Disclaimer: This is a controversial topic, and I have tried to be as sensitive as possible. The reason for writing about it is to collect my own thoughts and hopefully have a (civil) discussion in the comments section. Hateful comments and ad hominem attacks are not appreciated and will be removed. Also note that this post has been written keeping mostly a cis-heterosexual perspective in mind. This is necessarily limited, but helps with specificity.
Another week, another news story about sexual misbehavior by a high-profile male celebrity. A large recent cultural shift (#MeToo) means that we’re getting used to these, victims are being believed, and perpetrators are being punished. All of these are good things, because they directly get to the root cause of why reporting and punishing sexual crimes is still so difficult. So when last weekend, the website Babe.net published1 the story of an encounter between a 23-year-old anonymous photographer called “Grace” and actor Aziz Ansari – I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life – claiming Ansari tried to pressure her into sex despite her verbal and non-verbal indications she didn’t want it, we might have had more of the same public outcry – how a shitty culture has let victims down, the perils of toxic masculinity, etc. Yet, the responses have been anything but. This has become a wildly divisive story, and there have been a flurry of responses on both sides.2
On one hand, a large number of women empathized and related to Grace’s story, while on the other, many people (including women) have tried to dismiss the whole story as an example of internet vigilantism taking an instance of “bad sex” too far, and trying to destroy Aziz Ansari’s reputation.
To be honest, my first reaction was of disgust and disappointment towards him – he was supposed to be one of the good guys ™. Yet, after reading polarizing online discussions and articles, I was forced to think about why not everyone agreed with me.
Was it just that people have more of a soft spot for Aziz Ansari than they do for say Roger Ailes? Or did they really think he did nothing worthy of censure? I couldn’t help but think of the reactions Kristen Roupenian’s recent New Yorker story called Cat Person elicited. That story raised many questions about consent and agency in a misogynistic world where women are simultaneously more independent and sexually assertive, but also unsure if the next man they meet might cause harm. But I digress.
Let’s address the elephant in the room. Is the account of Grace one of sexual assault? Several people are claiming that while this was a bad experience, it doesn’t quite count as assault. Yet it’s not hard to see why Grace felt violated in that situation, and that is why we need to talk about it. Besides who gets to decide what counts as sexual assault?
Clearly something was off about that interaction, and despite several women bringing forward their own similar stories, many people have also tried to readily dismiss is as a case of regret. Some have even tried to cast Ansari as the victim in all of this, because god forbid his reputation be tarnished. So how do we begin to talk about it? Regardless of what the law says here, this story also doubles up as that of aggression and entitlement, still a form of sexual misbehavior. Yes Aziz Ansari is no Harvey Weinstein (as far as we know). There are no whisper networks warning the women he works with saying he is a predator. He publicly claims to be a feminist, talks like one, and has explored several related ideas in his public speaking, writing, and shows. And yet, what he did is problematic, no matter whether or not we can agree that it should be called assault3. We need to be talking about a broken sexual culture that teaches cis-hetero men to be entitled about sex, while at the same time teaching women to feed that entitlement. I (and my entire generation for that matter) have grown up watching movies that normalized sexual assault and the idea that a woman’s “no means yes”. That it is okay to keep pursuing and harassing a woman to get her to say yes, which she eventually will. To be honest, not much has changed in mainstream culture.
Anna North writes in The Aziz Ansari story is ordinary. That’s why we have to talk about it.
As many have pointed out, movies past and present frequently depict men overcoming women’s initial lack of interest through persistent effort — that is, when they’re not mining coercion and voyeurism for laughs.
Perhaps what is especially threatening about Grace’s story is that it involves a situation in which many men can imagine themselves. But this is a reason to discuss it more, not to sweep it under the rug. Listening to Grace doesn’t mean deciding all men should go to prison, or should lose their jobs. It does mean admitting that many men behave in exactly the ways their culture tells them to behave. It means asking men to recognize that and do better, and it means changing the culture so that badgering and pressuring women into sex is deplored, not endorsed. None of this will happen if we refuse to reckon with stories like Grace’s.
