Defiant King County Democratic Chair, Under Pressure Over Misconduct Allegations, Says He Won’t Resign

Democratic Party elected officials, staffers, and volunteers are calling for the resignation of the 26-year-old chairman of the King County Democratic Party, Bailey Stober, after allegations (first reported by the Seattle Times) that Stober harassed and bullied a female staffer, Natalia Koss-Vallejo, before firing her a little over two weeks ago. Stober said he fired Koss-Vallejo after and incident in Bellingham on January 28 in which she tossed the dregs of an iced coffee onto a car that had an ICE cap displayed in its back window. Asked why the firing, which took place on February 2, was so urgent that he couldn’t wait to consult his organization’s board, Stober said, “I’m elected to lead our organization, essentially as the CEO, and sometimes I have to make decisions in a timely manner, and waiting a month to fire someone is not timely.”) Full disclosure: I worked with Koss Vallejo at NARAL Pro-Choice Washington between May 2016 and March 2017. She was a field organizer, and I was a part-time communications director.

Earlier this month, three vice chairs of the group launched an investigation in response to a third-party complaint about Stober’s behavior and concluded that in the months before he fired her, he had called Koss-Vallejo a “cunt” and a “stupid bitch,” pressured her repeatedly to go out drinking with him, created an intimidating workplace environment, and misappropriated Party funds.

A week or so after receiving the complaint  (according to a report signed by all three vice chairs, they received a verbal complaint on January 24, followed by a formal written complaint on February 1), the chairs called for Stober’s resignation or, failing that, limitations on his ability to spend money and hire or fire staff. Since last week, more than 70 people, including former state Rep. Jessyn Farrell and current state Sen. Lisa Wellman, have signed an open letter calling for him to step down. “Numerous members of the organization have witnessed and expressed concerns about his fiscal irresponsibility, his bullying, and his outright harassment over the course of many months,” the letter says.

“This verbal harassment of many individuals included derogatory comments about weight, hair color, relationship status and other sensitive personal topics.”—Campaign volunteer Melissa Taylor

In a statement, a campaign volunteer who shared the office in Auburn with Stober and Koss-Vallejo, Melissa Taylor, said she had witnessed “a significant amount of verbal harassment by Bailey of Natalia and other volunteers” and had been approached by two other unidentified woman about Stober’s inappropriate behavior. “This verbal harassment of many individuals included derogatory comments about weight, hair color, relationship status and other sensitive personal topics,” Taylor wrote.

Taylor, who was on the co-founding committee for an organization called Emerge Washington that recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office, said she approached Stober repeatedly about his behavior. “If Bailey had engaged in any of the conversations that I and others tried to have … if he had shown any ability to be reflective—[like] ‘I may have hurt somebody and maybe I didn’t mean it’—but there was none of that. And so, for me, it’s his behavior after there was an investigation that gets me to the point that I think he has to resign. Contrition and remorse and a resolve to fixing the behavior would go a long way.”

In the course of reporting this story, I spoke with more than a dozen women and men who have worked or interacted with Stober over the years. Many of them describe a pattern of behavior that they say includes bullying, repeated comments on women’s appearances, and pressure to drink alcohol. Two provided a link to a video in which Stober can be seen berating a volunteer for speaking out of order (Editor’s note: I have removed the link to the video at the woman’s request.) “I’m realizing how much stuff I let go because I didn’t realize, ‘Okay, this is unprofessional,” says Rachael Ludwick, committeewoman for the 37th District, speaking in her capacity as an individual. “Some of the less egregious behavior was happening in meetings, like aggressively berating people—can you imagine how is he going to act with someone he has power over?”

Summer Stinson, an employment attorney who serves as policy director for the 36th District Democrats, says she told Stober “he needed to be more aware of his treatment of women”; after that didn’t happen, she says, she helped the woman who originally called one of the vice chairs file a formal complaint about Stober’s alleged behavior toward Koss-Vallejo.

Stober has denied all the allegations. In a defiant video originally posted publicly on Facebook,, Stober called the investigation “farcical and a sloppy disaster” and claimed that he was denied “due process” in what he called a “he said she said” case.

“I’m embarrassed to have to waste your time,” Stober tells the camera. “When you challenge the status quo, when you stand up to power, and you do so apologetically, they come for you. They work to silence you, to discredit you, and to make you go away.”

