NEW YORK CITY— There are better models of fraternal correction than telling the story of the horrible night you spent with comedian Aziz Ansari to a reporter from a casually crude website. But that was where “Grace” (a pseudonym) went to express what she didn’t have a way to say No to Ansari — that he had hounded her physically; pressured her to go farther, faster than she wanted; and left her feeling wretched after their night together.
Grace spoke up, she said, because she saw Ansari wearing a “Times Up” pin and supporting the #MeToo movement, and she couldn’t see how he reconciled his support of women generally with the way he treated her particularly.
Grace’s story sparked many reactions. But if Aziz Ansari is reading all the think pieces about him, he must feel most ill-served by his allies. “Aziz Ansari Is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader.” wrote Bari Weiss for The New York Times, exonerating Ansari in a singularly insulting way.
It’s unreasonable, Weiss and others write, to expect Ansari and other men to be able to know if they’re scaring or upsetting their one-night stands. The solution isn’t for men to pay attention to women’s nonverbal cues, she writes, but for women to be much more aggressive in fending off men who make them feel uncomfortable or unsafe.
For all the worry about women defining themselves as snowflakes or victims, the defense offered to Ansari sounds much more cossetting than comforting.
What virtuous man would feel relieved to be told he is powerless to avoid harming the women he takes to bed? Who would be put at ease, after seeing a woman in tears, to be told that it’s not his fault, he couldn’t help it, there’s no way for him to know — he’s not a mind reader.
If sex is always such a blind leap, with no way to take care of your partner, what good man could have an assignation and respect himself in the morning. The sexual culture Ansari’s supporters describe is a game of Russian roulette: Eventually, every man will wind up deeply wounding a woman he’s taken to bed, but he may never even find out which lovers were the collateral damage of our hook-up culture. (And, of course, he also may be coerced, objectified or abused himself.)
Ansari’s critics agree, in part, with his supporters. Those nonverbal cues are hard to read, so men (and women) should stick to a “Yes means yes” model of consent, waiting to hear explicit, enthusiastic consent before pushing things with a partner, they say.
The “affirmative consent” model, viewed simply as harm reduction, is an improvement over the “Not a Mind Reader” defense, but it still sells men and women short. It’s a way of camouflaging the fundamental problem: You can’t have generically respectful and ethical sex.
As long as men and women go to bed as strangers, it will be very difficult for them to take care of each other. The most egregious behavior can be minimized with affirmative consent, but who is aiming for a sex life that is simply “not assault?”
Sex that is a gift of self is intimate and particularized. You make a gift of your particular self to one other particular person. No one makes love to “a woman” or “a man” generically — those who try are engaged in something much more like mutual masturbation than intercourse.
Before couples get intimate — which starts, physically, well before sex — they must know and love each other. There must be trust, in each other and trust that they share an understanding of what the good is, if each person is relying on the other to will his or her good correctly. (They must also be right about what that good consists of, but the other pitfalls are more obvious.)
That means ethical sex starts long before clothes come off. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes chastity as “the successful integration of sexuality within the person” (2337) and purity as that which “frees one from widespread eroticism and avoids those things which foster morbid curiosity” (530).
Both must become a habit, before it is possible to offer the gift of one’s sexuality to another. These virtues are a prerequisite to the other step Ansari and Grace skipped: getting to know the other person, to the point where you do know their nonverbal signals, because you see and know them in all their particularity.
One school for these virtues (and corrective to the culture) is the Angelic Warfare Confraternity, a fellowship of men and women pursuing chastity through prayer. Even someone not enrolled in the confraternity can join (from time to time, or even every day) in the 15 Hail Marys that confraternity members pray daily for chastity and purity. Joining in the confraternity’s daily prayer is a particularly good redoubt to flee to in the case of temptation.
Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of Arriving at Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers Even I Can Offer. Her writing has appeared at First Things, FiveThirtyEight and The Washington Post.
Her opinions do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of Catholic News Agency.