Ansari acted like an entitled individual for whom his partner was merely a prop to act out a sexual fantasy. He was not really listening to what she was saying to him. Why this matters is that a huge number of women have reported their own examples of feeling pressured into sex they didn’t really want, to the extent that this grey area of coerced experiences is simply filed away under “bad sex”. Why this matters is that while there are Harvey Weinsteins who use their power and privilege to cause active and deliberate harm, there are also those like Aziz Ansari – the “nice feminist guys” who are still created by elements of the same patriarchy that feminism has long tried to subvert.
None of these ideas are really novel, even if they’re coming up with a renewed force now. To quote Rebecca Traister from her 2015 piece The Game Is Rigged:
It may feel as though contemporary feminists are always talking about the power imbalances related to sex, thanks to the recently robust and radical campus campaigns against rape and sexual assault. But contemporary feminism’s shortcomings may lie in not its overradicalization but rather its underradicalization. Because, outside of sexual assault, there is little critique of sex. Young feminists have adopted an exuberant, raunchy, confident, righteously unapologetic, slut-walking ideology that sees sex — as long as it’s consensual — as an expression of feminist liberation. The result is a neatly halved sexual universe, in which there is either assault or there is sex positivity. Which means a vast expanse of bad sex — joyless, exploitative encounters that reflect a persistently sexist culture and can be hard to acknowledge without sounding prudish — has gone largely uninterrogated, leaving some young women wondering why they feel so fucked by fucking.
This is not so much a critique of feminism, as much as it is saying that women are still worried about basic things like safety. To me, it is also saying that we have been so preoccupied with widespread abuses of power in sexual crimes, that we’re only getting started with a broader overhaul of what modern sex is even supposed to look like.
One of the important takeaways is that while we’re talking a lot about consent these days, there seems to be a gap between what it ideally means and how it actually plays out. Even though we have high standards like yes means yes when it comes to consent, I think it fails to capture the inherent power imbalance of gender dynamics that exists and manifests itself even when consent exists for some things but not others.
Amanda Alcantara writes in What the Aziz Ansari allegation teaches us about consent:
So many are reluctant with this specific story because it constitutes an assault where a woman is assumed to have said “yes.” It is a story that pushes us beyond the parameters of what we’ve been saying about consent: That “no means no,” or to seek an active “yes.” This form of teaching consent focuses on feelings of power during intimacy. It’s a response to a request — “will they let me have sex with them?” — rather than seeing sex as something mutual. The question should be, “Do they want to have sex with me?” That is essentially where this conversation lies. Is consenting about “wanting” or about “letting”? Unfortunately we are very often coerced into sex. And almost all women have had an experience where they have “let” someone be intimate with them without actually wanting it. To acknowledge that wouldn’t be to wage a war against men, but to unlearn the misogyny that we’ve been taught and uplift women.
No means no. She means no. But what does he want to hear? What does he pretend to hear? She knows he isn’t listening. She might do a mental calculation – “can he harm me if I say no? What’s it worth making a fuss right now?” It’s a common theme across stories shared by women. And it’s sad. So when authors like Bari Weiss or Caitlin Flanagan in their widely criticized pieces claim that “she should have just said NO!” or “she should have just left!“, they ignore the complex gender imbalances and the changing language of consent at play. Megan Garber, in Aziz Ansari and the Paradox of ‘No’ writes:
It’s an awful irony: Women spent so much of their time and energy and capital reminding the world of their right not to be raped, that the next obvious step in their sexual liberation—discussions about what makes sex good, in every sense, for all involved—got obstructed. This is another way in which Ansari’s story serves as a parable. Way, informed by Grace, presents someone who is keenly aware of the letter of the law—“‘Oh, of course, it’s only fun if we’re both having fun,’” Ansari replies, when she tells him that “I don’t want to feel forced”—with a much-less-keen awareness of the spirit. She presents someone who is conversant with the language of consent, but who is not yet conversant in its practice. She presents what can happen when mutuality—only fun if we’re both having fun—is not bolstered by that far more foundational thing: empathy.
