A criminology student’s view on consent and lack of empathy

I went on Facebook, shared an article about the Aziz Ansari case and it all turned into a very interesting social experiment of two groups of people talking to each other without listening. In the wake of the Time’s Up and #metoo campaigns, I thought I could add my view (that of a criminology student, pole dancer and woman) to a grim landscape that includes bad sex, lack of empathy and consent.

I have shared my own #metoo story briefly on this blog, and in an Instagram post. I have become very vocal about consent, sexual assault and toxic relationships, but I try not to bang on about it like a crazy person cause no one likes to hear: “BUT HOW ABOUT CONSENT????” when they ask someone how their day is going. However, following a Facebook interaction I’ve had recently, the messages I received after that and recent news, I felt that the conversation on this can’t be over and that there are things that need to be explained from a woman’s perspective. This essay (cause it’s long AF and can’t be just a 300-word blog post) hopes to do precisely that.

Disclaimer: this is a #metoo post (happy days). I have chosen this shitty pic, shot with the dying iPhone 4 I had in 2014 right at the end of my #Couchsurfing trip in the #USA, because for 2 months and a half in America I was hosted by a variety of people (mostly men) who made me feel safe, comfortable & looked after on their couches. I was a stranger with no clue about my surroundings & no one to “save me” – but being there (which for some is enough of an excuse) didn’t result in them taking advantage of me. This is not a war against men – it should be an occasion to remember that there are many ways in which a woman can say no, that you have to look further than your own desire & carelessness to accept that. I may have received respect & kindness from strangers, but the man in my #metoo story was a partner. My fighting was not linear & came in many stages, starting by refusing to let what happened affect me & going to America by myself. There were loads of ups & downs after that, but I finally feel like I am on the right track, like I don’t need to run, & can sit with the past & go on enjoying my life. It took about 3 years, losing & gaining a fuckload of weight, crossing the Atlantic twice, the whole world once, taking up pole dancing & going into academia. But now I am really back – to London and to being someone I wanna be. Everyone’s experience is different, but I have chosen to share mine because I’ve stopped being ashamed of it & I don’t judge whoever does or doesn’t. When I first saw the #metoo hashtag, I thought I wouldn’t share anything, because social media campaigns can’t change what research papers, surveys & the like have already “revealed” (although there’s nothing to reveal, we all know): that too many women have been through abuse/harassment. Then I saw many friends & acquaintances do it and I was like, fuck it. I think, more than anything, this is for us. If this hashtag has done anything, it’s showing us that we are strong & no matter all the shit that we face everyday we still fight. I also chose this picture because Batman used his fear and made it his strength, because if we survived what we survived that is our superpower.

A post shared by Carolina™ (Car-o-leena) 🇮🇹🤘🏻🍕 (@bloggeronpole) on

Disclaimers

Disclaimer: I am a feminist. Disclaimer 2.0: I’m not a “man-hating” feminist, or an “angry” feminist (even though I do get angry), two things somehow associated with feminism which to me are only excuses to shut people up. I love men. I have had the luck and privilege to be raised, learn from, work with and date some wonderful men. Men that have made me the person I am today, a person I feel proud enough of. So please don’t read this post as an excuse to complain about something – see it as a starting point to wonder about how our society and our behaviours need to change.

If you know me, are friends with me or follow me on social media, you will know that I am doing a PhD in Criminology. This does not make me an absolute authority on all things crime, but it does put me in a position of knowing and having studied a bunch of grim things like the laws regulating sexual assault, indecent assault, domestic violence and all of those things that make your blood boil because WTF.

If you know me, are friends with me, follow me on social media OR you’ve seen me get drunk enough to spill my whole life story on you, I’m also a full-time female, recreational pole dancer and, in my free time, I also managed to get raped. Happy days!

Also, although I have freelanced for some publications and I have a degree in journalism, I’m not really affiliated with any newsroom, so I won’t be interviewing people for this blog. I won’t be doing it because this post/essay wants to use a conversation I’ve had about the case to start a bigger conversation rather than debate whether Aziz Ansari is guilty or not. There WILL BE some mentions to rape and laws related to rape because that’s where the conversation (wrongly) went. This post isn’t accusing Aziz Ansari of rape/sexual assault/etc.

Final disclaimer: if you have lived through some of these traumatic experiences, you might find this post triggering. That’s why I asked my friends to stop commenting on the article about Ansari: unfortunately, at the time of the #metoo posts, too many women (and some men) on my feed had a sad story to tell. Please don’t read on if so – I don’t want anybody to get hurt, especially if you’ve already lived through enough pain.

