The long-held idea that women ‘give’ sex to men to get something else is thankfully on its way out. But the belief still persists, as is evident in exchanges like the one that took place between Aziz Ansari and an anonymous woman who told her story this week. What if, instead of treating a woman like a passive player capable of merely granting a yes or no, men focused on her pleasure?
The persistent belief that men have sex for pleasure while women have sex in exchange for things they want – love, marriage, a promotion, or even just the chance to spend a night with a famous person they admire – has convinced many people that once a man has gained a woman’s permission to have sex, he can pretty much do anything he wants. The widespread acceptance of this transactional approach to sex has given us a model of consent – which some call the “gatekeeper model” – that is failing to protect women from very unpleasant sexual experiences. We need a new one. And there is reason to believe a new model of consent is indeed emerging.
With this model, partners will be expected to ask for more than just a “yes” – the question will be whether both are actually taking pleasure in the encounter. But for a society that is still grappling with “no means no,” this reconceptualization of consent still has a long way to go.
Events this week have made this clear. On Monday, the website Babe published an account of a sexual encounter between a woman known as Grace (not her real name) and the comedian and actor Aziz Ansari. Grace says she agreed to go on a date with Mr. Ansari, which ended at his apartment. Once there, the two engaged in sexual activity that left her feeling violated and assaulted. Mr. Ansari doesn’t challenge that the night took place, but says that “by all indications [it] was completely consensual.”
Society’s ideas about consent have evolved dramatically in the past decades. For a long time men took for granted that “no” at least sometimes meant “yes” – that a refusal was negotiable, if only they persisted. Feminists fought a long battle to replace this idea with the clear standard of “no means no.” These two concepts – “no sometimes means yes” and “no means no” – may seem diametrically opposed. But in fact, they share a particular model of what consent is – what feminist and activist Jaclyn Friedman calls the “gatekeeper model.” According to this model of consent, men initiate sex, and women either give or deny them access. Period.
The gatekeeper model is linked to another idea, that sex between men and women is basically a transaction. Traditionally, the transaction in question took place in the context of marriage. Women, it was thought, gave men access to sex, and in return they received the income and security that came with being a wife. A woman’s withdrawal of sexual access was a violation of that contract, just as abandonment was a violation on the part of the man. For this reason, a man did not need consent to have sex with his wife. It wasn’t until 1983 that Canada reformed its laws to allow for the possibility of marital rape, and the notion that rape can occur within a marriage unfortunately remains far from universally accepted.
The transactional model’s roots go far back in human history. Traditional agrarian lifestyles gave men an economic advantage, as they produced the food that financed the household, and led to women’s roles being as caretakers of children and minders of the home. This arrangement was advantageous for families, but it made women dependent on men for their survival. It also encouraged unmarried women to feign sexual disinterest, in the interest of marrying men who valued faithful wives. The result? A society that (falsely) believes that women are biologically hardwired to be disinterested in sex and a social order in which men essentially gain access to women’s bodies through the long-run commitment of marriage.
Since the sexual revolution, it has been increasingly acceptable to have sex outside marriage. But the transactional view endures. Some people have suggested that the only difference is that now women are willing to trade sex for something else: a relationship, financial support, or just the prestige of being intimate with a high-status male. Just in the last year, a book by sociologist Mark Regnerus, titled Cheap Sex, gained significant media attention by arguing that as a result of social change, the price of sexual access for men has fallen – that, in other words, women now ask for less from men in exchange for granting them access to their bodies. Men now can have sex with very little emotional or economic investment. He thinks that this cheapening of sex has hurt women, because sex is how they extract resources from men. The less they gain from having sex, the worse off they are.
It seems not to have occurred to purported experts such as Mr. Regnerus that women have sex for another reason: because they intend to enjoy it. Recent research has found that women will engage in casual sex just as frequently as men if they can reasonably expect it to be a satisfying experience. The author of several studies of women’s experiences with one-night stands, Terri Conley, points out that women who avoid casual encounters often do so because they have every reason to believe it will be unlikely to give them much pleasure. Statistics show that women only orgasm 35 per cent as often as men do during encounters with first-time sexual partners, in large part because those partners invest little effort in the other person’s satisfaction.
Once we accept that women might actually expect pleasure from sex, the transactional view collapses. And with it goes the gatekeeper model of consent. We need a better one, one that gives us the tools to deal with encounters such as Grace and Ansari’s. Grace says that Ansari “ignored clear non-verbal cues.” Legal experts have said such non-verbal cues would not, given the circumstances, be enough to successfully prosecute Mr. Ansari. Bari Weiss wrote in the New York Times that Mr. Ansari was “guilty of not being a mind reader.” But once we shift from thinking about their encounter using the gatekeeper model – did she or did she not open the gate and consent to sex – there is much less ambiguity about the whole situation. Reading Grace’s account, and Mr. Ansari’s statement, it is possible to believe that Mr. Ansari misread her signals so completely that he thought she had consented to at least some of what happened. It is not possible to believe that he thought she was actually enjoying herself.
Thankfully, the societal belief that sexual pleasure is not important to women is unravelling, and with it the notion that sex for women is purely transactional. It is not surprising that these changes have brought with them a movement towards an entirely new understanding of consent. A number of different models have been proposed, which we call inter-relational models of consent. These include ideas such as “affirmative consent,” “contextual consent,” and “enthusiastic consent.” All of these are intended to change how we perceive women’s roles during sex. By affirming that women might actually be in it for pleasure, they encourage a man to ask himself whether, during this particular encounter, his sexual partner is actually enjoying herself. If Aziz Ansari had asked this question, things would surely have gone very differently that evening. Instead of acting out his own sexual fantasies on Grace, they might have come together for a sexual experience they both enjoyed.
Originally published in the Globe and Mail.
Neil McArthur is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba.