In many societies, especially a conservative Asian one like Singapore, women are taught to adhere to certain norms which men are not subject to. Whenever we say something like “that is unladylike language” or “you are behaving in an unladylike way”, we are reinforcing a precarious double-standard which leads to problematic consequences. Bad sex is one of them.
Over the weekend, American actor, writer and director Aziz Ansari was accused of sexual assault by an anonymous woman in an article published by the online publication Babe.
“…she detailed how they met (at an Emmy after-party), how they flirted for the next few days (over texts), how they got together (she came over for drinks at his apartment, then went for dinner and drinks at a fancy restaurant down the street, then came back to his house for more drinks), and how it ended in tears (Ansari moved in aggressively and awkwardly, they had oral sex, she went along with it all until he pushed for intercourse, she rebuffed him, they made out a bit more, she became uncomfortable and asked to leave, he called her an Uber and she left).” – The Washington Post
By any standard, what Aziz did did not amount to rape or sexual assault. Although ‘Grace’ (the anonymous writer’s pseudonym) found herself in an uncomfortable situation where she did not want to engage with any further sexual activity with Aziz, he did not force her to do anything. But admittedly, he pressured her through physical and verbal cues, and she acquiesced. As a result, she had a terrible sexual experience.
In response to her experience, many women appear to agree on one thing: they have all experienced this, or know someone who has. “This is just sex”, it has been said – and “things like that happen”.
Yet, this does not mean that what Grace experienced was acceptable. She had to go through something she did not want in the face of pressure from someone else. It was not rape, but it was nonetheless unpleasant, and the fact that her experience was ‘normal’ only serves to tell us that there is a problem with our sex culture when it comes to dealing with so-called ‘bad sex’. Hence, we should begin to ask: why did this happen, and how can we prevent it from happening to women?
The difficulty in saying “no”
two factors, when added together, create a very toxic sex culture in Singapore and abroad.
To prevent her bad sexual encounter, what Grace could have done, and should have done, was say “no”, and leave Aziz’s apartment – if Aziz tried to stop her, that would be sexual assault.
BUT this does not mean that it was her fault for not saying “no”. This is because, our society has conditioned women to become reluctant to say no by creating gendered standards of behavior that discourages them from being firm in expressing their objection in situations like these.
Women are told not to be “rude” more often than men are, and are expected to be polite and considerate towards others, even in uncomfortable situations. When I was a child, I was always confused as to why us boys could get away with swearing (boys will be boys right?), but the girls were always reprimanded for using “unladylike” language. Women are also taught not to be too opinionated, or too fussy. On the other hand, so-called “ladylike virtues” such as politeness and pliancy are often extolled.
Don’t get me wrong, men are at fault too. They have been conditioned by society to “fight” for themselves, and be “strong” and “firm” in achieving what they want, and to seize opportunities that come their way. On the other hand, men who do not fight hard enough are seen as “weak”, or (to use the very sexist adjective) womanlike.
These two factors, when added together, create a very toxic sex culture in Singapore and abroad.
Let me share a story to illustrate this. A Singaporean female friend of mine once shared with me her story of a horrible Tinder date experience in the UK. Her date had treated her very nicely the entire evening, but she was not really up for any sexual activity. However, when she did not respond to the guy’s physical cues, the guy started to get upset, and subtly mentioned the fact that he had paid for dinner and that he took a train from a different town two hours away to come see her (something he conveniently left out earlier). He made her feel so guilty that she eventually acquiesced. I asked her why did she do it – did he physically threaten her? Did he force himself on her? She said no. She admitted thay had she attempted to walk away, the guy would probably have let her go. But she gave in simply because she “felt bad” and “did not want to be rude”.
What can men do?
I want to be very clear that saying that preventing bad sexual experiences requires women to be more willing to say “no” does not mean that men are not responsible too. This is because, as explained above, although women should say no, they often find it difficult to do so because of institutionalized sexism, for which men have plenty of responsibility for. So what can men do?
First, they need to understand that women do not owe them anything at the end of a date, even if they paid for the dinner. Sure, if they want to, they can ask for sex, or (preferably) hint that they want it, since it is within their right to do so. However, it is also fully within the right of a woman to say no.
If a girl says no, she means no, and that is the end of it. You’ve had your chance, move on.
Furthermore, men also need to accept the fundamental principle that “it’s okay for women to be rude, especially when it comes to sex”. If a girl says no, she means no, and that is the end of it. You’ve had your chance, move on. Pressuring a woman even after she has said no amounts to harassment, and if anything, reflects poorly on you as someone who acts like a child the moment you cannot get what you want. (My friend’s Tinder date – that’s you)
Finally, men need to see sex as a mutual act, and not a personal accomplishment. Instead of asking the question: “will she let me have sex with her?”, they need to start asking themselves: “does she want to have sex with me?”.
In both my friend and Aziz’s case, there was no sexual assault and no rape, but that does not mean that what happened was okay. To prevent these sort of encounters from happening, men need to get rid of what they have learnt about male aggressiveness and strip away their sense of male entitlement. They should move cautiously, always erring on the side of caution. On the other hand, if women feel uncomfortable, they must say so clearly, and men must respect this.
Both men and women have a part to play in ensuring that any sexual activity between them is always a result of both people wanting it, and not a situation where either of them is merely letting it happen.
Finally, we need to recognize that the source of these bad sexual encounters lies in toxic gender expectations that result in problematic behaviors in both males and females. We therefore need to stop perpetuating them.
Written by Rio Hoe
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