In an interview, Stober told me he was not given sufficient time to respond to the charges, and that he would cooperate fully with a “fair investigation.” (The complaint was filed on February 1 and the vice-chairs finished their preliminary investigation on February 5.) “It’s impossible to disprove something that didn’t happen and where there’s been no fair investigation,” he said.

In the Facebook post accompanying his video, Stober quotes Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg explaining why people accused in court have a right to due process. “[T]he person who is accused has a right to defend herself or himself,” the post quotes Ginsberg as saying. “I couldn’t agree more,” Stober added. Due process—a term that has come up frequently in response to harassment and assault allegations in the #MeToo era—is a legal term that does not necessarily apply to the removal of volunteer officers of political parties. Stober’s post concludes with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.” “The Negros’ great stumbling block in the drive toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice.” In a post on the 36th District  Democrats’ Facebook page denouncing Stober and calling for his resignation, Sophia Danenberg, a state party commiteewoman for the district, said that “seeing a harasser use an MLK quote today to defend his irresponsible, bullying, dangerous behaviors made me want to vomit.” (I have quoted Danenberg’s post with her permission.)

“Sexual harassment? It didn’t occur, period. … I’m gay. I’m not sexually harassing women. It’s impossible.”—King County Democratic Party Chairman Bailey Stober

Stober told me over the weekend that he has no plans to resign. “Sexual harassment? It didn’t occur, period,” he says. “I’m gay. I’m not sexually harassing women. It’s impossible.” (Gay men can sexually harass women. As Taylor notes, harassment “isn’t about sex; it’s about power.”) As for calling Koss Vallejo a “cunt,” Stober says he hasn’t used “the ‘c’ word” since he was 15 and his mom socked him in the mouth for muttering it under his breath, and that he and his friends may say things like “bitch, please” privately, but that he would never call a woman a bitch in a disparaging manner.

In another example of behavior that Koss Vallejo says crossed a line, she and several other women say that Stober grabbed Koss Vallejo’s phone one night at a bar and, using her Facebook account, posted “I shit my pants” on her Facebook wall. Stober said he could not comment on that allegation. In another incident, which Stober filmed and posted on his public Instagram feed, Stober can be seen spraying Koss Vallejo with Silly String while she is driving her car. The caption: “My bad.”

Stober called a special executive session for February 8, at which he discussed his reasons for firing Koss Vallejo with members of the group’s executive board, according to witnesses. He says the incident with the cup of coffee, which was caught on security footage and posted to Youtube by an anonymous account called DemsAre BadPeople that has one follower and one post, was only the latest in a number of “incidents of immaturity that occurred throughout [Koss Vallejo’s] employment.” A source with direct access to the video says Stober is the one who requested it; Stober denies that he did so.

“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Stober told me. “If she were a junior staffer somewhere, we would coach and correct, but you can’t be the executive director and pour coffee all over someone’s car because you disagree with their First Amendment rights.” (Both Koss Vallejo and the treasurer of the King County Democrats say Stober offered Koss Vallejo a raise a few months before she was fired. Stober denies this, saying that he “put a raise in the budget to give to the Executive Director position not because of the incumbent in the role but because when I created the position I promised my Board that I would do my best to increase the salary in the next year to a more adequate cost of living for how expensive King County was.”

“Deals are made over drinks,” Stober said. “Meetings occur in bars. It’s not the 8 to 5 business world where you meet at Starbucks all the time. It’s a different culture, and people need to realize that.”

After the vice chairs announced the results of their investigation, Stober filed his own counterclaim against two of the three vice chairs, Michael Maddux and Orchideh Raisdanai (Cat Williams, the third vice chair, resigned in the midst of the fracas over Stober’s leadership), charging that they had overstepped their authority and were behaving “in a dictator type fashion.” In the four-page memo, Stober also accused Maddux of violating the King County Democrats’ harassment policy by “promoting and sharing uninvestigated ‘offensive written comments’—the contents of the complaint itself, which included the words “bitch” and “cunt”— and said that he is “in consultation with counsel on the libel and defamation that have been done by the named parties and how it has impacted the organization and me personally.”