The Article

It was a very confusing article. On Sunday night, a blog called Babe published a story where Grace (pseudonym) went on a date with award-winning comedian Aziz Ansari and left crying because she felt he took advantage of her and pushed her to do things she was uncomfortable with. In fact, looking back, the article’s framing painted sexual misconduct as rape and, I feel, that’s why some people who didn’t read it fully got angry. Jill Filipovic explained the issue perfectly on The Guardian, saying that “instead of telling this particular story with the care it called for, it was jammed into a pre-existing movement grounded in the language of assault and illegality.”

This framing ended up completely obscuring the “more relevant conversation about sex, male entitlement and misogyny in the bedroom,” making us argue whether Ansari is a rapist or not. In short, we missed the point. In Filipovic’s words:

“After centuries of feminist activism, it finally seems like most of society understands that sexual assault and harassment are wrong; we increasingly understand that it’s not just about sex, but about power, and that harassment in the workplace isn’t about sexual desire, but about women’s rights to participate in the workforce. […]

What we haven’t touched on nearly as thoroughly is heterosexual sex for women in a society that still sees sex as primarily about male pleasure; that continues to position women’s bodies as sexual objects, receptacles and stand-ins for sex itself; and that encourages sexual aggressiveness in men and congeniality and passivity in women.”

Since then, this article has been ripped apart… kinda rightly so. I must say I didn’t know Babe as a publication before this, and it has now been revealed that they approached Grace for the story and not the opposite. It is unclear whether Ansari was offered the right to reply. The publication wrote a morbid account of a harrowing experience which somehow helped people against the #MeToo movement to use this as a case in point for women’s outrage going too far.

Among the story’s biggest critics, Caitlin Flanagan in the Atlantic and the NYT‘s Bari Weiss pretty much said that women do have the power to say no and that Grace failed to do so. Others, like Katykatikatewrote a painfully honest article about how most women downplay experiences of this kind, for their own sanity. In short, everybody’s talking about this. So here’s what happened when I talked about this. Not because I’m famous, but because this is my blog, so I get to talk.

My Post

Right, enough with the disclaimers and background, now onto the topic of this essay. On Sunday night, instead of spending my last days at home in Sardinia like a normal person, I decided to read and share a post about Grace’s date with Aziz Ansari. This is what I said:

“This story is so upsetting, especially because it involves someone who wrote a whole goddamn brilliant book about relationships and romance. I’ve written this over and over again and I do hope that one day I won’t have to write this anymore, but this is one more example of the ongoing and never-ending failure in empathy and education when it comes to consent.
1) If someone comes to your house you don’t have carte blanche to do everything to them.
2) Sometimes it’s hard to be vocal about things you don’t feel comfortable with, because the other person is manipulative, or because you don’t wanna be a downer, or because you are expected to behave in a certain way once a certain threshold has been crossed.
3) Women don’t owe sex and consent to anyone. Consent is given. And most laws (at least in Australia and the UK) include a reasonable person standard, where a reasonable person would understand that someone isn’t consenting even if that “No” isn’t screamed or said out loud.”

With this, I meant exactly what I wrote. I didn’t accuse Aziz Ansari of rape. Whether he did this or not, that story showed we still have a long way to go in terms of empathy and communications between men and women when it comes to sex and consent. The post was largely well-received but it turned into a men/women stand-off among me, some girlfriends and some male friends who argued Ansari wasn’t being given the benefit of the doubt, that he should be considered innocent until proven guilty.

This is a fair statement. However, the article didn’t accuse Ansari of rape per se. It was a harrowing account of a horrible night many of us have lived through – except that the main actor in this story also happened to be a Time’s Up and #MeToo supporter. So, putting my Journalism grad hat on, it was an interesting story because it involved a public figure who didn’t seem to practice what he preached.

The Reactions

The conversation quickly escalated, missing the point about consent and going into discrediting women’s testimonies. I think what stroke me was that the first comment on my post was something along the lines of: “Yes, but how about this chick who made up 100 rape accusations?”

The story of men falsely accused of rape didn’t have much to do with the Ansari story, and this comment didn’t really engage with my post, which was about consent and lack of empathy.  

Seeing that the first reaction to an accusation of sexual misconduct (again, not rape) was: but what if he’s not guilty (which can be translated into “What if she made it up?”), to me is the root of the problem. And the root of the problem is a lack of empathy towards women’s feelings, refusal to listen and miscommunication between men and women. Because, to me, that’s what #metoo was about: a moment for women to take centre stage and say what they’ve been going through since forever. And a moment for men (those who weren’t victims themselves) to shut up and listen.

