This weekend I went to an amazing panel discussion called Sex, Power & Consent: Can We Talk? put on by the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis & Psychology.
Throughout the day we discussed and debated many fascinating things, like what the exact difference is between sexual assault and “bad sex,” how gender roles become culturally defined (and their consequences), what role straight men can play after the “me-too” movement (other than listening), and the role invisible power dynamics play in the ethics of sex.
While all of these (and more) left me reeling with ideas and topics to write about, the topic I’m exploring today is the line between flirtation/seduction and sexual harassment/coersion.
In short, a common complaint among men these days (and some women) is that the rise of so many women calling out sexual abusers, assaulters, and harassers, makes it scary and confusing for straight men to know what’s “ok” and what’s not ok when it comes to flirting, pursuing a woman, and even getting sexual consent.
I certainly don’t feel bad for the men who are nervous (we women have been nervous our whole lives), but I do recognize that this conversation, like so many things, is deeply nuanced and not at all black-and-white.
The question that tickles my mind most is… what role do traditional views of seduction, flirtation, romance, and “courting” play in our modern dating and hookup culture?
Let’s start with some history.
A long time ago, it was a man’s job to woo a woman, and her job to simply resist or consent. He was active, she was passive. Many celebrated male love-story heroes have been the traditionally masculine type who “refused to take no for an answer.” Not in a modern sexual-assault-y way, but in a romantic “I’ll prove to her that I’m worthy of her” way, in which he shows the woman he’s not going anywhere, and she eventually sees his worth and reciprocates.
A lot of our modern understanding of dating, romance, and sex goes back to this.
I know many women who say they want someone to “fight for them,” meaning they want someone who isn’t turned away by one or two refusals. In her mind, his pursuit and dedication prove how he feels about her; that she’s irreplaceable to him. His perseverance makes her feel deeply desired, and emotionally safe enough to fall for him.
It seems unfair to me that we might hold this “fight for me and prove your worth” expectation in romance, but then find the exact same behaviors repulsive and vile when it comes to hooking up.
But isn’t that exactly what’s happening when we talk about sexual coersion?
Back when traditional “courting” was a man’s job, getting a woman to fall in love with him and marry him was the only (respectable) way he could get laid. Yes it was romantic, but it was also very much sexual. His job was to convince, to persuade, to wait, to prove, to outlast, to earn.
While lauded romantically, is that behavior so different than what Aziz Ansari was doing in his recently scrutinized date with the woman who felt sexually violated? The big difference is that our modern hookup culture has purposefully divorced romantic feelings from casual sex.
Women are often just as interested in casual sex as men, but there is a hugely gendered difference in how we’re socialized to view ourselves and others, and those differences set us up for problems during the process of flirtation, seduction, and sex.
Men are often taught to see themselves as the center of their own story, encouraged to know who they are, and confidently go after what they want. The old traditionally masculine values of dedication, perseverance, and aggressive pursuit of your goals are still at play, and they translate seamlessly from the romantic sphere to the sexual sphere.
It is in this way that so many good men are accidentally or unknowingly sexually coersive. They’re just doing what they’ve been taught. Often they’ve also had their natural empathy and intuition socialized out of them, and taught to place their own needs first, so they end up either ignoring or being unable to accurately interpret the meaning of the body language and facial expressions of their partner.
Likewise, women are a product of our socialization, and the old traditional values.
We women have been taught to see ourselves as givers, helpers, and supporters. We’ve been taught that our value is inherently wrapped up in our beauty and sexual desirability, that our worth in based on our ability to passively “catch” the attention and approval of a good partner.
Women learn to put everyone else first, and many women become so obsessed with being what other people want them to be that they never get the chance to develop a sense of their own desires- let alone the ability to assert them to another person.
The old traditional values of passivity, nurturing, people-pleasing, and avoiding conflict are often still at play. When a man makes a pass at a woman, she often feels it is her responsibility to be nice to him, to let him down easy, or to make up a lie or excuse so as not to offend him. (How many times have you apologetically turned someone down with a fake “I have a boyfriend”?)
More importantly, when both flirting and hooking up, she is habitually aware of what other people want from her (often significantly more so than her own desires), and due to the way her identity and self-worth are constructed, she is afraid of letting them down, disappointing them, or upsetting them.
In this way many women often go much further sexually with men than they want to, often getting into situations with men who are pushing for what they want, against women who feel afraid to (or unable to) say no.
Plus all women have experienced the instant rage of a spurned man (think: the catcaller who doesn’t get the smile he feels entitled to), so we know that letting down a man who wants something from us can actually be quite dangerous.
Even with a very safe man though, it is sometimes much easier to say yes and get it over with than to stop things that are already “in motion” and have to deal with the aftermath of emotional labor.
Even though he pushed things to be in motion, saying no after a certain point often comes with one or more of the following exhausting consequences:
Begging (as a favor to stave off blue-balls)
He’ll want an acceptable explanation (acceptable meaning something other than us not wanting to)
He’ll change tack and try to get us back in the mood and keep pushing further
He’ll appeal to “reason” and justify why he deserves it
He’ll request an alternate sexual favor (like a handjob) instead
He’ll shame us as a “tease” or prude
He’ll ignore our no altogether
We’ll have to deal with the dangerous anger of a hurt male ego
Being intensely aware of his feelings, having a self-identity that requires we put other people’s needs first, and not feeling entitled to self-assertion, for many women it’s often much easier to just say yes and have sex you don’t really want or enjoy, rather than deal with all that.
Can you see how our gender roles have been passed down, and the damage it’s doing in the modern scene of heterosexual sex and dating? (There are plenty of issues and complexities among the LGBTQ scene as well, but I don’t have time to explore that today.)
While there are no black-and-white answers to this issue yet, I want to finish with a few things I think we can actually DO, because I want to make it clear that we are not stuck with this. In every moment we are each co-creating our culture, and we each have the ability (and responsibility) to push it in a better direction.
So, what should we do?
Continue exploring this topic in conversation, listening and staying open instead of shutting down dissenting opinions.
All genders must continue challenging and dismantling traditional gender roles and the gender binary– both in ourselves as fully socialized adults, and in how we raise children.
Adult women must learn to cultivate and recognize who we are and what we want, so that we’re not as swayed by what other people want from us. This means painstakingly detaching our self-identity and self-worth from nurturing, care-taking, people-pleasing, and putting others first, and rebuilding it in a more self-focused way.
Everyone, but especially girls and women, need to learn and practice clear, bold, fierce, strong, kind, graceful, and aggressive rebuffs to unwanted attention and sexual advances. We must learn and practice turning people down and saying no in different situations, with different tools. From practicing angry bravado to scare off a man who gropes us on the subway, to practicing turning down invitations with the truth instead of making up an excuse to protect their feelings, we need to be better practiced in the art of honoring our boundaries and saying no.
Adult men need to learn to be significantly more sensitive to and focused on the emotional state and nonverbals of their female partners, from flirtation all the way to sex. A verbal “yes” might be enough legally, but all men are responsible for creating a space where she knows it’s completely ok to stop or change her mind at any moment, and she will be respected. (This means if she changes her mind at any point there is to be no begging, no whining, no demanding an explanation, no asking for a substitute sexual favor, and no shaming.)
All genders need to work on having more “slow-down” mechanisms with regard to the normally fast-paced hookup path from flirtation to sex. We must learn to take time to slow down the speeding train, to check in with ourselves and notice what we’re feeling, and then check in with our partners to do the same. Think of these as mandatory “speed bumps” to prevent accidents.
Note: If you want to learn more practices for how to have more fulfilling and positive sexual experiences as a woman, you can come to my workshop in Asheville, NC on April 14th from 10am-1pm!!
Sex & Body Image: More Pleasure & Confidence In the Bedroom
and I previously announced the wrong date by accident– I said it was the 21st, but it’s officially the 14th!! For more details and to register email me.
Wishing you fiery Tuesday, <3 Jessi
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