In her statement, Koss Vallejo describes the atmosphere Stober created at the office as “relentlessly unprofessional, abusive, and sophomoric … Bailey was, at first, exciting to work around—but the novelty of having a boss who liked to ‘party’ wore off quickly. A pattern of harassment and abuse, directed at me and many others, began to become clear.”

Adam Bartz, the executive director of the Washington Senate Democratic Campaign, said he has heard that people in the party are “scared to come out for fear of their future… and that’s really concerning to me.”

Some chalk Stober’s alleged behavior up to a “culture” in the Democratic Party that includes rough language, rude jokes, heavy drinking, and behavior that would be out of bounds in a corporate office. I asked Stober about that—and, specifically, how much drinking played a role in King County Democratic Party business. “Deals are made over drinks,” Stober said. “Meetings occur in bars. It’s not the 8 to 5 business world where you meet at Starbucks all the time. It’s a different culture, and people need to realize that.”

But Brent Williams-Ruth, the former state committeeman for the 30th District Democrats, said he was shocked by his first interaction with Stober, at a bar in Walla Walla during an event for the state Democratic Party last year. (The event was the same one at which a Party official allegedly raped a college-age volunteer, as reported in the Spokane Spokesman-Review last year.)

“I came down to the bar, and he was very animated, [with a] red, flushed face, and he was using all this profane, vulgar language about how a lot of the people on his email list were Republicans and they could suck his cock,” Williams-Ruth says. “We’re in the heart of a red town, in a public place, where any of these bartenders or servers could be pulling out their phones and putting this on Youtube.” Williams-Ruth says he finished his drink and went back to his room to order Pizza Hut—“I have the receipts, literally,” he says—and “after that incident, I felt like this was not someone I wanted to work with. It showed  me how completely inappropriate and unprepared he was for a leadership position, because that’s just not language you use in a professional setting.”

Asked to respond to Williams-Ruth’s statement, Stober said, “I was in the hotel bar for a short period of time but was with dozens of people whom did not seem to hear the statements that Brent did. That is a pretty far stretch from reality.” He noted that he made a joint appearance with King County Republican Party Chair Lori Sotelo to speak in favor of legislation reforming the state’s public disclosure law, which I covered; would  Sotelo have done that, he asked rhetorically, “if I talked that way about Republicans?” He would trust Sotelo “to be a character witness before I trusted someone attempting to verify claims with Pizza Hut receipts,” Stober added.

Williams-Ruth now says  “I no longer have any love for the party, “adding that his interactions with Stober are one reason he decided to leave his position. “I have love for the people and the candidates and the mission, but this party bullshit has driven me away.”

Several people I spoke to who recounted incidents involving Stober told me they are personally afraid of speaking out about him, because he wields considerable power in the party and because he has already threatened, in his letter, to sue the vice chairs for libel and defamation. Adam Bartz, the executive director of the Washington Senate Democratic Campaign, said he has heard that people in the party are “scared to come out for fear of their future… and that’s really concerning to me.” Earlier this month, Bartz sent an email to Democratic Senators informing him that he had advised his staff to have no contact with Stober and advising them to do the same.

“When you look back to your 20s, you think of people [in power] as so old,” Williams-Ruth says. “They think he has the ability to ruin their life forever.”

Somewhat lost in the furor about the sexual harassment allegations is another, less salacious but, the vice chairs say, equally important charge: Misuse of King County party funds, specifically on “hotel rooms … and food when unnecessary,” as the vice chairs’ memo puts it. In their memo, the vice chairs say they determined that charge to be “founded,” along with the allegation that “staff is continuously scared of not being paid because there is not enough money in the bank.”

A look at the county party’s official filings with the state Public Disclosure Commission confirms that spending increased significantly during Stober’s year as chair—from $73,732 in 2016 to $135,378 last year—but that contributions increased as well, from $78,719 to $163,033. However, the group had just over $20,000 in the bank at the end of February—far less than they spent in any single month in 2017 after Koss Vallejo was hired in  August, according to PDC reports.  And that money doesn’t include any funds that were spent after January 31. “We’re broke right now,” King County Democrats treasurer Nancy Podcshwit says bluntly. “The rent is due in March, I have some legal bills I have to pay, and unless we get some money in, we’re in trouble.”

