How to Say Yes, No, or Some: A Post-“Cat Person” Guide #2

Since my last post we have had numerous sexual stories come out including the babe.net piece in which a woman identified as Grace described a date she had with comedian Aziz Ansari which she eventually described as sexual assault, the highly researched story in the WSJ of sexual misconduct and assault allegations against Steve Wynn and  the NY Times’ Maureen Dowd interview with Uma Thurman finally opening up in more detail regarding her sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein. 

The Ansari story left the more than 2.5 readers split on what exactly the experience had been; consensual or coercive or assault?   Grace, (a pseudonym) interviewed by Katie Wray, stated that her experience left her feeling violated. Some readers have concurred while others have described the Ansari date as badly-mannered, insensitive badly communicated or plain ‘meh’ sex.  The critical nature of the post #metoo movement requires a much more nuanced, articulate languaging of what is desired, what is possibly of interest, what is considered intrusive, coerced, and unwanted by both partners.  The directives of consent need to be discussed at the beginning of an evening and then right before the sexual actions begin as well as during.  Why? Since many people drink or use some sort of recreational drugs when hooking up, their ability to give consent changes over time,  and especially if they are under the influence. 

Have people gone too far in conflating bad sex in which people don’t take responsibility for what they do and don’t want with coercive sex and out-and-out criminal assault in which a person is threatened physically and emotionally by the power of the other person? I think in the first wave of a reckoning the rage that had been building for so long can create a reaction that offers only a black and white, guilty/non-guilty verdict that does not reflect grey. 

Given the upcoming Valentine’s Day when singles and newly dating couples go out to have fun, create some romance and potentially have some sexual fantasies in their expectations, I hope these further explicit discussion tips help to create a date that is remembered as sexually consensual, safe, sexy and sweet. 

1. Don’t Have Any Sexual Activity if You’re Drunk, Period!

While I think the main character Margot in the New Yorker Cat Person story is a college student obviously regretting her decision to move ahead with having sex with Robert, the 30-something man she met at a university town bar, the sex was not coerced or forced by Robert.  Similar to the real Grace of the babe.net story who thought Ansari would have more sensitivity about what she would want and not want to do given his public comedic routines about his avowed feminist identity, both these women had agreed to go ahead with a sexual scenario perhaps for different reasons. 

In my sex therapy practice CLS in NYC, we frequently see women who have felt like they should have sex with a guy for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with healthy sexuality.  Some of these reasons include internal dialogues similar to what Roupenian wrote of Margot’s sudden erotic revulsion to the idea of having sex with Robert: “But the thought of what it would take to stop what she had set in motion was overwhelming; it would require an amount of tact and gentleness that she felt was impossible to summon.”   

This is one of the key moments to this story.  As a sex therapist one of the things I ask clients is to describe their last encounter slowly and describe not only their actions but their internal emotional and cognitive states as well. If these aren’t aligned then the sex will be experienced as mechanical, empty, ‘meh’ or bad.  “Cat Person” is not a story of active coercion on Robert’s part, it’s not a story of an older man putting pressure on a younger woman, but it’s a story of woman incapable of expressing her desires in the moment that a certain sexual activity is signaled.

I think that many women related to this story because they felt they weren’t comfortable saying or didn’t have the education to say yes to some sexual activities and a definitive no to others. 

In the #catperson story Robert states: “You’re drunk” after she suggests they leave the bar for somewhere else.  Margot  is drunk and says:  “No, I’m not,” though she knows she is. Where is her personal responsibility here? 

If one has enough awareness that one is drunk they need to state the fact, and go home by themselves.  And where is Robert’s confidence in what he perceives as her state to non only insist on driving her home but actually following through and driving her home to wrest on the side of caution?  I am not siding with either of these characters but actually holding both of them responsible for creating a safe, sober and perhaps more sexy encounter. 

2. Check In with A Partner EACH STEP OF THE WAY During a Sexual Encounter

In my last blog I talked about all the ways partners can (sexily) describe what they’re interested in doing, what they’d consider and what are hard limits BEFORE a sexual encounter.  What needs to be included in all enounters (whether they’re hookups or between longstanding partners) is a checking in along the way with the full understanding that THINGS CHANGE from moment to moment. Sex is a dynamic, living enactment of desires, fantasies, physical movements, that shift in the process. 

In the #catperson story Margot experiences a major shift in desire when she sees Robert bend down to take off his shoes after removing his shirt and pants.