Feminists have been saying these things for decades now. There is a ton of work in the public sphere that people (especially men) have been guilty of ignoring until shit hits the fan, and then pretending to be bumbling fools when caught. On that note, discourse about consent also did not suddenly appear in 2017. It has evolved through years of activism, and continues to do so today. It is the responsibility of every individual to continually educate themselves about it, and practice it via empathy for their sexual partners. Aziz Ansari eventually responded. He said “It was true that everything did seem okay to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned.” Let us believe for a moment that this is a genuine statement. If so, then what makes the communication so broken between two individuals who clearly had completely opposite views of what was going on? Lindy West, in Aziz, We Tried to Warn You is unforgiving:
The notion of affirmative consent did not fall from space in October 2017 to confound well-meaning but bumbling men; it was built, loudly and painstakingly and in public, at great personal cost to its proponents, over decades. If you’re fretting about the perceived overreach of #MeToo, maybe start by examining the ways you’ve upheld the stigmatization of feminism. Nuanced conversations about consent and gendered socialization have been happening every single day that Aziz Ansari has spent as a living, sentient human on this earth. The reason they feel foreign to so many men is that so many men never felt like they needed to listen. Rape is a women’s issue, right? Men don’t major in women’s studies.
It may feel like the rules shifted overnight, and what your dad called the thrill of the chase is now what some people are calling assault. Unfortunately, no one — even plenty of men who call themselves feminists — wanted to listen to feminist women themselves. We tried to warn you. We wish you’d listened, too.
Wikipedia says that “Rape culture is a sociological concept used to describe a setting in which rape is pervasive and normalized due to societal attitudes about gender and sexuality. Behaviors commonly associated with rape culture include victim blaming, slut shaming, sexual objectification, trivializing rape, denial of widespread rape, refusing to acknowledge the harm caused by some forms of sexual violence, or some combination of these.”
We’ve discussed this in the context of college campuses, workplaces, homes, and public places too. But if culture is so deeply rooted in sexual violence, then it’s not a stretch to imagine fragments of it showing up in the bedroom, even when there apparently is consent. I highly recommend reading not that bad by Katie, that is an intimate look at the author trying to make sense of her emotions in the context of her own moments of “bad sex”, and what they look like in light of this discussion. This is really insightful:
You have to understand that many women approach humiliating and uncomfortable sex from a place of “it’s not that bad.” Part of “not that bad” is a preemptive minimization of our experiences. You know, the way Fat Amy calls herself Fat Amy in Pitch Perfect so that the other girls can’t do it first? It’s our armor. […] I don’t want to have to up the ante, tell another worse story to prove that I had the right to be uncomfortable when my professor stroked my bare shoulder in a dark theater. I don’t want to have to buy my friends’ support with maximum humiliation.
This really hit me hard:
I have no interest in turning my sexual history into social currency; exchange rates are so unpredictable.
So I hurry up to add, “It wasn’t that bad.” That way, the people I’m telling have to convince me, “No, that really wasn’t cool.” If you push, people push back, that’s just human nature. If you pull away, they come to your side and find you. They can’t resist.
Because who really draws the line anyway:
People are quick to label sex crimes as deviant or aberrant, but the truth is that sexual violence is socialized into us. Men are socialized to fuck hard and often, and women are socialized to get fucked, look happy, and keep quiet about it.
Aziz Ansari has been socialized.
And if we don’t like the way socialized men do sex, then we need to take a hard look at our society, friend.
Coming back to the point of rape culture, this is what Katie has to say:
If you shared my hesitation to stand up with Grace on this one, I’m just asking you to hang out and ask yourself why. You don’t have to come up with answers. It’s enough to notice and wonder.
