give you advice in this short blog that will summarize those 280+ pages, but here’s the essence:
The bottom line is that both these grey-zone coercive situations and completely consensual sexual encounters during which you don’t orgasm are both related to the same root cultural problem. The problem is a culture that prioritizes and privileges male pleasure and an erect penis as the center of sex and disregards female pleasure and the clitoris as secondary or irrelevant.
3. Teach yourself what society has failed to teach you: Good, clear sexual communication. This means telling a partner what you want and what you don’t want. It means being able to say “Yes, right there” and “Stop that right now” without worrying you will be perceived as pushy or that you will hurt his feelings, respectively. Likewise, it means recognizing that sex shouldn’t be painful and telling the other person to stop if it is. Importantly, you have a right to stop a sexual encounter at any point, no matter how “far” it’s gone. If you’re in the middle of intercourse and it hurts, you can say “We need to stop. This hurts.” Or, as Amber Rose said at a conference that was held the day before her annual Slut Walk, “He can be about to put it in, and you can still change your mind.” Of course, telling a partner to stop—or conversely, to keep going or change his finger or tongue movements to pleasure you more effectively—takes good sexual assertion and communication skills. How to learn these skills? Check out the communication chapter in Becoming Cliterate and watch these videos from Planned Parenthood on giving and getting enthusiastic consent.
4. Be gentle with yourself and others, while simultaneously learning and growing as a sexually empowered woman. I am well-aware that one blog cannot effectively insulate you from bad, coercive sexual experiences that are ingrained as natural in the fabric of our culture. So, if like Grace or my younger self, you ever experience grey-zone sex where a man keeps pushing and though uncomfortable, you don’t leave or say something, be gentle with yourself. Don’t blame yourself. Do, however, learn from it. Examining your role in a situation doesn’t mean condemning yourself—whether this is a sexual situation or any other. For example, if you didn’t say something because you worried about hurting his feelings, do some serious self-talk about your feelings being equally important as his pleasure. Even more specifically, the gentle with yourself part is understanding that your behavior of not saying something makes total sense in context—again, that context being a culture that’s taught you to be nice, to protect men’s egos, and to put their sexual desires and needs ahead of yours. The learning from it part means figuring out what you need to be empowered to say or do something the next time you are in one of those grey-zone sexual situations (e.g., working on the attitude that your needs are equally important as his feelings; learning sexual assertion skills).
5. Finally, and extremely important, if you are the victim of rape or sexual assault, know that no matter what you did, this is not your fault. As I said in a prior letter to you, “It is not your fault. EVER. Even if you were drunk. Most young women get drunk at some point in their lives—and you getting drunk doesn’t cause sexual violence. The perpetrator is the cause.”
At any rate, dear young women, I will close now—despite there being much more I could say. Still, I hope that something I did say will resonate with you and most important, empower you to find and use your sexual voice—whether that is to say “Hell Yeah!” or “Hell No.”
With Care and Caring for Your Pleasure,