Written by Kaleigh Blessard.
Art by Sasha Roberts.
Last week I overheard two coworkers discussing Aziz Ansari and his quiet-but-overall-triumphant return to stand-up in his July 2019 Netflix special. Ansari, frequently hailed as a male feminist icon, briefly removed himself from the spotlight following one of the most controversial stories of the #MeToo movement, in which an unnamed woman described a date with Ansari and their subsequent hook-up back at his apartment.
Whether they consider what happened in Ansari’s apartment as sexual assault or not, lots of people—particularly women—related to the story in some capacity. Most of us have been there: on the brink of engaging with someone we’ve been dating, unsure if we want to commit, but ending up doing so anyway.
We’re all taught to say no when we don’t want to do something, and we are expected to do so. When women are assaulted, we demand an explanation of their behavior. Did they fight back? Did they verbally refuse? Did they attempt to remove themselves from the situation? Did they try just saying no?
But it’s not always that easy. Lots of people struggle with saying no. If we don’t want to do something, we often hedge it—“I don’t know;” “Maybe;” “I’ll let you know.” It can seem impossible at times to just say no when we want to. Many people feel pressured to give a “good enough” reason to say no to something.
If you cannot freely, safely, and comfortably say no, you’re not really saying yes.
Why is it so difficult to say no, especially in romantic or sexual situations? Maybe we’re afraid of hurting someone’s feelings, or making someone mad—both are valid. At the root of that, maybe we’re worried about what will happen if we actually say “No.”
If you cannot freely, safely, and comfortably say no, you’re not really saying yes. If the only reason you agree to do something is because you don’t feel comfortable saying no, then you are not really agreeing to do it at all.
We often brush discussions of power dynamics in relationships under the rug, but power plays a significant role when it comes to sex and romance. Sex requires you to be incredibly vulnerable with other people, and it is essential that you feel safe doing so. It is our responsibility to make sure that our partner(s) also feel safe saying no to things they do not want to do.
In relationships in which there are significant differences in age or social/political/professional standings, or even more obvious discrepancies like differing sizes or strengths, it should be our instinct to create and maintain an environment in which our partners can safely and comfortably say no at any time for any reason.
This is not to say that the onus is only or always the responsibility of the bigger or stronger person; the onus should be on every party involved in an encounter. The goal of a sexual or romantic encounter should be for everyone to enjoy it, and being comfortable establishing boundaries is an essential part of that enjoyment.
Fear is a very powerful—and very paralyzing—feeling. In a situation where you feel at the mercy of another person because they are bigger than you or seem to have more power than you, it is very easy (and all too common) to freeze up, and do whatever you can to maintain the status quo in order to protect yourself. It’s why rape victims do not fight back, and why victims of abuse stay with their abusers for so long—the possible repercussions of refusing are so terrifying, they would rather accept the immediate danger than take the risk of the situation escalating.
We should all make it our mission to make ourselves aware of how our status influences others, not only in the bedroom, but everywhere.
When you have sex with someone, when you engage with them romantically or emotionally or physically, you owe it to them to make sure they are comfortable. That means acknowledging the privilege and power you may hold over them, and giving them the opportunity to de-escalate or fully stop if they so choose. It’s not enough to remind them they can say no; it takes action. Show them that there will be no negative consequences if they want to stop. Prove it to them.
When I read about what happened in Aziz Ansari’s apartment, what stuck out most to me was his seeming inability to recognize an uncomfortable and unwilling partner as he rubbed himself against her. Surely most men would be able to recognize when a woman is not interested, right? And a decent man would back off?
Perhaps most men would assume an unwilling partner would say no. But consider the Ansari situation specifically: This woman, whoever she is, was in an apartment with a man who held considerable power over her. Maybe he was not physically bigger or stronger, but he’s a celebrity who could, in theory, hold quite a bit of influence over her and her career as a photographer. What would she have risked by saying no outright, and refusing his advances? What did she risk by sharing her story?
We should all make it our mission to make ourselves aware of how our status influences others, not only in the bedroom, but everywhere. Words matter. Power, perceived or actual, matters. And what matters most is how we can use our words and our power to ensure the comfort and safety of those around us.
About the Author
Kaleigh is an Atlanta-based writer. Her work has been featured online in various publications and a few print ones, and her favorite topics are relationships, body image, and mental illness. She enjoys true crime, extra-cheesy pizza, and tweeting every inane thought that blooms in her brain.