Podschwit says she was stunned by some of the expenditures that would show up on the organization’s bank statements: $7,127 on equipment and furniture to set up a new office last summer; Comcast bills that ran to $700 a month or more; and thousands of dollars in miscellaneous costs for Stober to travel around the state, including a mileage reimbursement—all apparently unusual practices for the chair of a county Democratic Party organization, particularly the mileage reimbursement, which Podschwit says was unprecedented for a King County party chair.

Koss Vallejo says Stober would frequently assure her pressure her to make major purchases, including an iPhone, using party money, assuring her that the spending was allowed under the budget approved by the party organization. “He seems to think that hypothetical budgets translate into actual dollars, which they don’t,” Koss Vallejo says. “You can budget for anything you want—you can budget for a unicorn, a bouncy castle, and a pony, and even if the board approves it, that doesn’t make the dollars manifest in your bank account.”

Stober acknowledges that he “encouraged Natalia to look into a business line for herself rather than giving out her personal number,” but denies that the organization has ever been in financial straits. “These past two months have been slow months for sure, as they are with most political organizations, but we just got a substantial check yesterday, so everything is continuing just fine,” Stober said Monday night. “I am sitting in the Party office with the rent paid, lights on, heat blasting and nothing is suffering here.”

“You can budget for anything you want—you can budget for a unicorn, a bouncy castle, and a pony, and even if the board approves it, that doesn’t make the dollars manifest in your bank account.”—Former King County Democratic Party executive director Natalia Koss Vallejo

Asked about some of his specific expenditures, Stober told me he needed to spend money to raise money, and said that he has raised “more money than the organization has raised in two decades. If I’m going to go ask somebody for $5,000, I’m going cover their lunch at the meeting. That’s how political fundraising has worked for decades.” Expense reports at the PDC include thousands of dollars that were either spent by the party or reimbursed to Stober for everything from candidate interviews and “entertainment” at Collins Pub in downtown Seattle ($134 over two visits), to unspecified “food and entertainment” and “meeting” expenses incurred by Stober (more than $1,700 spread over several expense reports that do not include a precise breakdown of expenditures), to mileage and parking costs totaling nearly $1,900.

The expense reports also include more than $1,700 in unspecified “expenses under $50,” as well as thousands of dollars spent on travel and retreats for Stober and other campaign volunteers, including an $1,826 Airbnb bill last December for a two-day January executive retreat on Vashon Island. Stober posted about the island retreat on Facebook: “The macaroni and cheese and ribs are cooking, the rosé is poured, the hot tub is fired up and the King County Democrats leadership retreat has begun.” Three weeks after that, Stober listed some stops on his travel schedule:

Stinson, the 36th District policy director, says, “I will tell you: It is a hard thing to raise enough money to continuously pay someone. I don’t even take money when I’m driving down to Olympia [on party business or for political advocacy.] So to see that there’s a retreat on a house on an island and that they didn’t get it donated … then you wonder how are you paying a staff member.”

Stober says his cross-state travel involved important party-building activities in parts of the state, like Eastern Washington, where the Democratic Party has few resources. “When I ran for county party chair, one of the things I said is that in King County, we’re lucky because we’re rich in resources. We’re the bluest county in the state, and part of my goal as chair will be to export some of those resources to places that are red.” However, several party members mentioned the widespread rumor that Stober is planning to challenge current Washington State Demorcratic Party chair Tina Podlodowski, and speculated that that ambitious goal is part of the reason for his frequent travel around the state. “Why is the King County Democratic chair going and meeting with people in Chelan and Walla Walla and Spokane? It’s because he was shoring up his votes from people who would vote for him for chair next year,” Williams-Ruth says.

When I asked about this, Stober acknowledged that running for state party chair is “something I’ve considered, and that a lot of folks have asked me to do,” but added, “Seeing the nasty politics of this situation definitely makes me lean in a ‘no’ direction.”

Koss Vallejo says that before he fired her, Stober told her that the group was about to be hit with a $35,000 penalty in a case stemming from a complaint about late filing that was initiated by conservative activist Glen Morgan. Attorney General’s Office spokeswoman Brionna says the case “has not resolved,” and Stober said he couldn’t comment on ongoing litigation except to say that Koss Vallejo’s statement was “not true.”

