Tweet In 2017, a 23 year old woman left a date with celebrity comedian and self-described feminist, Aziz Ansari, in tears. In an article by Katie Way for babe.net, and under the pseudonym Grace, she recounts in vivid detail Ansari’s not-quite-illegal but nevertheless non-consensual sexual conduct over the course of the evening. It is a story that is unsettlingly familiar for women in our society; Ansari repeatedly and forcefully asked for sexual activity until Grace felt she had no option other than resign her consent; Ansari continued to engage in activities with an unenthusiastic and visibly distressed partner; and after the fact, Ansari claimed that at the time, he was unaware that his actions were inappropriate (Way, 2018). Ansari clearly disregarded or was unaware of the necessity of willingly given, enthusiastic consent. He also prioritized his own pleasure over a mutually respectful experience and approached sex in a combative manner by attempting to take what he wanted from Grace and impose his expectations for the night on her, regardless of how she felt.
In the midst of movements like Time’s Up and Me Too, for which Ansari himself has been a vocal advocate, there have been two main responses to Grace’s story in mainstream discourse. The first suggests that Grace does not belong to these movements and that she is overreacting or ‘crying wolf’-she gave consent and therefore Ansari should not be penalized as he did not break any laws. The second is that Grace’s consent was incomplete and unwillingly given, therefore Ansari’s actions were a violation and he should be called out or shamed in a manner similar to Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey. I would suggest a third response, that Grace’s story is representative of a systemic injustice that starts with the way we frame discussions of sexuality in our society. Too often, the importance of mutual pleasure and informed, ongoing, enthusiastic consent are overlooked, and experiences like Grace’s dismissed as merely bad sex. However, it is often much more, it is disrespectful sex, and it disproportionately effects women. Rather than impose further guilt on Grace or penalize Ansari, I would argue that we have an obligation to the the next generation to reshape our understanding of sexual experiences and include not only the legal framework of consent, but also expectations of thorough communication and discussions of mutual pleasure. Without these, consent is a weak legal construct with limited benefit to individuals and their lived experiences of sex.
In my opinion, discussions about the importance of mutually pleasurable sex should take place before adolescents are sexually active, in order to establish it as a norm to which every sexually active individual is entitled. They should be included in sexual education classes alongside discussions of consent and healthy relationships. In 2015, the government of Ontario had the opportunity to enact a great deal of change in this area when they released the updated provincial sexual education curriculum. However, the updates fell short and among the gaps that remain in the curriculum is a failure to address pleasure as a priority or reality of sexual activity.
This omission is clearly intentional, and the reasoning for it understandable. Many stakeholders, particularly parents and religious groups, fear that addressing pleasure in the context of sexual activity is an endorsement that will encourage students to have sex. However, these students likely will engage in sexual activity eventually, and by avoiding discussions of pleasure out of fear, we rob students of the tools they need to engage in healthy sexual relationships throughout their lives. They may not have another opportunity to learn these skills as it takes immense courage, as well as a certain level of health and internet literacy and research skills to seek out accurate sexual health information outside of school.
Another reason not to allow parents’ fears to dictate the sexual education curriculum is that Ontario students are already highly exposed to sexuality, through various forms of media, from a young age. However, this exposure is biased in favour of heteronormative and sexist notions of sexuality that are rooted in dominant discourse. These norms perpetuate unrealistic and often unhealthy ideals about sexuality, such as the double standard that exists between women and men regarding masturbation. This double standard has had devastating consequences on women’s feelings and expressions of sexuality, and often results in associating sexual experiences with guilt and shame. These ideals also contribute to the competitive approach to sexual activity that has become normalized in our culture. People like Aziz Ansari have been socialized to believe that in order to have a satisfying sexual experience, they must take from their partner something which they do not want to give, rather than work together to create a mutually pleasurable experience.
Furthermore, adolescents are exposed to sexually explicit material that is contributing to their perception and expectations of sexuality. If sexual education does not adequately address the realties of sex, including pleasure and appropriate behaviour, students may not understand that the lens through which they view sexuality is distorted and will likely develop unattainable expectations of themselves, their partners, and their sexual experiences.
Although the Ontario sexual education curriculum is unlikely to address these concerns in the near future, they are being tackled in other ways. Pornhub, one of the largest websites for sexually explicit content in the world, has recognized that their material contributes to problems which are exacerbated by the inadequate sexual education that most North American youth receive. As such, they have chosen to use their platform to promote healthy, inclusive, sex-positive sexual education through the Pornhub Sexual Wellness Centre, a branch of their main website. Although the site is not perfect, it is challenging to navigate and not as well marketed as had been hoped for, it does approach this issue in a potentially revolutionary way. It was developed by a clinical sexologist and is one of the first websites to provide accurate, inclusive, and easily accessible sexual information internationally, to people who would otherwise not be exposed to it. Though Ontario’s new sexual education curriculum has not lived up to expectations and has failed to address pleasure as a reality of sexuality, exciting alternatives such as the Pornhub sexual wellness centre may engage students with this information in new and exciting ways.
Sophia Christopher, BSc, Queen’s University
Pornhub Sexual Wellness Centre. (2018). https://www.pornhub.com/sex/
Ontario Ministry of Education. (2018). Sexual health education by grade. https://www.ontario.ca/page/sex-education-ontario.
Way, K. (2018). I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life. Babe.net. Retrieved from https://babe.net/2018/01/13/aziz-ansari-28355