Behaviour when it comes to romance, dating and intimacy is being re-examined. What is a bad date? The phrase itself seems like an oxymoron. Why should a romantic encounter with someone go “badly”, surely a date should leave you feeling good about yourself and your partner?
If it’s true that “bad dates” are becoming a normal reality in our culture, it’s important we know a) What constitutes a bad date? b) Why it is they’ve become so normal? And c) How we recover from this epidemic acceptance of bad behaviour and bad dates?
Now that the media has moved on from Weinstein, we find ourselves in murkier territory; that being, the complex reality of everyday dating. The recent case made against Azis Ansari, by pseudonymous ‘Grace’, got the conversation ball rolling.
In Grace’s article she recounted an uncomfortable night spent in Ansari’s apartment where she felt pressured to do stuff that she didn’t want to do. Her ‘verbal and non-verbal cues’ to stop were repeatedly ignored. Many people were frustrated by Grace’s article, saying she should have just “called a cab home”; what she experienced was no more than a “bad date” said some critics (including Caitlin Flanagan, The Atlantic).
But Grace’s experience made for horribly familiar reading. As a young woman, I have had countless similar experiences, where, like Grace, I left a “bad date” feeling upset, pushed or violated. As Lili Loofbourow emphasises in her article The female price of male pleasure, “The world is disturbingly comfortable with the fact that women sometimes leave a sexual encounter in tears”.
These smaller abuses, over-stepping the mark, persistent asking, slightly too forceful touching, or insisting that a condom isn’t needed, all exist within a wider spectrum of sexual harassment. NUS figures report staggering levels of sexual harassment and assault in universities, with one third of female students having experienced ‘inappropriate touching or groping’ (plus 13% of male students), and looking at an investigation by The Guardian in 2017, it appears very little is being done to deal with it.
One suggestion and initiative to handle this problem is running sexual consent workshops for students. I am a volunteer workshop facilitator for the University of Sussex’s ‘I Heart Consent’ campaign, a nationwide movement run by the NUS, to highlight some of the issues around sex and relationships. In these workshops we begin by asking students to define what consent IS and what it ISN’T, we offer legal definitions of rape, assault and harassment. The workshops are an invitation for students to think about consent and partake in discussion. Regardless of what you think about Grace’s assault or “bad date” her article absolutely had a place in the #MeToo movement. It was voicing something that many women and some men “put up with” all the time: sexually aggressive, pushy behaviour. Instead of feeling angry at ‘Grace’, we should feel angry at a society that allows for an upsetting, traumatic experience to become a normal one.
Whilst at Sussex University these workshops are voluntary, it still isn’t a university wide initiative. Why? And in other universities where workshops have been enforced (York and Cambridge) students seem to be responding with hostility. Again…Why? Students claim that these workshops are unnecessary and patronising. At York University some of the students even encouraged their peers to boycott the mandatory workshops.
People, it seems, are scared. They are scared that their behaviour might suddenly fall under the category of “sexually aggressive” or predatory.
But discussions around consent are essential and much needed at universities. Whilst I believe that the universities should and must educate students about consent and appropriate sexual behaviour, I also believe this kind of education needs to start from a much earlier age; when kids are in primary and secondary schools.
A lot of students will likely suffer a ‘bad date’, or an even more serious act of sexual violence, before arriving at University and it is therefore incredibly important that these topics are discussed from an earlier age (before students enter into sexual relationships).
The consent workshops serve a clear purpose at UK universities and are a brilliant resource for students (to reflect upon sex, power and society). It seems obvious from the #MeToo movement and the Ansari case, that we need to be providing much larger arenas for these discussions to take place in. Yes, an uncomfortable sexual encounter doesn’t amount to rape, but it does fall onto a wider spectrum of abuse and harassment, a spectrum in which women’s sexual autonomy is being pushed to its limits and undermined. What constitutes as ‘normal’ sexual behaviour needs to be readdressed.
Let’s start the discussions young, and prevent “bad dates” from happening in the first place.