I have a 13-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old son. I believed I knew how to talk to them about sex and what they should expect and what to do and not do. I’m not so sure any more.
I had more clarity before a recent story in which comedian Aziz Ansari was accused of sexually assaulting a young woman with whom he was on a first date. I’ll spare you the graphic details, but essentially, they engaged in a few intimate acts, the woman feeling pressured by his aggressiveness during “the worst night” of her life, while Ansari believed everything was consensual and thought they had a good time. There’s good reason to believe she felt pressured and that he genuinely believed everything was fine.
The reaction to the piece made one thing clear, that no prosecutor would charge a man under such circumstances, and no jury would convict. It was nothing like the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer and men at Chicago Ford plants where women have been frequently harassed and coerced into sex for fear of losing their jobs. It wasn’t close to a 30-something Roy Moore cruising the town for teen girls and allegedly trying to force one of them into sex. It wasn’t anything remotely like what former PBS personality Tavis Smiley was accused of, a succession of sexual encounters with subordinates that created an environment in which there was an unspoken expectation of sex for work.
The Ansari story was something simpler, and much more complex. At its core is how men and women should treat each other, even when the breaking of laws is not involved. And it’s about the elephant in the room during our evolving discussion about sex, sexual assault and harassment: the role of morality. It’s the thing many of us largely remain silent on publicly for fear of sounding preachy or being found out as hypocrites because we are just as flawed as everyone else trying to grapple with this #MeToo moment. Many of us dare not speak about it for practical, legitimate reasons. Morality is an ill-defined concept that has often been used as a cudgel or a way to shame people into following the dictates of a particular version of a particular religion.
During times like these, those excuses aren’t good enough. It’s getting harder for young men and women – and older men and women – to navigate an ever-changing world that seems to rush from extreme to extreme. We know rape and sexual assault are not only wrong but criminal, and the recent push for victims to be heard and perpetrators to be held to account must continue and be supported. Just as a few murky racial situations should not be allowed to derail the push for civil rights, the Ansari story should not become a barrier to #MeToo.
But we shouldn’t ignore the story. Getting sex right is difficult even when you are in long-term, committed loving relationships. It is even more complex when it occurs outside of those parameters. That’s not a religious truism; that’s a biological and sociological reality. It’s one we better get serious about teaching our kids (and reminding ourselves) about, that while sex between near-strangers can be fun and exciting, it can also end up being demeaning in ways it wouldn’t in relationships between mature adults who care about each other’s well being more than their body parts.