by Phoebe Farag Mikhail
I feel more deeply saddened and troubled every time I read an opinion about the recent sexual assault allegations against Aziz Ansari. There are people disappointed in him, blaming her, and everything in the middle. The issue is producing some important discussions about what constitutes consent, and what everyone seems to be looking for is where the invisible line is between “forced consent” and “aggression” is. And this search is exhausting, because we are asking all the wrong questions.
When I read the young woman’s account, one thing was very clear to me. There was a lot of sex involved, but there was no love. And this is the crux of the problem. The reason this young woman felt violated was that she had some admiration for Ansari. She knew more about him as an up and coming actor and comedian than he did her, and he in fact ignored her until he saw her using the same type of camera he was using. She saw the beginning of a possible relationship. He saw a hookup. As their date progressed, it became clearer and clearer. She didn’t finish her meal, and it was clear she wanted to. She didn’t finish her drink, and it was clear she wanted to. He wanted to get to his apartment and begin sexual intimacy as quickly as possible. She wanted to get to know him better. She assumed his interest in her was the same interest she had in him. He assumed her interest in his camera was a cover for interest in his other equipment. They both assumed wrong.
Once we divorce sex from love, once we separate physical intimacy from emotional intimacy, once it is a new normal that sex can happen on a first date, we get into these exhausting and troubling discussions that have no end. “She was drinking and therefore she could not give consent.” “He was aggressive and didn’t take her verbal and non-verbal cues.” “She had many opportunities to stop, put her clothes back on, and walk away.” “Walking away might instigate more aggression.” “So many women have been through this.” Many have pointed out that he was likely enacting something pornographic. Others point out that when it is clear that the sexual intimacy is for pleasure only, that everyone involved has the right to feel pleasure.
Rights. I work in international development and human rights. I am a huge advocate of the rights-based approach–but I am keenly aware of its limitations. When we have love—love that means self-sacrifice, putting others needs before our own, doing unto others what we would have them do unto us—we don’t need rights, because we can go beyond them. We must talk about rights when love is absent, as it always is when groups and individuals are oppressed or exploited. We can’t mandate love, but we can mandate rights. Rights helps give us a language to use when talking about governance, citizenship, power and community relations, but we have allowed the language of rights to enter and define our most intimate spaces, because we have divorced sexual intimacy from love, we have divorced our bodies from our minds, souls and hearts. By taking love out of the equation, we have allowed power and domination to enter into a relationship that should be defined by love, mutual respect and self-sacrifice.
It’s no secret that I belong to a faith community that considers sex an activity that should only happen between a couple who have participated in the sacrament of matrimony. To many people this may sound prudish and limiting, but for many it is freeing and life-affirming. In the Orthodox Church, we also believe that every individual is created in the image of God, and that our bodies are holy, worthy of respect, and connected to all aspects of our being. When we get baptized, our bodies are immersed in water and anointed with holy oil. When we take communion, we literally consume it in our mouths and digestive systems. When we get married, we put rings on our fingers, are crowned with crowns on our heads, hold hands as the church prays for us, and when the public festivities celebrating two people becoming one through God’s love are over, we have sex in a relationship of self-sacrificing love. I know that not all my readers share this worldview with me, and I also don’t pretend that this means every Orthodox marriage is perfect, or that every act of sexual intimacy within those marriages is free of violation or assault.
But at the very least this worldview takes us far away from a place where men and women are objects and subjects of their physical desires, at the expense of their own humanity. Paulo Freire explains this beautifully in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:
Dehumanization, which marks not only those whose humanity has been stolen, but also (though in a different way) those who have stolen it, is a distortion of the vocation of becoming more fully human.
Anyone who tries to use or dominate another person sexually not only steals that person’s humanity, but abuses him (or her) self as well. Friere further explains,
Because it is a distortion of being more fully human, sooner or later being less human leads the oppressed to struggle against those who made them so. In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both. This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. The oppressors who oppress, exploit and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both.
Perpetrators of sexual assault, abuse and harassment must be held accountable for their despicable actions. We should certainly be amplifying the voices of the survivors of assault and abuse. Men and women must take responsibility for their actions, and parents must work with their children to help them understand healthy boundaries, maintain them for themselves and respect those of others. However, I hope and pray that our discussions about sexual harassment and assault move beyond rights, justice, and questions of consent and verbal and non-verbal cues and into the deeper questions of freedom, respect, love, and humanity.
Let’s work towards retrieving our humanity, rather than simply seeking revenge. Let’s help men and woman respect and honor their God-created bodies. Let’s end this abuse of ourselves that starts with a hyper-sexualized media, continues into pornography and pornography addiction, and uses “sexual freedom” as a mask for the worst kind of slavery. Sex should not become a casual game with ever changing rules that can and cannot be broken, with bodies and desires divorced from every other aspect of our selves. This is the kind of game that everyone loses.
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