Regardless of the ultimate size of the penalty, Podscwhit says that “because of [Stober’s] spending, we’re in a pretty precarious financial situation right now. “He certainly wasn’t authorized by the King County Democrats to spend that kind of money.” Under the King County Democrats’ bylaws, Stober didn’t have to ask for Podschwit’s approval to spend money on things like brand-new office equipment and an office space in Auburn that continues to cost the group $1,800 a month, but she says that if he had asked, “I would have told him we didn’t have the money to do it,” or to hire Koss Vallejo in the first place. “We don’t now, and we didn’t then.”

In addition to the complaint against the King County Democrats, Morgan has filed several campaign-finance complaints against Stober himself, including one alleging that Stober did campaign work while on the clock at his day job as spokesman for King County Assessor John Arthur Wilson and others claiming he failed to file timely reports during his three unsuccessful bids for Kent City Council.

In 2015, while Stober was seeking a council seat for the third time, the state Public Disclosure Commission ordered him to pay a fine of $4,000 in two of the cases instigated by Morgan, with $2,000 of that amount suspended as long as he did not commit additional campaign-finance violations. Last June, the Attorney General’s office filed a petition in King County Superior Court charging that Stober had failed to provide records in response to a complaint involving his 2015 campaign and asking the court to compel Stober to provide the documents.

Stober has filed his own complaints against other candidates, including Kent City council member Brenda Fincher (for late reports) and Kent School Board candidate Trisha Sanders (Stober, filing on behalf of one of Sanders’ opponents, claimed that Sanders had falsified her voter registration). Stober was not running against either candidate. In 2013, as an executive assistance for the chairman of the Washington State Commission on African American Affairs, Ed Prince, Stober was quoted on KING 5 claiming that a previous director, Rosalund Jenkins, had spent commission funds improperly on what he called “absolutely crazy expenses” like food, greeting cards, and wine. (A subsequent audit found evidence of improper, but not illegal, expenditures.) And in 2014, Stober received a $125,000 settlement from the state over allegations that the director of the Washington State Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises, to whom he sometimes reported, had sexually harassed him by, among other things, making “vulgar” comments, according to a report on KING 5.

Stober bristles at the notion that controversies follow him around; rather, he suggests, “I think you get a lot of attention and get noticed when you speak what you believe  is your truth and you’re unapologetic about it. I don’t always color within the lines and I speak truth to power, and when I see an injustice I speak up about it.”

The King County Democrats will hold their regularly scheduled monthly meeting from 7 to 9:00 tonight at the Teamsters hall in Tukwila. As of Monday, Stober did not plan to resign. If he does not do so voluntarily, some board members have indicated that they will call for a vote to instigate a process to remove him, which requires approval from two-thirds of the board and a vote by the party’s precinct committee officers in two weeks. Stober says he thinks that outcome is unlikely, and says that “a large contingent of my board think this was not handled properly” and will call for a new investigation into the allegations. “If I step down, there will be no fair investigation to clear my name,” Stober says. “We used to live in a country where a crime could be committed and [people could] point at a person of color and they would be sentenced without any crime being committed. If we’re going to value justice as a party, part of that is due process.”

I pointed out to Stober that many of the men who have been accused of sexual harassment and assault as part of the MeToo movement have also called for “due process,” and asked him if he felt MeToo had gone too far. He paused, then said, “The hell that I’m going through compares not even in the slightest to the trauma that so many women go through every day.” Then he returned to due process. “So many people posted pictures of Martin Luther King [on social media] on Martin Luther King Day, but they no longer believe in due process. Both inside and outside the MeToo movement, there has to be some level of justice.”

This story took many hours of reporting over the last two weeks. If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, including long-form stories based on dozens of hours of interviews, like this one, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Aziz Ansari Isn’t Harvey Weinstein. That Doesn’t Mean We Can’t Talk About Boundaries and Consent.

This post originally ran at the South Seattle Emerald. 

It has been two weeks since a formerly obscure website called Babe.net published a piece describing a troubling sexual encounter between an anonymous 23-year-old woman, “Grace,” and 34-year-old comedian Aziz Ansari.