Except that the Ansari case was slightly different. Here we have a nice guy, a “certified woke bae” for many a news outlet, someone who campaigns for women’s rights and wrote a book I loved, Modern Romance, where together with a sociologist he discussed the awkwardness of relationships. And yet, this nice guy behaved in a way that was, at best, insensitive and selfish, and at worst outright predatory. I think that’s where men (and women) lost it.

The story hit a nerve because, as Emily Reynolds wrote a lot more eloquently on The  Guardian:


“What’s especially difficult about this case […] is that it will force men to examine their own behaviour in a way that most of them have not had to do so far during this moment. Someone committing multiple, serious sexual assaults and rapes is easy to characterise as a predator, a monster, and a thousand miles away from the lives and behaviours of the often well-meaning men who are trying to engage with this cultural moment. Ansari’s alleged behaviour, however, is likely to hit much closer to home.”

If a “nice guy” like Ansari can misbehave, so can you. Which is why, I think, some people panicked. As Reynolds explained:

“Nobody is arguing that what Ansari is alleged to have done is equivalent to the more serious crimes Harvey Weinstein has been accused of, or even to the more obvious abuses of power perpetrated by men such as Louis CK. What we are saying, however, is that all of these things exist on a spectrum of abusive behaviour that negatively and persistently impinges upon women’s lives.”

Some of the comments I found most infuriating argued that women are often presumed innocent because of their historically “weaker” persona, that Grace knew she was up for sex and that sexual assault shouldn’t be such a sensitive issue and should be treated like any other crime (again, the conversation went onto rape although this case was different). Before y’all go nuts, I am going to meet and discuss this in person with people. However, because I tend to get emosh or angry, I’ll also do it in this post because at least I have time to make my point across without ranting (hopefully). So here is the conversation that – partly because of the article’s framing – ended up being more about rape than about the Ansari case. 

1) Women are privileged in sexual assault cases and other cases because they look innocent.

It’s not that women look innocent. It’s that, according to statistics, they become victims of rape more often than men:

  • According to the Rape Crisis charity, about 85,000 women and 12,000 men are raped in England and Wales every year – that’s roughly 11 rapes (of adults alone) every hour;
  • Rape Crisis also states that 90 per cent of those who are raped know the perpetrator;
  • 93 per cent of the people calling Rape Crisis asking for help are women.

As if this weren’t enough, common misconceptions about rape, stereotypes and prejudice make it one of the hardest crimes to prosecute, for example:

  • A third of people believe women who flirt are partially responsible for being raped (Amnesty, 2005)
  • The majority of perpetrators are men (UK Government, 2013);
  • Also, a distressing The Havens Survey in collaboration with the UK government revealed, amongst other things, that 31 per cent young men would try to have sex with someone if the other person doesn’t want to 46 per cent believe that if you change your mind doing sex that is not rape.

Now that we got the stats out of the way, here’s more to consider. Although women are often seen as incapable of violence in pop culture, this doesn’t always translate as a positive bias in court. Marital rape became a crime in the UK only in 1991, while consent was clarified in the law only in 2003. The myth of “real rape” (committed by strangers, victims scream for help, are physically hurt by the experience and eager to report it to the police) still has an impact on cases that don’t fit the bill (the majority of them, when the perpetrator was known to the victim, or the victim was drunk or unconscious). 

These stereotypes and misconceptions make women second-guess themselves. Was it rape if I loved him, but didn’t want to have sex and he forced himself on me? Was it rape if I was keen on having sex at first but then freaked out because of his behaviour? And most importantly, will anyone believe me if I report it? Hopefully this helps understand that the so-called privilege women might have in your eyes is quite slim compared to all the obstacles we have to face.


2) Grace knew they were going to have sex that night. She shouldn’t have gone there or she should have been more vocal in saying “no”.

Maybe Grace was naive. But is it so bad to think that someone might want to hang out with you to enjoy your company? Or that yes, you may have sex, but on your terms, when you feel comfortable? Or that maybe you wanted to have sex and then changed your mind? It’s not like sexting or making out means that the authorisation to sleep with someone can’t be revoked, that a person can’t change her mind.

I have been in many uncomfortable situations. I am not known to be a prim lady – you have all seen my butt on Instagram – so sleeping with someone for me isn’t about making them wait to preserve my holiness or reputation. However, having had bad experiences with people who turned out to be awful and insensitive, I am scared to get into bed with someone on a first date – sometimes even on a fifth. I need to ascertain that person is not going to make me feel uncomfortable.

