The response to “Grace’s” account of her sexual encounter with actor Aziz Ansari, which was recently published in Babe, has sparked debate that’s made a detour from the #MeToo accusations to a conversation that is murkier and divisive.

Public opinion varies on the topic, some of which seem to shift the blame from Ansari to the young woman who didn’t explicitly refuse his sexual advances.

Many believe that the situation at hand is black and white; Grace didn’t say “no” to Ansari, therefore, it cannot be classified as sexual assault.

But what if this scenario isn’t as black and white as people say? Perhaps there is a gray area — in which a sexual partner can inflict damage— without it falling under the legal category of sexual assault.

In a new article, Emma Gray, Executive Women’s Editor at Huffington Post, examines her own encounters in an effort to understand the greater issues concerning sexual consent.

There are those who view Grace’s account as an undermining of everything the #MeToo movement stands for by calling her experience “assault.”

Gray wrote that she doesn’t believe that Grace and her Millennial, feminist supporters are undermining the #MeToo movement, but adding another crucial, complex, and rarely discussed layer to society’s definition of consent. She mentioned that most women she knew had been through similar, unsettling sexual incidents that were violating, but not criminal.

She wrote:

Behavior need not fall under the legal definition of sexual assault or rape to be wrong or violating or upsetting. And when nearly every woman I’ve spoken to about the Aziz Ansari story follows up our conversation with a similar story of her own, it’s worth thinking about why that is.

Gray described an incident in which she agreed to go home with a man, but before she could process what was happening, he had undressed her and started having sex with her. Gray’s wishes and needs went unmet because her sexual partner never acknowledged them.

She also related an additional incident in which she agreed to engage in sexual activity — even though she didn’t want to. She admitted that although the encounters were upsetting, she would not define them as sexual assault.

She wrote:

I want to be clear: I do not believe that either of these encounters qualifies as sexual assault, nor do I think that the men involved were being intentionally thoughtless or harmful … I ended the night feeling gross and a bit violated. I wondered why I had let these men into my private space or entered theirs. I wondered why I hadn’t articulated my boundaries more clearly.

Gray said that in order for the #MeToo movement to effect societal change, we need to redefine what’s acceptable behavior and, as she put it “update our shared sexual scripts.”

She wrote:

[R]ather than simply a weeding out of the worst actors in a broken system ― we need to renegotiate the sexual narratives we’ve long accepted.

Gray believes that in order to progress in this gray area, people need to talk about it.

She wrote:

This is a kind of sex that is not only worth talking about, but necessary to talk about … We need to introduce new language and ways of talking about gray areas that help us to make public the awkward and messy conversations we’ve been forced to have in private.

Gray doesn’t blame Grace for not explicitly saying “no” and leaving Ansari’s apartment. It’s not always easy to say no, when someone’s looking for a polite way to decline another’s invitation.

She wrote:

Research has shown that in their daily lives, both men and women employ verbal cues to indicate “no” that don’t explicitly contain the word “no.” For example, if someone extends a social invitation that you don’t want to accept, instead of saying “No, I don’t want to do that,” you might say, “That sounds great, but I think I made plans with a friend” … These same kind of communication tactics come up in sexual situations. Language like, “It’s getting late,” or “maybe later,” or “next time,” often serves as a stand-in for a hard “no.”

If someone is being forceful and doesn’t give a woman time to process and decide what she wants, it can be difficult to find a polite excuse — as we’ve been conditioned to do.

Gray brought up a 1999 study which found that:

“both men and women have a sophisticated ability to convey and to comprehend refusals, including refusals which do not include the word ‘no.’”

The writer also explained that there is a deeply entrenched societal expectation in which women will put men’s needs before their own.

Gray wrote:

Women are socialized from a young age to cater to the comfort of those around them ― especially if those around them are men … Conversely, many men are taught that they are entitled to women’s time, attention and physical affection ― and that if those things are not readily offered to them, they should be aggressive and take it. This creates a dynamic where women often defer to men’s needs in an effort to avoid embarrassment, verbal conflict or physical violence, and where it may not even occur to men to check in with women’s needs.

Gray added that because of this dynamic, we don’t need to jump to harsh labels like “helpless” or “predator” — we need to look at the implicit messages we’ve been taught from a young age.

She wrote:

Acknowledging this dynamic doesn’t require us to label all men monsters or all women “helpless” weaklings in need of a fainting couch. It means that we’ve all grown up with a f***ed-up sexual script ― governed by questions like “Did he/she/they say yes?” ― that ultimately works for no one.

Gray contended that rather than pick apart Grace’s account and condescendingly blame her for what she “should” have done, people need to stop and listen to Grace — and to each other.

Gray wrote:

We need to engage women and men of varying ages without jumping to bad faith arguments or over-generalizations … We need to push for complex conversations about sexual dynamics and affirmative consent to be included in sex ed programs. We need to … encourage preschool teachers and parents to practice “skill building” with their children around consent, making it as basic as teaching toddlers to look both ways when they cross the street.

Gray wrote that there’s a systemic reason why many women allow men to make unwanted sexual advances; it’s only by engaging in “complex conversations” that we will begin to see healthier attitudes towards consent begin to develop.

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