According to Grace’s account, Ansari pressured her to have sex with him, placed her hand on his crotch a half-dozen times, pointed to his penis and motioned for her to give him oral sex, and repeatedly shoved his fingers down her throat. Grace said she gave Ansari numerous verbal and nonverbal cues that she wanted to stop or slow down—leaving the room, telling him “no,” saying that she didn’t want to feel “forced,” and even going limp and “cold” while he tried to kiss her. Eventually, Grace got up and left, texting Ansari later to say that she had been deeply uncomfortable with their encounter.

For a second, it seemed like we were going to finally have a national conversation about sexual coercion, consent, female pleasure, and male privilege. It seemed inevitable that we would discuss the profoundly disturbing fact that even in the era of #TimesUp #MeToo, a shockingly high percentage of sexual encounters between men and women end with the woman “giving in,” or going numb, or leaving in tears.

 

But then, after a minute or an hour or another drink, he decides to keep pushing, and now he’s pawing at your clothes or pushing your head down into his lap or putting your hand on his crotch, hoping to wear down your resistance. After all, pushing has worked for him so many times—like all men, he’s been taught explicitly or implicitly that sex is a negotiation, in which the man badgers and the woman relents.

 

But that conversation was quickly sidelined by the backlash to Grace’s story—by feminists who said the sloppiness of Babe’s reporting undermined the larger conversation about consent, by left-leaning women who mocked Grace’s experience as a rite of passage that young women must suffer, by anti-feminists who said that even discussing Ansari in the context of “real” offenders like Harvey Weinstein undermined the #MeToo movement, and by other anti-feminists who argued that requiring men to read women’s signals or listen to their words somehow infantilizes women. Ansari, an experienced actor and comedian who wrote a best-selling book about relationships between men and women, was given the benefit of doubt and forbearance one would grant a small child, as someone who couldn’t possibly be expected to read minds, as an “aspirational” Muslim who was being “assassinated” by a vindictive woman, as a young man “in the confused beginning [of his] dating [life].” (Ansari will turn 35 next month).

Fewer people wanted to talk about the central issue the story raised, which is the fact that lack of consent exists on a spectrum, and that encounters where women just give in is part of that continuum, just like violent rape and partner rape and sexual assault against women too drunk to consent. But because our society still requires perfect victims and multiple witnesses and multiple accusations from multiple women to even consider the possibility that a man has committed sexual assault, we rarely get close to discussing the grayer areas of the spectrum, where men who would never consider violently raping a woman think nothing of pushing and pushing until they get their way.

And yet virtually every woman has been in the exact kind of situation Grace describes. You’re alone with a man, fooling around, and at some point, you establish a boundary. Most likely, you do it gently, especially if the man you’re alone with is someone you don’t know well. “Can we just slow down for a minute?” “I don’t feel comfortable doing that right now.” “Let’s go in the other room and talk for a while.” “Can you be a little more gentle?” “I’m not ready for this.”

He may pause for a while, and you think, “Whew. That’s over.” “Of course,” he says, leading you into the next room. But then, after a minute or an hour or another drink, he decides to keep pushing, and now he’s pawing at your clothes or pushing your head down into his lap or putting your hand on his crotch, hoping to wear down your resistance. After all, pushing has worked for him so many times—like all men, he’s been taught explicitly or implicitly that sex is a negotiation, in which the man badgers until the woman relents.

“Bad sex” is sex he takes from you. “Bad sex” is sex where you leave your body and just let it happen. “Bad sex” is any sexual activity that you don’t really want to do, but you do anyway, because it’s the only way to make him stop pestering you. “Bad sex” is sex you give him because it would cost too much to slap him in the face, or tell him to fuck off, or get up and leave.

 

Eventually, you may get up and leave. Or you may go limp. You may stop moving your lips and turn cold, as Grace did. You may take another drink and let the numbness sink into your bones. You may lie back and wait until it’s over or give him whatever it is he wants and sort of float somewhere outside your body while it happens. You may tell yourself, “This will be over in a minute, then I can leave and never see this guy again.” Or you may see him again and offer timidly, “Hey, it was a little weird when….” You may go home with him again and hope it will be better this time.

