Although I had decided earlier to start writing down my thoughts, what really prompted me to get going was the ongoing Grace and Aziz debate that is right now raging on opinion pages and facebook posts. The question seems to split between the fault lines of those who think Aziz committed a non-prosecutable offence toward a woman, and it’s part of the general contempt of men towards women, and those who believe he misread her signals, possibly committed the douchery of nagging, and generally should have been told to keep off or be left.
I don’t agree with publishing the account of the date that Grace and Aziz had. There was no crime, it did not take place in a public space and it was not in the line of Aziz’ work. It was a private meeting between two adults, and as especially as no crime had been committed, it should have been kept private.
Still, I do think this story is a perfect example of something that is plaguing this type of debate to the detriment of feminism. It’s a bit of a red thread in many of the coming and going questions regarding sexual abuse.
The issue I’m talking of is the wrongful analysis of the problems with sexual abuse, and the remedies following being incorrect and ineffectual.
When we discuss cases of abuse, either outright events of rape or other criminal offences, or more general sexual douchebaggery committed by men, what is often being said is that the focus and onus should not be put on women to protect themselves; this comes close enough to victim blaming. Rather, society’s problem is how to teach men, especially young men, not to abuse women. We need to instil from an early age on in men that women are to be respected just as any other man would be, and that sexual coercion in any form is abhorrent whoever commits it.
Despite the sense this may seem to make, I will try to explain why I see this approach as problematic. Essentially, I see there are reasonably two types, or categories, of physical, sexual abuse taking place.
First, there’s the occasion when there is malicious intent on part of the abuser, and he knows that his actions are not desired by his victim. I chose to call this act sexual coercion. In criminal cases this would be rape committed either by a known or unknown assailant.
Secondly, there’s the occasion when there is no malicious intent on the abusers part, and he does not understand that his actions are not desired by his victim. I chose to call this act sexual misconduct. These acts are not liable for prosecution, but are still misconduct that we need to work on how to get rid of.
One may argue over the ratio of how many of the abuses that occur fall within each category, but these are the two conceivable categories as I see it for physical abuse. In addition, I’m making the case that the names of these two categories should be different, hence coercion and misconduct, simply because they are different in their nature and our language needs to reflect this to avoid continuing arguing over what is essentially semantical misunderstandings.
To my knowledge, from what I’ve read, regarding the first category a small number of men commit a majority share of the sexual coercion committed by men. These men are generally less empathetic than the average person, and seem to overlap with the small population of men that also commit the majority of physical violence in general (against both women and men).
The second category concerns men who are not intent on hurting anybody, but through ignorance or tactlessness do not pick up on non-verbal cues that women send out. Should a woman express her desire not to partake in specific sexual act, verbally stating that she does not consent to his advance and yet he persists, he would per definition not fit into the second category, but rather the first.
There is however also a third phenomenon that occurs when we discuss sex between men and women. Nagging. Mainly, men who nag on women to commit sexual acts with them, so much that a woman eventually complies out of guilt/conviction/tiredness/apathy. This most definitely occur. It shouldn’t, but unfortunately it does. I know women who have been nagged into having sex with men they didn’t want to, and I have on occasions, though this far always within relationships, been nagged into sex myself. Worst case, I might even have committed this myself (exclusively within relationships). Still, stretching the term sexual abuse to this type of conduct is a disservice to all who are victims of physical abuse, as long as it’s not mixed up with coercion. If someone nags on you, they’re a douche, but complying with their nagging does not mean they’re guilty of anything else than, still, just nagging. Of course, nagging can as well, and very often probably is, be part of one of the two categories of actual sexual abuse, coercion and misconduct. But just as coercion or misconduct can be perpetrated without nagging, so can nagging be done without coercion or misconduct.
The Aziz case shows that the second category of abuse does indeed take place, and it also shows how difficult it is to solve the problem of sexual misconduct and what has been called “bad sex”. It gets especially difficult when our response to this episode is to maintain that the solution to these types of sexual abuse is to “teach men not to abuse or rape”. Nobody can claim that Aziz, also mentioned as a poster boy for the woke young man, did not know not to abuse women. Nobody can say that had he just been told to treat women better, had society interrupted his privileged assumptions, he would not have committed the actions he’s now been ascribed.
Yet still he did, and even if we take Graces description of the evening at face value, without any regards to that a version from Aziz’ might sound different, if not in content then at least in tone, we are still left with the situation that a man made a woman do things she did not want to do. How could this happen, if the problem clearly isn’t that he wasn’t told “not to abuse women”?
The problem does not lie in that some men still think they can treat women shitty based on their gender (some do, I personally know examples of them), but that when it comes to sexual activity, verbal communication very suddenly takes a large punch to the face and we start using our body language to an extent and manner that we never otherwise do. From Graces own account, nothing implies that Aziz wanted her to feel uncomfortable, abused, or that he didn’t care for these things. Yes, he was being pushy, he certainly seemed to be nagging in his behaviour if not in words, but being pushy or nagging is as said not the same as not caring for the others emotional state. We’ve all had people being pushy towards us, but in few circumstances would they want you to feel uncomfortable; on many if not most occasions they don’t even realise they come off as it.
If Aziz indeed had intentionally been coercing her into having sex with him, would he have bothered to do anything different if he would have previously been told not to? Do people committing sexual coercion, per definition with malicious intent, change their behaviour because they’ve been told to do so? I claim no, they do not. They apply coercion precisely because they don’t care for the feelings of others, and telling them to stop is as effective as telling people not to steal or not to commit murder.
The case of Grace and Aziz could have ended differently, very easily. And it would have done so, had both parties communicated more clearly with each other. Aziz should have been more up front with his intentions and desires, and Grace should have been more vocal about her intentions and concerns.
I believe there are two lessons for the rest of us to learn from this. Firstly, in that there is a distinction between sexual coercion and sexual misconduct, and that nagging falls within neither of these. Secondly that better communication by both parties can avoid this from happening again, if we all take courage and start talking with each other during sex, instead of believing that our bodies will do so for us. This way, a lot of misunderstandings can be avoided.
To reiterate; non-verbal communication is great, when it works. When it doesn’t work, verbal communication needs to take place. If silence is maintained, misunderstandings will happen, and if silence is broken and clear instructions or verbal non-consent given, any proceding act will be a clear violation of the others integrity, and count as sexual coercion. Here, the onus is on the one who realises they are being misunderstood to speak up and to state their intentions. Failure to do so will in all likelihood lead to a ruined evening, and possibly a ruined relationship.
I’d also like to add another lesson for us men. First off, much of this debate can scare us. Especially when good-hearted intentions are being labelled as abuse or coercion, which I know is what many of us fear, and why many of us get very defensive when these topics come up and a male perspective is not considered in any manner. And while most of us are not famous as Aziz and don’t risk that kind of ostracization due to misunderstood cues or body language, the fear of an accusation of sexual misconduct is genuinely scary. To avoid putting women in situations where they themselves are too shy or timid to speak up when they ought to, and to protect ourselves from doing things we will later be blamed for, we need to communicate more when we have sex. We shouldn’t always have to, and women have a responsibility to speak for themselves, we can’t be morally or legally expected to read their mind nor their body language, but we still need to talk more. While it may feel embarrassing to do, especially on the first occasion when you meet someone, do it for your own sake. In addition, sex do happen to get a lot better when communication is verbal and forthcoming, and many women appreciate a man who at least seems to know what he’s doing, so there’s nothing to lose but your shame.