Standing in the middle of the paradigm shift is not the time to pretend that nothing has changed. Or that all change is bad.
When standing in the eye of the storm, the most important realization is that we’re still in a storm.
[Content Warning: This is a post about sex. I wrote this with great trepidation because my Mom reads my blog. It’s OK to skip it, Mom! For the rest of you, consider yourself warned.]
While most challenge our thinking in some way, one response especially struck me strongly. Because it wasn’t knee jerk condemnation or blind loyalty to a cause. It was genuinely honest, reflective, and authentic. And raw. And its author names precisely why this mess around Aziz Ansari is so messy.
In her response: “not that bad,” Katie from KatyKatiKate talks about what Grace’s story says to her. Not just the facts of the case, but her own experience of reading it. How she filtered the story.
“I read Grace’s story with amusement, embarrassment, and creeping unease.
“I was not outraged. Well, I am outraged at The Atlantic, Liam Neeson, and Twitter. But I was not outraged at Ansari. I felt uncomfortable.
“Grace’s story is so familiar that I laugh at it without smiling. It’s the story of so much bad sex.”
But as she thought more about it, she saw how this effects her own story. She re-examined her story to see how it looks now that the paradigm has shifted. All that bad sex doesn’t look like just bad sex anymore.
Reading her piece reminded me of one of my favorite episodes from peak How I Met Your Mother. In “Spoiler Alert,” our critical romantic, Ted is dating someone new. And everyone is happy for him…if it weren’t for that one really annoying thing about her. But blinded by puppy love, he can’t see it. They hate to break it to him, because they know that once he sees it, he won’t be able to unsee it.
So they tell him and in that moment of realization, there’s a sound effect of glass shattering.
It’s the perfect image. A glass shattered is irreconcilable. It’s gone and over. No amount of Crazy Glue can help you. Time to get the broom and dustpan!
Katie’s response isn’t about the particulars of proving what is or isn’t sexual assault or who deserves what. It’s about the glass-shattering moment when a person realizes that the paradigm of American sexual relations, so influenced by victorian prudishness, rom coms, and pornos has left us with a pretty crappy way of seeing sexual relationships.
It’s all about the hermeneutics
The academic community has a great word for speaking to the many different ways we have of seeing the world. They call it hermeneutics.
To understand what this means, imagine you cannot see the world around you. At all. Totally dark. Then, as you grow, your parents help you with special goggles which help you see everything. It’s beautiful and clear! As you get older, your goggles get an upgrade and you can see more and more of what’s around you.
You also see that every one else is wearing goggles, too.
And then, at some point in grade school, you realize that not all goggles give you the same vision. You start trading goggles with your friends and the world looks completely different in each pair. You see the same objects and people, but now the good ones all look sinister. Or you’re used to seeing danger around every corner and now nobody seems to see any of it.
The disorienting thing about wearing these goggles is not that we have different ones or that each is unique. It’s that we struggle to help each other understand why we see what we see.
These metaphorical goggles are our hermeneutic. It’s the lens by which we understand the world and everything around us. It filters everything as it comes in, making objective truth so hard to define because its always filtered through a lens.
Katie gives us the opportunity to see how these lenses make up the whole paradigm—the cluster of views of the world which create a stable system of understanding. And that paradigm is shifting away from the inherent power of men toward an egalitarian relationship between men and women.
But old hermeneutics die hard.
Katie doesn’t use the word hermeneutic. She writes about being socialized and conditioned. But that difference is minor. This is the essential part:
She describes how men and women are conditioned in that previous paradigm. It isn’t about assigning blame or punishment—that’s not where we’re at in the conversation right now. We’re still here at an earlier exploratory stage. The part in which we are all conditioned with toxic ideas which mess us up.
And what’s toxic is that dynamic of power and submission. So the solution involves rewiring our internal frameworks and rewriting our hermeneutics.
Because what we’re doing isn’t cutting it.
“I don’t want to have to up the ante, tell another worse story to prove that I had the right to be uncomfortable when my professor stroked my bare shoulder in a dark theater. I don’t want to have to buy my friends’ support with maximum humiliation.”
Because it isn’t a comparison or proving game. It’s about dealing with the feelings and connections between people.
And I genuinely couldn’t agree more.
What she is less able to see and know are the hermeneutics men are raised with.
Which is totally natural right?
And I don’t mean this in a dismissive way at all. I mean it in the watching-a-show-with-my-wife-and-I-side-with-the-husband-that-he’s-had-to-put-up-with-alot-and-she-needs-to-forgive-him-and-not-engage-in-revenge-sex-but-my-wife-next-to-me-is-siding-with-the-angry-wife-who-isn’t-ready-to-forgive-yet-and-still-needs-him-to-learn-a-lesson sort of way.