What you are not too likely to do is slap him, punch him, or run out the door—the solutions many writers have offered up for women trying to escape an uncomfortable situation, usually preceded by “Why didn’t she….” Usually, what makes women stay isn’t a fear of physical violence. It’s the fact that women are socialized, starting practically at birth, never to make things ugly, or hurt a man’s feelings, or give offense. Unlearning those lessons is harder than just walking away from awful sexual encounters, too, because they’re embedded in every facet of women’s lives, from the expectation that we let men talk over us in meetings and present our ideas as their own to the fact that many of us say “I’m sorry” a hundred times a day, not because we are sorry but because we’ve been taught, by instruction and example, that that’s how women get by.

So you sit there, or you lie there, and let him take what he wants, whether it’s oral sex or more nudity than you’re comfortable with or touching you somewhere you don’t want to be touched. One writer described this latter scenario as a game of “touch-roulette … you try to decide the least awful places and ways to let this person touch you because you’re not getting out of the night without letting him touch something in some way.” It is gross and demeaning and dehumanizing. And for straight, sexually active women, it’s a near-universal experience.

We even have a name for it: “Bad sex.”

“Bad sex” is sex he takes from you. “Bad sex” is sex where you leave your body and just let it happen. “Bad sex” is sex where you fake an orgasm to get it over with, because that’s part of the performance he expects. “Bad sex” is any sexual activity that you don’t really want to do, but you do anyway, because it’s the only way to make him stop pestering you. “Bad sex” is sex you give him because it would cost too much to slap him in the face, or tell him to fuck off, or get up and leave.

What “bad sex” isn’t is bad sex. It’s sexual coercion, and it exists on the exact same spectrum as Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose. The existence of a spectrum—and, yes, gray areas—doesn’t mean that we should only discuss one end of that spectrum, the part everyone can agree is unequivocally bad. Despite what you may have heard,  women are more than capable of understanding the difference between violent rape and sexual harassment and sex you said no to but ended up letting him do to you anyway. We should be talking about all of it.

We’re still crossing ten lanes of traffic to find excuses for predatory men’s behavior, and to find reasons to discount women’s stories. We’re still more concerned about the entirely fictional ruination of men like Aziz Ansari than we are about the women they hurt.

 

In fact, the fact that “bad sex” happens so often—and has so many apologists—is a reason to talk about that end of the spectrum of nonconsensual sex more. It’s 2018, and we’re still earnestly debating whether consent has to be enthusiastic, and whether we should put all or just most of the blame on women when men fail to read our mysterious “signals.” We’re still wondering whether men are just too dense or lack the emotional intelligence to perceive whether their sexual partners are actively participating or just acquiescing. We’re still fretting more about whether a report about a sexually coercive encounter was thoroughly reported than the fact that coercive sex is ubiquitous.

We’re still more concerned about the entirely fictional ruination of men like Aziz Ansari than we are about the women they hurt. (See, just this morning, anti-faminist writer Caitlyn Flanagan’s latest concern-trolling piece claiming that society has punished Ansari and Harvey Weinstein equally.) We’re still crossing ten lanes of traffic to find excuses for predatory men’s behavior, and to find reasons to discount women’s stories. (She’s too young to know that what she went through was normal; she just wanted to get famous; she has it in for him; she did something and then regretted it the morning after and now she’s trying to blame the man.) We’re still treating enthusiastic consent, the idea that sex should be pleasurable to both parties, as a new and radical concept, one that men will need a good long time to grasp and put into practice. “Bad sex,” to men, is sex that ends with a slightly suboptimal orgasm. To women, it’s sex that ends with us leaving in tears. Why is that acceptable to anyone?

And yet, there are reasons for optimism. Social change often happens quickly. (Affirmative consent isn’t a new concept anyway—I learned about it in college, and Carole Pateman, among others, was writing a counternarrative about consent back in 1980.) Marijuana, once considered as dangerous as heroin, is now legal in some form in all but a handful of states. Abortion was illegal almost everywhere, then became legal, with restrictions, virtually overnight. Same-sex marriage was unthinkable in mainstream political circles 20 years ago, but now it’s the law across much of the land.

The most optimistic reading of all the #MeToo backlash, including the fevered defenses of Ansari against an imaginary horde of radical feminists out to ruin his career and reputation, is that it’s a sign that women’s sexual autonomy is being normalized. Sometimes, the voices favoring a retrograde status quo are loudest just before an epochal shift. Maybe this backlash is a death rattle.