Consent: become a sex scientist

Watch Steph Guthrie unpack the situation Aziz Ansari found himself in after a date. Steph is the Impact Director for A Better Man documentary. The director of the film asks the man who abused her 20 years ago to take responsibility for this actions on-camera.

Aziz Ansari is an actor, writer and director who went on a date with a woman named Grace. They went back to his apartment. In his mind, they engaged in consensual sex. For Grace, it was not consensual. She described her experience as being pushed into the sex. Their interaction has sparked a lot of discussion about consent.

Key Points from Steph’s talk

Everyone has to develop ‘emotional literacy’ if they want quality relationships and good consent. Emotional literacy is a family of skills focussed on the ability to understand and communicate about feelings – your own and those of others.

Emotional literacy skills include:

  • Listening
  • Validating – saying back to the person what you heard them say… just to check that you heard them correctly
  • Empathy – being able to see the world through another’s eyes

AND you have to practice the skills to keep them up. The problem is, different pressures are at work that can make it harder for us to practice and build these skills.

Different kinds of pressure make it hard to understand feelings – our own and others

Pressure makes it hard to know what is really happening

Pressure: Boys and trans-masculine people often get called a “pussy” or “whipped” for talking about their own feelings, or caring about other people’s feelings.

Result:  Ridicule is a social punishment – it discourages him from practicing and developing emotional literacy.

Pressure: Boys are pressured to always be in the mood for sex, and to always give the impression that they know what they’re doing in bed.

Result: He learns not to pay attention to his feelings (because he’ll “always” want sex), and never hesitates or asks questions when he’s in a sexual situation.

Pressure: Girls are pressured not to come across as “clingy” or “needy.” Appearing to have zero emotional needs in a relationship is the best way to avoid the “needy” tag.

Result: She learns to hide or dismiss any feelings that might be inconvenient for the people she likes.

Pressure: Girls (unlike most boys) often get slut-shamed for having sex, wanting sex, making out with people, or even wearing certain clothes.

Result: She might learn that sex is for men’s enjoyment, not women’s, because it’s slutty for women to enjoy sex. This discourages her from focusing on her own feelings about sex.

Question: How are guys supposed to avoid the situation Aziz found himself in?

The short answer:  give a shit about what your partner feels

This may not come as easily for a lot of boys, because it’s not a skill they’re encouraged to develop. Focusing on the other person is common for girls – they are often taught that their job is to make other people feel good. This can be a great skill in many ways, but it becomes a problem with dating and sex. It means girls can reluctantly agree to do things they don’t really want to do… precisely because the other person really, really wants to do it. The different pressures combine to encourage her to put her feelings on the back burner in favour of his, and for him to get to the ultimate goal – sex. It’s a bad combination.

Pressure makes it hard for anyone to tune in to the moment. It’s no wonder that two people go into the same room and come out with very different reads on what happened. Aziz’s date gave him many signs that she didn’t want to continue. Aziz kept going for it – sex was the end game. It's not surprising. 

To develop emotional literacy:

Girls need safe spaces to explore and talk about what they really do enjoy – and what are the boundaries? Most guys have also had experiences they didn’t want – weren’t fully comfortable with. They also need to talk about their experience in a real way.

Guys need to treat their partner’s feelings and desires with just as much importance as their own, and be curious about their partner’s feelings. Since sex can be fun, and having sex can be a source of status among men, guys are often biased toward the idea of having sex. That bias to have sex can make it more likely that he will read consent when it’s not really there. Social science calls this “confirmation bias”. It means you want one outcome (sex) over another (not sex), and you find ways to push for that outcome - sometimes subconsciously. You are not neutral. All good scientists strive to be aware of their biases.

Become a good sex scientist:

  • Be genuinely curious about what kind of time your partner is having
  • Acknowledge your bias and how it might shape your reading of consent
  • Don’t persist if you’re not sure about anyone’s feelings - yours or theirs
  • Push yourself to see, recognize and address signals that the other person isn’t totally comfortable (tensing up, not kissing/touching you back, moving away, “Let’s cuddle instead”)
  • Ask open-ended “how” and “what” questions – “How is this for you?” – “What do you want to do next?”
  • Give a shit 

Further Reading & Resources