Katie tries to see it. But it isn’t going to work:
“Ansari’s behavior, as it is described in the article, is fucking awful and ordinary. So many men learn how to perform sex by watching porn, itself a performance of sex that for the most part treats women like props.”
There is truth to this, of course. But it isn’t the only teacher of men. And neither is the school yard, the locker room, or the boy’s club.
Honestly, most of my sex ed, the most formative stuff, came from experience. Fumbling first times and frustration from women that I wasn’t more experienced. Or that I didn’t take control and embody their fantasies. But also then my reversing that role.
The most important teacher wasn’t porn or pickup artists, it was women. And the cues I received weren’t only about consent or whether she was “into it.” They also communicated affirmatively what they were into.
This whole thing doesn’t originate with the bro culture, but the insidious catch-22 of women socialized to be dominated and men socialized to dominate (sometimes to please women). Like the chicken or the egg, it is a paradoxical puzzle with no virtuous and clean start. Men and women are socialized to dominate and be dominated.
And many men and women are both trying to reconstruct the paradigm to be more equal and more fair.
It is complicated.
My own emotions around sexual relationships are complicated. And they are informed, not just by my partners, but all the people in my life. So little of my socialization was “yes means yes.” So much is the talk of declining chivalry and the call for “men to be men.” Mix that with self-esteem and ego, worries about proportion and performance…
In a follow-up FAQ, Katie speaks to the poor journalism of the original piece; including the strange reference to the red or white wine. But Katie can’t see the important social and relational cue imbedded in the dinner. Or at least doesn’t relate it beyond the stereotypically transactional mindset. Many of us are told, and keep hearing, how important it is for a man to plan a date and order dinner for both. Because masculinity, decisiveness, and male sexuality are all connected in the old paradigm.
This isn’t just abstract control. Decisiveness proves virility. It is the old paradigm’s very definition of what it means to be a man.
A definition to which men and women are socialized.
This detail about Ansari’s ordering dinner was used in the original piece as a prime example of the man not listening and by the piece’s many critics as an example of bad journalism, but it is also the innocent example of how ingrained the miscommunication and socialization is.
I hope this experience exposes the need for men to talk to men, even if we refuse. But I also hope that it reveals how many men can help women better understand our co-existential dynamic.
For many of us, the question isn’t whether or not men are all pigs. The struggle is learning what non-aggressive egalitarian sex looks like when we’ve been socialized by relationships with people who expect aggressive egalitarian sex. When we’ve been punished for being sensitive.
Our own insecurities may lead to giving or receiving bad sex.
Deconstructing the faulty hermeneutic
This is why speaking of hermeneutics and socialization is so important to understanding our way forward. Because tribalism doesn’t itself lead to effective conclusions. Nor does it obscure them. It just means that we spend way too much time focusing on whether or not we’re victim blaming or whether or not Grace is the right vehicle for a movement or too much time dissecting Grace’s choices or calling it a #metoo overreach.
It is hard to find clarity when everyone is shouting and nobody is listening.
For the last few days I’ve listened, just as I’ve been listening for several months.
Until I was invited to speak.
And my own reading of Grace’s story was one of deep sadness and frustration. For me there were many glass-shattering moments over the last few months, but this one was new. Like Katie, I’m not entirely comfortable with what the new paradigm is shaping up to be. Even if I intellectually agree. There is something else. Missing.
Of course—the sex she describes was terrible. And creepy. That must be said.
I wanted what’s best for her. Beyond sex.
Reading the account, I didn’t judge her; I was concerned for her.
What is she even doing there?
I wondered what was going on for this young woman to get so close to him—what was that fantasy she imagined would happen? Did she think a date with a star would be simple or easy? Or would it be like a storybook? Did she imagine Notting Hill in reverse? What was she seeking?
And when it was over and she’s saying all men are the same, what was happening inside of her? Why would that be her thinking? What past traumas lurk behind this experience? To believe that all men do this. To believe that all men want this.
I don’t want to expose her or punish her. I want to know what hurts led her to this moment so her friends and partners can help her. Now and later.
Can we help her identify the pattern? Maybe help break a cycle of abuse, if there is one? Or if she is able to do so, can we help her maintain that good, cycle-breaking relationship in the future?
Or more simply, ask
What would a good time be for her? And how do other people, including her future dates, know that beforehand?
And, certainly what could Ansari hear to help him understand that he isn’t the master of everyone? That that one thing some women like isn’t something all women like.
I felt bad for her before she went on a date with him. And I felt even worse when it was over. That sense I felt tells me that all of this has to be more than telling our stories and scolding each other for choices.
What we need isn’t just better sex. We need what feminists have been saying for over 40 years: better communication.