I’m still thinking about Grace and Aziz. The conversation is saturated, but there’s something that needs to be said. First, there is a difference between sexual assault, on the one hand, and an uncomfortable sexual encounter with a power imbalance, on the other. Second, and this is the big one, both are important.
Growing up, no one taught me about everyday sex. There were conversations about assault; warnings about force and coercion; workshops on how to scream, yell, kick, and punch. But I never got guidance on how to navigate the rest of it, the murky waters of casual and committed sex that we all, for the most part, dive into.
As a teenager, I learned everything about sex from my friends. (Side note: There has to be a better model than teens teaching teens.) Now, as an adult, I still rely on my friends to delicately explore the moments of insecurity and the sense of obligation that can arise during sexual encounters. These conversations remind me of the whispered secrets we used to share at sleepovers; each of us has something to say, but we’re not totally comfortable saying it too loudly.
We need to speak up.
It is not too much to strive for committed and non-committed sexual experiences that leave both parties involved feeling unharmed.
We need to talk about consent, and the Grace and Aziz moment has made that clear. Is sex consensual if one person participates but doesn’t feel safe and secure? In my experience, there is often a very blurry line between truly consensual sex, in which both parties are of one mind, and sex that involves consent but leaves one party feeling uncomfortable and unsafe.
We need to have potentially awkward conversations in the bedrooms of our intimate relationships. There isn’t a great manual out there for how to do this, so we need to create it for ourselves.
I’ve had consensual sexual encounters that have left me feeling positive, respected, and loved. I’ve also had consensual sexual encounters that have left me feeling vulnerable, awkward, and used.
Looking back at my own history, there are nights when I stayed but didn’t want to. The common theme is pressure, and the connective tissue is performance. Pressure to perform so he liked me; pressure to perform so I didn’t disappoint him; pressure to perform because I was already in his bed. In all of those moments I chose to indulge my sexual partners rather than take care of myself. For me, those moments of weakness came from a lack of self-awareness, low self-worth, and a whole lot of insecurity.
We think we’re protecting ourselves but, really, we’re protecting the out-of-balance power dynamic.
I’m reminded of my friend B. After weeks of back-and-forth flirting, she went home with a man she liked. They fooled around, he climaxed, and then he promptly fell asleep. She wanted to leave, but she stayed. Lying next to him while he slept, she wondered why she couldn’t just will herself out the door. A week later she agreed to hang out again. This time, she thought, things could be different. Back at his place, things got hot and she felt more in control; she asked to slow down. He quickly turned sour and admitted he had a fiancé. This was a shock and a blow. She really liked him, but, to him, their encounters were casual; by design, they could never date. She stayed the night. Later, in tears, she told me about it: “I wanted to feel wanted. I did want to date him, but I couldn’t let him see that.” She didn’t feel strong enough to share her feelings in the moment so she retreated into herself, stayed over, and said it to me instead.
Our tendency to shy away from having these conversations in the light means we’re leaving them and our discomfort in the dark. We think we’re protecting ourselves but, really, we’re protecting the out-of-balance power dynamic.
It is not too much to strive for committed and non-committed sexual experiences that leave both parties involved feeling unharmed. There will always be missteps and we will make mistakes. And there is always, as Grace demonstrated, an opportunity to speak up, even if the moment has passed. If the people on the other end respond with an apology, great. If those people change their behavior—ask more and assume less—in their next moments of intimacy, even better. That’s how change happens, one awkward text exchange at a time.
Let’s talk about the messy moments. Let’s lay off the blame and the shame game and listen.