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International Women’s Day 2018

9th March 2018

Happy International Women’s Day, comrades!

This picture is from an Australian women’s march in 1975, and features my friend Charlie (in the pink); who I met when we both worked for Family Planning.

Long battle, long fought.

I wrote this piece about sexual politics some weeks ago, in the heat of the Aziz Ansari debacle. In honour of IWD, in recognition of Charlie and all the women who fought for the rights we have now, and because there is still a long, long way to go, I repost it here.

‘Speak! It’s a revolution for women to have voices,’ show-runner Jill Soloway said once. Well, the women are speaking now. The words are tumbling out in a rush, in a flooding torrent, and the stories are not pretty.

If you missed it (how’s that rock? comfy?) the latest target in the #metoo wars was award-winning comedian and ‘woke bae’, 34 year old Aziz Ansari, of Parks and Rec and Master of None fame. Last week, a 22 year old photographer using the pseudonym ‘Grace’, outlined in the website Babe (in excruciating detail), an evening she spent with Ansari last year.

The encounter was consensual, Ansari says, but Grace disagrees, describing how their date began with dinner, quickly graduated to naked oral sex on a counter top and then pressure from Aziz to have intercourse despite her ‘verbal and non-verbal’ requests to ‘stop’ and ‘slow down’. It was, Grace said ‘the worst night of her life’.

Slow down there, say Grace’s detractors (of whom there are many). It was just a bad date, and to equate it with #metoo damages the movement. But it’s just these stories of ‘bad dates’ that make us examine what an average encounter looks like within a culture steeped in everyday misogyny.

Jessica Valenti tweets “A lot of men will read that post about Aziz Ansari and see an everyday, reasonable sexual interaction. But part of what women are saying right now is that what the culture considers ‘normal’ sexual encounters are not working for us, and oftentimes harmful.” It can feel at times that women are there to be ‘worn down’, Clementine Ford says. ‘Relenting is not consenting.’

Ansari places Grace’s hand on his penis, repeatedly, and she removes it, repeatedly. She asks him to ‘slow down’ as he follows her about the apartment, pressing her for intercourse. They have already had sexual contact, on his(now somewhat infamous) kitchen countertop. Does his clumsy seduction constitute assault? It’s certainly not ‘affirmative consent’, which incorporates the idea that desire isn’t static or immutable, needing only to be established once, but can change during the course of any sexual encounter.

So why does Grace stay? Because she wanted the night to be different, of course. She wanted the situation to change and for Ansari to interact with her on a different sexual plane. She’s clearly not averse to an erotic encounter; just not one in which her desires and her timing are disappeared under the weight of his. It takes Grace a while, but eventually she realises that the date she wants is not going to happen. So she leaves, and she cries in the cab on the way home, like so many women have done, whether they stopped the encounter before intercourse or acquiesced to the pressure and complied, to avoid an uncomfortable situation or an awkward conversation.

The story, above all else, is familiar.

The difference is the moment; this crazy feminist watershed that we are scrambling to understand even as we live it. Not long ago Roman Polanski and Woody Allen’s work was still lauded despite their awful crimes against children, Bill Cosby’s sexual assaults were still regarded as ‘alleged possibilities’ despite the legions of women accusing him, and the apex sexual predation of men like Roger Ailes and Matt Laeur and Harvey Weinstein was an open secret, tolerated and ignored. The landscape was such that women could not tell stories like the one levelled against Aziz Ansari this week; complex and nuanced stories that feature nakedness and countertops, and tears, and consent given, then withdrawn. The cultural landscape was tipped in favour of the power player, and now, whether temporary or not, there has been a seismic shift, and women have the conch. For this hot minute, at least.

Is this essay fair on Ansari? Not very. It is humiliating for him. Caitlin Flanagan of the Atlantic calls it ‘3000 words of revenge porn’. The story may not particularly affect his career , but it certainly tarnishes his brand, built solidly upon his urban-hipster meets little-boy-lost persona. Ansari is goofiness and safety incarnate in his public image. But in this tale he is aggressive and persistent; a wolf with teeth bared. I’ll slow down, he tells Grace, who is ‘taking a moment’ to regroup in the bathroom. ‘It’s no fun unless we’re both having fun’. Moments later, he is putting his fingers down her throat, wetting them in a move Grace calls ‘the claw’ and then reaching for her crotch.

The devil is in the details, which are arresting, ugly and familiar. It is the sheer commonness of the experience that makes it an important story, says Anna North in Vox.

But sexual politics is never simple. Grace and the writer of her Babe piece Katie Way, also 22, come across as adolescent, self-righteous and somewhat histrionic; with a lack of insight that is familiar to anybody who’s ever been a twenty-two year old girl. Way called criticism of her story ‘fucking bullshit’ and called CNN host Ashleigh Banfield a ‘bad highlights second wave feminist’.

It is clear that Grace and Ansari had different agendas: he, a hook-up, she, the girlfriend experience. Grace seems as tone-deaf to the fact that Ansari wasn’t that into her as Ansari was to her ‘verbal and non-verbal’ requests that he slow down his moves.

The thing is, Anzari is one of the good guys, the woke spokesman in the ‘Times Up’ badge, the voice-of-his-generation feminist voice who wrote an episode on sexual harassment into his TV series, and a book called Modern Romance.

It’s easier when we think it is only the ‘bad guys’ that are a threat to women. But then there would be no #metoo. There’s just not enough bad guys. It’s the ‘good guys’ steeped and marinated in the drip-feed of porn culture that makes the ‘good guys’ conclude that the girl who has agonised over her outfit and texted friends excitedly about her date with the handsome celebrity wants to be undressed on a kitchen counter with her dates fingers down her throat after a quick dinner. Sure, Grace may have wanted this. But she didn’t. And Ansari, in this telling, didn’t care.

The future is female, some say, and ‘time’s up’ perhaps, for powerful sex pests who used to be untouchable. But while this gratifying, game-changing, incredible moment is happening where women are being believed as they tell of harassment and assault on a grand scale, technology is also creating ‘fake porn’ that can superimpose the face of a celebrity — or a civilian — onto a porn star, ‘sex robots’ are becoming more and more sophisticated and young people are coming of age with unfettered access to pornography featuring violence towards and degradation of women. To be female in public life these days means to have a thick skin against terrifying trolling by MRA, or Men’s Rights Activist groups, who, in this Trumpian era, are a significant and rising force.

It was the number of women that came forward to corroborate the details of Weinstein’s MO that showed us his patterns of behaviour. The volumes of ‘she said, she said, she said’ made his private crimes too public to ignore any longer. And it will be the body of stories gathered by the #metoo movement that will help us to describe and explore the wider patterns of modern sexual politics. While there are degrees — as Barbara Kingsolver puts it ‘Rape is not groping is not catcalling’ — there are, within this sordid tale of a ‘bad date’ — the elements of coercion, aggression and privileging of male sexual pleasure over female that are all part of this bigger picture, of a rape culture that posits women as sexual objects to be conquered, rather than partners to play with.

These stories are important. Right now, while the grey area is, finally, a safe space, when the personal is political, we can dig into the conversation about consent and the complicated socialised constraints women feel against saying ‘No’. We might struggle to say ‘no’ in the moment, on that countertop. But right now, we are not struggling to say ‘me too’.

Who knows where the moment will lead, or how long it will last? The backlash will surely be ugly. But the reckoning is here, and we are gathering our data.

ps - Also, because I love women so much I made a couple of my very own, here’s a link to my one my favourite pieces ever, a story about my beloved girlfriends that features an accidental topless selfie and a kitchen implement.

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