These uncomfortable conversations are part of #metoo, as much as the truth telling and hearing. The only easy day was yesterday, when we found ourselves mostly in agreement that Weinstein is a slimy bag of dicks, and Spacey is a scummy, flesh-eating bacteria.
One particular opinion I also saw online was expressing sympathy for Grace, but questioning the nature of reporting in the original Babe.net article. I’m not sure this is important at this moment, and if things would be different if the article were written any other way. Vile responses on the internet can be truly disheartening and re-victimize victims. I still think is is possible to support Grace’s story and still critique how it was reported. Going forward, this is just as important because this is not the last time we’ll be seeing a story like this. Reporting sexual assault demands sensitivity. Was this piece the right way to approach it? It was only a matter of time before a controversially reported post would be used as an example by antagonists to denounce #MeToo and the supposed “new power” women have in the fight against sexual harassment and assault.
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd wrote in Babe, What Are You Doing?:
Reporting on sexual violence and misconduct is an incredibly delicate undertaking that requires a working understanding about how best to do it. At its most basic level, this means that reporters must be careful not to re-traumatize subjects, which includes consideration of the ways that their reports will be received—that is, often with skepticism and disbelief—and account for that with journalists’ sharpest tools: fidelity to confirmable facts, thorough arguments, and an abiding lack of sensationalism.
Because of the amateurish way the Babe report was handled (her wine choices; her outfit), and the way it was written with an almost prurient and unnecessarily macabre interest in the minute details of their interaction (“the claw”), it left the subject open to further attacks, the kind that are entirely, exhaustingly predictable.
Or consider what Jill Filipovic says, in The poorly reported Aziz Ansari exposé was a missed opportunity:
It’s a shame. Not because these stories shouldn’t be told – if anything, we need to talk more about how pervasive power imbalances benefit men and make sex worse for women. But instead of telling this particular story with the care it called for, it was jammed into a pre-existing movement grounded in the language of assault and illegality.
As a result, we’re arguing about whether Aziz Ansari is a sexual assailant, and missing the more relevant conversation about sex, male entitlement and misogyny in the bedroom.
That said, we need to think about balancing the democratization and changing style of assault reporting with the blasé attitude established outlets (I’m looking at you, New York Times) take towards literally everything. As much of a responsibility as publications like Babe.net have of being extremely careful with facts and style of reporting (the facts in this case are not in question btw), the New York Times and the Atlantics of the world need to take a hard look at whether they will only consider women’s stories important when reported their way. To quote Kaitlin Tiffany from The Aziz Ansari story is a mess, but so are the arguments against it:
Much of the disdain in responses in The New York Times and The Atlantic seems to stem from the assumption that the victim’s account is untrue, simply because a lot of the story’s framing is unnecessary, the strategy of promotion is tacky, and the writer and site are largely unknown. Even if it is all true exactly as written (and Ansari’s apologetic response doesn’t deny the facts Grace lays out), there’s a perception that the story doesn’t meet the bar for newsworthiness. Flanagan or Times editor Bari Weiss might not have formed that opinion, had the story come from an outlet that met their definition of seriousness. Their refusal to judge the information provided by the Babe story on its own merits, and the vitriol they have greeted it with, is disturbing, especially on the part of experienced journalists. It’s far more egregious than anything its odd framing and missteps warranted.
It is my opinion that things may have been just as disruptive no matter how the story broke out. If the goal is to have a controlled and focused discussion on the internet, then we might as well have no discussion at all.
Difficult discussions have just begun, and we’ll have many more of them as cultural norms around sexuality continue to shift. All of what I wrote is subject to the assumption that more such stories about Aziz Ansari don’t come out. If they do, we might be having a very different discussion. Either way, the one we’re having currently is important to have regardless. As for those really worried about his career, don’t worry, it’s going to be just fine.