For days, the story was inescapable. In an article for the website Babe.net, reporter Katie Way detailed the experiences of “Grace,” a young woman whose date with actor Aziz Ansari went terribly wrong. According to Grace, Ansari kept initiating sex despite her nonverbal cues and distinct reticence. The article launched countless responses, quickly delving into arguments over what counts as assault. Many young women chimed in to say they had experienced similar encounters — experiences that left them feeling wounded and confused, if not traumatized.
Grace’s story comes a month after the New Yorker’s notorious "Cat Person” short story, which depicted an awkward sexual encounter — one that later catapulted into the aggressive, but in the moment, was mostly just unpleasant. Many women said they found Margot’s story (“brutally and uncomfortably”) relatable. It spurred a healthy and valuable debate about bad sexual encounters, ones that transcend the legalities of consent and touch on the deeper dignity and happiness of the human person.
Both “Cat Person” and the Babe article suggest that we may have lost something in today’s casual hookup culture: an ingredient in more old-fashioned sexual encounters that, while by no means foolproof, helped us avoid some of the more painful moments described in Grace’s and Margot’s stories. We wouldn’t entrust a stranger with our car keys, phones, children or bank account numbers. But in the age of Tinder and casual hookups, our bodies are not one of those off-limit items. And that trust has not been well rewarded.
Many of the questionable, awkward and potentially criminal sexual experiences that land in the news happen between strangers (or at least between those with little deep or long-held knowledge of each other). As the story is told in Babe, Ansari should have picked up on Grace’s cues. But it’s very difficult to understand or determine the verbal cues of a person one barely knows. After a lengthy investigation into a potential sexual assault at the University of Virginia, investigators concluded that the accused student couldn’t have known that the accuser was too drunk to consent to sex, in part because he had just met her. While one-night stands promise adventure and intrigue, they also leave a lot of room for confusion and surprise — for ignorance, fumbling unease, heartbreak.
Ansari aside, well-intentioned men and women can confuse signals or leave important things unsaid during a casual sexual encounter. They may struggle to be blunt with a stranger, and thus lose the ability to communicate important truths. As Elizabeth Bruenig pointed out last week, we’ve turned sex into just another social interaction and emptied it of any supposedly sacred or taboo elements. But in doing so, we’ve chained sex to the social norms and etiquette we’d expect in other social interactions: the subtlety and politeness, “grin and bear it” attitude we might have at a boring party or work meeting. This makes it difficult for people to truly express their feelings and desires before, while and after having sex.
Beyond the realm of innocent misunderstanding or regret, many sexual partners choose to ignore the nonverbal cues of a potential sexual partner. Perhaps it was not Ansari’s intent — maybe he was truly surprised and oblivious to Grace’s desires — but Grace describes feeling assaulted after their date. And many of the women who shared their experiences after reading Grace’s story related it to sexual violence and unkindness, a deliberate obliviousness and malevolent persistence that left them with deep trauma and hurt.
Our casual hookup culture may promise greater independence and excitement. It’s a means to sex without too many (or any) strings attached. But that lack of strings also comes with downsides: the divorce of love and sex means that we’re more likely to have painful and awkward sexual experiences. Romance may be harder to come by. Communication will be much more difficult.
In a 2002 study in which participants were asked their feelings after a casual hookup, 35 percent were “regretful or disappointed,” while only 27 percent felt “good or happy.” A 2012 Canadian study found that 78 percent of women and 72 percent of men who had “uncommitted sex” reported a history of feeling regret after the encounter. In addition, the American Psychological Association notes that “among a sample of 1,743 individuals who had experienced a one-night stand, Campbell (2008) … found that men had stronger feelings of being ‘sorry because they felt they used another person,’ whereas women had stronger feelings of ‘regret because they felt used.’ ”
Of course, marriage and committed partnerships still hold peril for miscommunication and abuse. It is still vitally important for sexual partners to be honest with each other and to care for their own needs. That said, in a truly loving relationship, sex should be unshackled from the perils of potential aggression and freed from the hesitancy of strangeness. It should unfold within an atmosphere of true care and kindness.
A romantic partner of several months should be able to read their lover’s facial expressions or nonverbal cues with ease: to pick up on body tension, voice inflection, even the subconscious needs or feelings of their spouse or companion. What’s more, the longer the relationship, the more two people are enabled to learn the needs and desires of their partner — not just to address or demand their own.
For some, this is an obvious point. But in a world in which casual hookups are becoming ever-more common, it’s still worth pointing out. Our bodies are not mere shells: The deference or disregard with which they are treated have a deep impact on our souls and minds. Some have unfairly mocked Grace for calling her date with Ansari the “worst night of her life.” But truly, the vulnerabilities of sex are manifold — and leave a lasting impression on the human person.
What might have happened if Ansari had listened to Grace and backed off, allowing her time to get to know him and go on another date or two? Perhaps they would have eventually had sex. But more importantly, they could have become friends. Giving up a night of sex with a stranger could have led to a relationship that promised more. But in a world that emphasizes the fun thrills of casual sex, people often shut the door on more lasting or deeply fulfilling sorts of relationships.
Our cultural debates surrounding sex in the modern era suggest that it’s the monogamous and committed who are missing out on something. Their faithfulness excludes them from the independence and serendipity they’d otherwise get to experience. They’re likely to get bored, to lose out on the thrills of strangeness and excitement.
But perhaps one thing “Cat Person” and the Aziz Ansari story suggests to us is that those with freer, more casual sexual lives can also miss out on something: the joy of intimacy with someone who knows them deeply and well. This must be a part of our conversation surrounding sex, or we risk withholding something precious from women and men who might want more than a one-night stand.