Stories of Morally Ambiguous Sexual Encounters Matter

My friend’s ex-boyfriend slapped her face in bed without a warning. She didn’t complain afterwards and didn’t consider it sexual assault, but she still felt violated. Later, when she expressed her discomfort, she was called “weak” for not being able to do so sooner.

The Conversations #MeToo Has Sparked

Courtesy of ABC News

Consent. It’s a term that’s dropped on college campuses time and time again — yet many Canadians still don’t fully understand it. Especially, when it comes to morally ambiguous sexual experiences.

Last year, the #MeToo movement brought the prevalence of sexual assault to the forefront of media by emboldening individuals, mostly women, to share their stories of sexual assault and/or harassment. #MeToo has sparked conversations about consent, and also, indirectly, sparked conversations about ambiguous sexual encounters that don’t fit the definition of sexual assault.

Criticisms of the #MeToo movement

Although there are valid criticisms of the #MeToo movement and other conversations it has started, many of the criticisms more closely resemble hysteria.

I’ve met several men who say that the “witch hunt” nature of #MeToo screws men over and creates a world where men are the ones now being oppressed (which, quite frankly is a logically absurd argument considering the power men have in society’s institutions). Unfortunately, these attitudes are more common than one might think but seldom heard of, because these conversations are often exchanged in secret.

Individuals who deride the movement often do so because they don’t see morally ambiguous encounters as important stories to share — in fact, they may consider these experiences to detract from stories of sexual assault. Yes, the expose on Aziz Ansari wasn’t exactly well written, but it still shed light on disrespectful behaviours that many consider to be the norm.

The importance of telling stories of morally ambiguous sexual encounters

Stories of morally grey sexual encounters often go something like this: the individual feeling violated doesn’t say no to whatever act they agree to, yet still feels uncomfortable because one person persisted or disregarded their emotional cues. The New York Times recently did a feature consisting of 45 stories of consent on campus. Most stories weren’t stories of sexual assault.

While these encounters may not have the same severity as sexual assault stories, they’re still important to share — to truly understand the concepts of consent.

Many individuals point out that the movement may increase the number of false sexual assault accusations. And although there may be a possibility of that happening, statistics show us that false accusations for sexual assault occur at about the same rate as false accusations for other crimes — at a rate of two per cent of reported cases.

Courtesy of Reddit

Courtesy of Reddit

According to Men Against Abuse Now, an activist group from Stanford University, individuals have more to lose than they do to gain from falsely accusing someone of sexual assault because they’re subject to severe scrutiny from the public.


Some individuals also point out their fear in misinterpreting consent and then being accused of sexual assault. Some individuals point out that it’s “just too difficult” to recognize whether someone’s comfortable in a sexual context.

I’ve also met several men who think women are “weak” for not vocalizing their discomfort during sexual encounters. 

The point of sharing these stories is not to automatically accuse most men of sexual assault. The point of these stories is to reveal the expectations our society has when it comes to sex and to reveal the prevalence of willfully ignoring one’s emotional cues.

Respecting consent

Yes, many of us are familiar with the concept of consent — a reiteration of something to this nature: consent needs to be ongoing, informed, active and enthusiastic. But many stories, like the ones on the NYT feature, on social media or told to us by our peers, show us that many men persist until women give in or continue pushing boundaries if no one says anything.

These individuals aren’t violating someone’s consent (unless forcing them to say yes under duress), but they are disrespecting that initial consent and prioritizing their own pleasure at the expense of someone else’s comfort.

According to Canada’s definition of consent, individuals must take reasonable steps to ensure that consent is ongoing. An absence of a no is not consent — and this is especially important to remember when someone squirms or changes the subject in a sexual encounter.

Contrary to some people’s belief, it’s not too difficult to take reasonable steps to recognize consent.

For men who often pick up or seduce women, the same empathy they use to look for emotional cues indicative of interest, is the same empathy they can use to see if someone’s uncomfortable during a sexual encounter. And if they truly can’t tell, they can ask or have a conversation prior to the encounter.

These morally ambiguous stories about sex should encourage us to look deeper at what consent really is. If we want to encourage more respectful behaviours in the future, consent must be fully discussed in our current and future discourse about sex.