In many a night, men (and unfortunately it has only happened with men, not with the women I’ve slept with in my experience) made me or tried to make me do things I didn’t want to do. So what do you do in that scenario? You can be vocal, and say no in a very firm way, stop and leave – that is, if you’re lucky and the guy you’re with doesn’t force himself on you or try to manipulate you into staying. You can stay and try to make him understand you don’t want what he wants and that he has to respect that. Or you can stay and do what he wants you to do, because you’re exhausted by his insistence and you hope that this way he’ll stop. Because you’re used to wanting to please, or because (as it happened to me and to many friends and other women) you are afraid of saying no because of what might come next. Is it violence? Is it being shamed? Is it that you like the guy and was hoping for more?

In my case, I know what would happen. FYI boys and girls, if I do/get pushed something I’m uncomfortable with in bed, I have a panic attack cause I get flashbacks. Imagine how sexy it must be to have a pole dancer with a panic attack in your bed! Hot right?

We don’t know Grace’s past, what she’s been through and what the situation triggered. I don’t even find her feelings too odd. Maybe she wanted sex. But she wanted to be comfortable while having it. But from her account, whatever she wanted didn’t matter.

Being able to be vocal and to be less afraid makes it harder to empathise with someone who isn’t as assertive. It doesn’t make that empathising any less important however. It’s so important that even courts introduced a way to determine whether a person is consenting or not in rape cases, although this is not a rape case – just a case in point to show “yes” and “no” aren’t black and white. 

Like some other crimes (e.g. common assault) sexual assault now includes a reasonable person standard for the offender in the determination of whether consent was given – or at least it does so in countries like the UK or Australia. Failing to understand that a victim was unconscious, that she was being coerced or manipulated is a form of recklessness, as it is believed that a reasonable person should not behave in that way. This standard has been introduced precisely because courts have started to understand that the lines between yes and no in terms of consent can be blurred.


3) We are too sensitive about sexual assault. It should be seen as any other crime.
 

I feel like sexual assault is very different from many other crimes because it’s often gendered, it’s an abuse of power and trust, and it often objectifies the victim who then has to live her/his/their life afterwards. It’s been in the news so much precisely because of the abuse of that power, and we’re living in such sensitive times precisely because that crime has been negated, dismissed and overlooked so much in the past. In fact, precisely because the crime involves sex, it often results in a more delicate situation. In Elizabeth Bruenig‘s words:

“We ought to appreciate that sex is a domain so intimate and personal that more harm can be done than in most social situations, and that given that heightened capacity for harm, we should expect people to operate with greater conscientiousness, concern and care in that domain than in others.”

I am truly sorry for any man who has been wrongly accused of rape. However, because accusing someone of rape is SUCH a feat, where you have to relive the experience over and over again, be shamed in court, go through tests and the like, it’s not something most people would do lightly. I get angry when I see that men’s first fear is: what if she lied? If sexual assault should be treated like any other crime, then why don’t we have the same reaction when someone is accused of robbery, or murder, or something else? We don’t think: what if the accuser lied? I think this reaction defies the purpose of listening. And that’s very triggering for many women because you are always second-guessed: why did you go there? What were you wearing? Are you sure you didn’t want it? And the like.

I’m all for punishing only people who are guilty. But the reaction to this case shows that men and women feel and think very differently and that something needs to change in the way we communicate. I don’t remember being so blinded by desire that I pushed a partner so hard to do something they didn’t want to do and felt uncomfortable with. Being aroused is not an excuse for not considering someone’s feelings.

K BYE 

So I guess my rant/explanation is over. If you want to argue with me, please be conscious of the people who may find your comments triggering. I’d prefer a message, or a face-to-face meeting if we know each other, because it’s hard to explain these things online.

What I wanted to do with this post was get people to listen (or in this case read). If someone is telling you something you did makes them uncomfortable, you can’t deny that feeling. You have the duty to understand where that feeling comes from, whether you understand it or not.

I’d like to leave you with Jessica Valenti’s tweet:

 

And with Anna Silmans forward-looking argument:

“Instead of thinking of stories like these as ‘destroying’ a man’s life, let’s think of them as sparks that ignite a necessary conversation, for both the women that think ‘I’ve been there’ and the men who look back on their past behavior and feel “surprised and concerned” that everything wasn’t really okay all along.”

TL; DR:

  • The Aziz Ansari thing was published on Babe;
  • I posted about it and the convo went nowhere near where I wanted it to go, partly because of the article’s framing;
  • This article was about the response to my Facebook post about the Ansari case. Because of the way comments were posted, I’ve added some info about rape which is not what this case was;
  • We need to keep talking about consent because it’s clear men and women see things differently.

Over and out.

P.S. My voice is just one in an Ocean, a fucking black hole of voices who said things way more eloquently than I did. If you don’t understand my perspective, other women will be able to explain it better. Women like:

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