“Looking at him like that, so awkwardly bent, his belly thick and soft and covered with hair, Margot recoiled.”

These moments happen a lot more often than people admit either to their friends afterwards or to themselves, even when someone isn’t drunk. And it’s okay to change your mind.  Let me say this again, it’s okay to change your mind and tell someone: “I think I’m good for now” or “I would rather just cuddle” or “I’m not feeling well now and would like to remain clothed”.  In the same way, you can say: “I’m good for now, would rather not drink any more”, without shame, or embarrassment or feeling so uncool or stiff. 

But this is how Margot felt about the idea of letting him know her desire had changed:

But the thought of what it would take to stop what she had set in motion was overwhelming; it would require an amount of tact and gentleness that she felt was impossible to summon. It wasn’t that she was scared he would try to force her to do something against her will but that insisting that they stop now, after everything she’d done to push this forward, would make her seem spoiled and capricious, as if she’d ordered something at a restaurant and then, once the food arrived, had changed her mind and sent it back.

Margot (and Roupenian) likened the thought of changing her mind to the embarrassment of returning food at a restaurant and what he would think of her for doing so.  This to me is the crux of the story because what so many female readers of this story have described is the pressure they feel in following:

  • a man’s directives during a sexual scenario or
  • what they had originally stated (if they did at all) wanting at the beginning of an encounter. 

The woman called “Grace” in the babe.net encounter with Aziz Ansari stated:

“He sat back and pointed to his penis and motioned for me to go down on him. And I did. I think I just felt really pressured. It was literally the most unexpected thing I thought would happen at that moment because I told him I was uncomfortable.”

One of the crises in our culture is this moment, the moment of asking and the moment of owning your authentic response.  If Ansari was signal-blind, ignorant, drunk or plainly assertive in wanting what he wanted, Grace needed to say:

“Look, I’m really into your massaging my shoulders right now and that’s about it.  I don’t want to go down on you, I don’t want to have penetrative sex, this is my limit now so please stop asking for more. It’s turning me off.”

What I hope is that my suggested statement above gets into the “sexual gray area between enthusiastic consent and resigned acceptance” as described by Carolyn Framke in the thoughtful Vox piece as the place the babe.net story fits in the conversation we are having in this post #metoo reckoning. 

3. Know How to Say Thanks or No, Thanks to More

Whether it’s more sexual acts or the next date, be compassionate about your partner’s feelings.  Many of my clients who are dating complain of ‘ghosting’ from people with whom they may have had long text threads, several dates or a 4 month-long relationship. Ghosting is the equivalent to not calling ever again, vanishing without a trace, or being stood up in the old days.

One of the elements of Sex Esteem® which I teach to my groups is Compassion.  If you want to be treated with compassion by others, build a practice of compassion in all parts of your life. This means thinking about how the other person will feel, empathize with them without going beyond your limits and let them know if you’re done.

In The Cat Person story, Margot avoids letting Robert know she is no longer interested.  She thinks about ways to text him but perseverates about the perfect way to do it since they’d had sex but either texts excuses for not being in touch or ignores his texts altogether. And what Robert finally texts is what becomes one of the aspects of the story so many readers reacted to because of his inflammatory hostile and misogynistic message calling her “whore”. 

Robert is a character, one we know about whom we know very little. But in this rageful, rejected pain expressed in this age-old insult for women who don’t give someone what they want, or who take their own sexuality into their own hands, or who reject someone who wants them the story depicts a man who can be dropped into what many readers deem a bucket of most men.  That is the assumption that most men are perpetrators who you can’t trust.  If Roupenian allowed the reader to get to know Robert, to figure out how this rejection triggered other old wounds perhaps, and offered him the opportunity to end by staying in the vulnerable state she had his character initially express when he didn’t hear from Margot, it might have offered a more dramatic view of a man than the original story offered. That of the male human who is openly hurt and vulnerable and remains in this expression. 

“O.K., Margot, I am sorry to hear that. I hope I did not do anything to upset you. You are a sweet girl and I really enjoyed the time we spent together. Please let me know if you change your mind.”

Robert could have added: “I’m sorry you feel differently than I do.”

So if you have a date on Valentine’s Day or some time soon please try some of these Sex Esteem® steps before, during and afterwards. If you don’t feel you want to see the person again, think about ending with compassion and grace without malice, without humiliation, without sexist insults.   

May we teach our children that speaking out without the fear of retribution is our culture’s new north star.” Laura Dern on the Golden Globes 

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