The female price of male pleasure
The world is disturbingly comfortable with the fact that women sometimes leave a sexual encounter in tears.
When Babe.net published a pseudonymous woman’s account of a difficult encounter with Aziz Ansari that made her cry, the internet exploded with “takes” arguing that the #MeToo movement had finally gone too far. “Grace,” the 23-year-old woman, was not an employee of Ansari’s, meaning there were no workplace dynamics. Her repeated objections and pleas that they “slow down” were all well and good, but they did not square with the fact that she eventually gave Ansari oral sex. Finally, crucially, she was free to leave.
Why didn’t she just get out of there as soon as she felt uncomfortable? many people explicitly or implicitly asked.
It’s a rich question, and there are plenty of possible answers. But if you’re asking in good faith, if you really want to think through why someone might have acted as she did, the most important one is this: Women are enculturated to be uncomfortable most of the time. And to ignore their discomfort.
This is so baked into our society I feel like we forget it’s there. To steal from David Foster Wallace, this is the water we swim in.
The Aziz Ansari case hit a nerve because, as I’ve long feared, we’re only comfortable with movements like #MeToo so long as the men in question are absolute monsters we can easily separate from the pack. Once we move past the “few bad apples” argument and start to suspect that this is more a trend than a blip, our instinct is to normalize. To insist that this is is just how men are, and how sex is.
This is what Andrew Sullivan basically proposed in his latest, startlingly unscientific column. #MeToo has gone too far, he argues, by refusing to confront the biological realities of maleness. Feminism, he says, has refused to give men their due and denied the role “nature” must play in these discussions. Ladies, he writes, if you keep denying biology, you’ll watch men get defensive, react, and “fight back.”
This is beyond vapid. Not only is Sullivan bafflingly confused about nature and its realities, as Colin Dickey notes in this instructive Twitter thread, he’s being appallingly conventional. Sullivan claims he came to “understand the sheer and immense natural difference between being a man and being a woman” thanks to a testosterone injection he received. That is to say, he imagines maleness can be isolated to an injectable hormone and doesn’t bother to imagine femaleness at all. If you want an encapsulation of the habits of mind that made #MeToo necessary, there it is. Sullivan, that would-be contrarian, is utterly representative.
The real problem isn’t that we — as a culture — don’t sufficiently consider men’s biological reality. The problem is rather that theirs is literally the only biological reality we ever bother to consider.
So let’s actually talk bodies. Let’s take bodies and the facts of sex seriouslyfor a change. And let’s allow some women back into the equation, shall we? Because if you’re going to wax poetic about male pleasure, you had better be ready to talk about its secret, unpleasant, ubiquitous cousin: female pain.
Research shows that 30 percent of women report pain during vaginal sex, 72 percent report pain during anal sex, and “large proportions” don’t tell their partners when sex hurts.
That matters, because nowhere is our lack of practice at thinking about non-male biological realities more evident than when we talk about “bad sex.” For all the calls for nuance in this discussion of what does and doesn’t constitute harassment or assault, I’ve been dumbstruck by the flattening work of that phrase — specifically, the assumption that “bad sex” means the same thing to men who have sex with women as it does to women who have sex with men.
The studies on this are few. A casual survey of forums where people discuss “bad sex” suggests that men tend to use the term to describe a passive partner or a boring experience. (Here’s a very unscientific Twitter poll I did that found just that.) But when most women talk about “bad sex,” they tend to mean coercion, or emotional discomfort or, even more commonly, physical pain. Debby Herbenick, a professor at the Indiana University School of Public Health, and one of the forces behind the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, confirmed this. “When it comes to ‘good sex,'” she told me, “women often mean without pain, men often mean they had orgasms.”
Read more at The Week.