I’ve been thinking a lot about Aziz Ansari, and the undercurrent of social training that enables men (and sometimes women) to sail past social cues and into the territory of violating another person’s space, or their bodies. Emma Gray writes, “I believe that Ansari didn’t realize in the moment that he was ignoring Grace’s cues, nonverbal or otherwise.” And it’s true – many men I’ve worked with, been friends with, or encountered in social spaces, have no idea they’re ignoring my cues to reject their advances. Many of them ignored straightforward rejections of their advances, and believed they had a right to say and do whatever they wanted to get my attention and achieve their goal of getting sex (either from me, an available target, or another woman).
There is a dynamic at play here, where many woman – most women, I think – are told that they have to care about other people’s feelings, that they are responsible for ensuring other people are happy and comfortable. They’re taught to be pleasers, to not say No, to be agreeable. It was certainly ingrained in my own upbringing, not just by parents, but also by teachers, religious leaders, other parents, coaches. Many women have a problem outright rejecting someone, and when they do they’re met with complaints that they’re bitchy, or catty, that they’re assholes. “Why can’t you be nice? Why are you so mean? I’m just trying to be nice!”
To be fair, Aziz Ansari apologized sincerely, and claimed he misread the situation. That’s all well and good, but the problem is that he didn’t know that what he was doing was wrong, that he was violating this woman’s space, that he should have stopped. Most men I know aren’t cued in to nonverbal cues to begin with, so when I read about this encounter all I could think was, “Well of course. Men just don’t know how to work around nonverbal cues, and some verbal cues are just confusing.” And that’s about when I stopped myself and asked, sincerely, “Why shouldn’t they? Why should men ignore nonverbal cues, much less verbal ones, because they’re too hard to work with? And why is this so generalized, as though men are just dumb about this kind of thing?” (It’s like those stupid laundry detergent commercials that indicate men are just helpless about housework and somehow the entire house would explode if they tried to do laundry without their wives stepping in.)
Gray’s article points to research that indicates men and women can and do understand verbal and non-verbal cues (Just say No?; If a Girl Doesn’t Say ‘no’…; Mythcommunication). It’s not impossible, and it’s not “a guy thing” that men don’t understand it if women say, “I guess I’m not into it,” or “I’m not ready for this,” or some other form of indirect verbal cues. It’s a cop-out, and claiming that men are somehow intellectually incapable of understanding such indirectness does them a disservice. It says that men are too dumb to understand their environments, and that women are incapable of communicating. Some women are afraid of making people mad at them, or they’re genuinely afraid for their lives in some cases, and they indicate their discomfort in indirect ways, in nonverbal ways. I’ve done so several times, and had male friends “rescue” me from people that ran the gamut from merely annoying customers to scary stalkers and ex-boyfriends.
To say that “men just don’t get it” is not just asinine, it’s dangerous. It gives predators a pass to say, “I just didn’t understand what she was saying. She wasn’t clear.” It does a disservice to boys who grow up thinking they don’t have to understand their social environments. Men can and should learn how to interpret indirect and nonverbal communication, just as much as women should learn the confidence to be forthright and direct. Many women will tell stories of men who were violent in their rejection, who beat, raped, or killed a woman who said, “No.” Those encounters are extremely important, and they should be told, and we should be aware of them and work to stop them. But encounters like “Grace” and Ansari need to be told as well, because the non-violent violations are no less damaging than the violent ones.