Parks and Recreation star Aziz Ansari in Melbourne. The comedian is the latest well known face to come under the spotlight following sexual misconduct claims.
Parks and Recreation star Aziz Ansari in Melbourne. The comedian is the latest well known face to come under the spotlight following sexual misconduct claims.

Two words men need to learn

THE #metoo movement was borne out of the alleged sexual misdemeanours - up to and including assault - of some of Hollywood's most influential men.

Accusations against big names like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey have come thick and fast. It continued on Sunday when Scarlett Johansson called out fellow actor James Franco after numerous women accused him of sexual misconduct.

But another man (and it's all been men so far) drawn into the #metoo milieu - US comedian Aziz Ansari - has sharply divided opinion.

His conduct on a first date may have far greater ramifications about how men conduct themselves leading up to sexual intercourse.

Not because what Ansari has been accused of is on the scale of Weinstein (arguably it's not), but whether his actions were "completely consensual" as he says, or whether he committed sexual assault - which a woman has accused him of.

At the centre of the debate is what constitutes "consent". And where that debate finally lands could have major ramifications on how we negotiate sexual encounters - it could even see laws changed.

Since his mainstream debut in US sitcom Parks and Recreation, Ansari's star has, or rather had, been on the up.

In early January, he took to the stage triumphant to pick up a Golden Globe award for his series Master of None. Just a few weeks later, he skipped the Screen Actors Guild Awards due to the cloud hanging over him.

In between the two ceremonies came a woman who has been identified only as "Grace".

'IGNORED CLEAR NON-VERBAL CUES'

Grace and Ansari met at another awards nights, the Emmys, and subsequently went on a date.

Following dinner, they went to his place and, Grace alleged, performed oral sex on one another. At one point, she said she wasn't into it and he said they should watch TV instead. He kissed her again. In the end, she left.

The next day Ansari sent her a text saying it was "fun meeting you". Not so Grace, who told the website Babe she considered she was deeply uncomfortable for much of the night and what occurred that evening was "sexual assault".

She replied to Ansari that he had "ignored clear non-verbal cues; you kept going with advances."

Ansari apologised and, later, in a media statement, said he thought their actions were consensual.

The gulf between how each recall that evening couldn't be wider.

'YES MEANS YES'

"No means no," is a well-known catch cry. But, for many, this is no longer enough. They say the absence of a "yes" also effectively means "no". Indeed, only a full throttled, "yes" should be considered consent. The latter is what's known as "affirmative consent", a phrase men are having to get their heads around.

Affirmative consent is basically, "yes means yes". It recognises that many of the people who have come forward with allegations of sexual harassment may not have said "no" but didn't consent either.

They may have feared for their safety or the men they were with may have been in positions of power, where saying no could have, for example, ruined their careers.

The bedfellow of affirmative consent is "enthusiastic consent". This is "yes mean yes" but with more vim and vigour. A constant checking in between partners that all is well.

It's not a new concept. In 2014, following a spate of assaults on university campuses, California passed affirmative consent legislation. It was soon called the "yes means yes" law.

"Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent," the law states. "Nor does silence mean consent. Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time."

Some have gone even further, to suggest that if both partners involved in intercourse have been drinking, then consent cannot be given.

If that's the case, an awful lot of people who had gone out drinking and then had a fumble in the wee hours - even if they enjoyed it - can consider themselves assaulted. That may be a bar too low for many.

Ansari didn't threaten Grace, nor was he in a position to make or break her career. Nevertheless, whether Ansari should have sought "affirmative consent" from Grace has been much debated.

The #metoo movement was born of the wave of allegations targeting Hollywood heavyweights including producer Harvey Weinstein. Picture: Gabriel Olsen/WireImage.
The #metoo movement was born of the wave of allegations targeting Hollywood heavyweights including producer Harvey Weinstein. Picture: Gabriel Olsen/WireImage.

STAND UP AND WALK OUT

But is it fair to expect anyone to interpret "non-verbal cues" however clear the person giving them may think them to be?

In an opinion piece for the New York Times, Bari Weiss said Grace could have made her misgivings about that night more explicit.

"The solution to these problems does not begin with women torching men for failing to understand their 'non-verbal cues.' It is for women to be more verbal. It's to say, 'I don't want to do that.'

"If he pressures you to do something you don't want to do, use a four-letter word, stand up on your two legs and walk out his door."

Claire Harvey, writing on RendezView, published by News Corporation that also publishes news.com.au, said while not all sexual encounters are the result of mutual enthusiasm, that doesn't equate to assault.

"Men are ardent lovers. They woo. They pursue. They serenade. That does not and will never make them rapists."

The pursuit of Ansari was distracting #metoo from the laudable goal of ensuring that "powerful men should not harass, intimidate, exploit or assault anyone," she said.

Others aren't so willing to give Ansari the benefit of the doubt. In Vox, Jaclyn Friedman, an advocate for affirmative consent, said sexual partners are responsible for ensuring one another are on the same page.

"It's impossible to know for sure what Ansari was thinking on the night in question (but) it strains credulity to imagine he truly thought she was excited about what was happening between them," she said.

"What's much more likely is that he didn't care how she felt one way or the other and treated her boundaries as a challenge. Either way, his alleged behaviour was dehumanising."

Understanding “affirmative consent” could be a useful thing to know.
Understanding “affirmative consent” could be a useful thing to know.

WHAT IS CONSENT

In most Australian states, consent involves "free and voluntary agreement" from both parties. Withdrawing consent can be done at any time and can involve saying "no" or making a clear non-verbal action - such as physically pushing someone away. Having sex with someone who is asleep or who is deemed to be so drunk they were not in a position to give consent will find you foul of the law.

But consent does not involve explicitly saying "yes" to sex. Not yet anyway.

The issue of what is and isn't consent isn't going away. On Monday, NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes said schools shouldn't be afraid to discuss #metoo and sexual harassment given school kids were already discussing it in the playground.

A lack of interest; a pull away or an invitation to move to the sofa to watch TV rather than to the bed could all be signs both partners are not on the same journey.

It might save a lot of grief down the road if blokes at least tried to better interpret non-verbal cues and thought twice if their date seems reticent.

"Affirmative consent" could be two very useful words to get better acquainted with. Just as Aziz Ansari.

 

If you or someone you know is affected by sexual assault, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) or visit the 1800 Respect helpline.



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