If there were one word to accurately describe the now-much-discussed piece in which a young woman accuses Aziz Ansari of sexual assault on their first date, it would be “messy.” What’s laid in front of readers is an awkward and, at times, bare account of how the date devolved into a veritable tug-of-war of sexual coercion, as communicated to a Babe writer by a 23-year-old photographer under the pseudonym “Grace.”
The article often clumsily spills outside the margins of prudent reporting, but the fair and reasonable concerns, like the ones in Julianne Escobedo Shepherd’s piece admonishing Babe’s execution, are a rarity. What’s currently prevalent in the pieces responding to Babe’s Ansari story are hyperbole, intellectual dishonesty and red herrings.
In her response to Babe’s article, “Aziz Ansari Is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader,” the New York Times’ Bari Weiss shrieks, “The insidious attempts by some women to criminalize awkward, gross, and entitled sex takes women back to the days of smelling salts, and fainting couches.” The Los Angeles Times, unafraid to ask the “tough” questions, pondered, “Is Aziz Ansari a Victim or Perpetrator?”
Not to be outdone in the histrionics competition, The Atlantic published “The Humiliation of Aziz Ansari,” in which writer Caitlin Flanagan calls Babe’s piece “3,000 words of revenge porn” and eagerly paints “Grace” as a nefarious, resentful, mean girl hell-bent on making Ansari pay for rejecting her, declaring, “Together, [Grace and Babe writer Katie Way] may have destroyed Ansari’s career.”
Ironically, the same parties who stress the necessity of having stringent qualifications for proper claims of sexual assault and victimhood—of which they deem Grace unworthy—have less demanding standards of proof when it comes to bestowing Ansari with their own thorny crowns of victimization.
Their flimsy concern about “infantilizing” women is nothing short of laughable as they indulge in their anti-fourth-wave-feminism hysterics and pull a 34-year-old man to their heaving bosoms like vigilant caretakers, rendering him incapable of anything more malignant than simply being a creepy and inattentive sexual partner.
Reality is much less fantastical. Babe’s piece, flawed as it may be, did not send society as we know it into a tailspin of anomie. Scores of hapless men who merely attempt conversation or interaction with women who pique their sexual interest are not being apprehended by a feminist gestapo for crimes of rape; nor did it “derail” the #MeToo movement for parties who weren’t already looking for an excuse to dismiss it.
We do not live in a society where published allegations of sexual assault alone ruin one’s career. If it’s any consolation for the Weisses and Flanagans of the world, they may simply look to the likes of R. Kelly and the current president of the United States for solace in how little such accusations hinder powerful men from thriving.
To date, Ansari—much like most of the celebrities and industry insiders who have recently been accused of assault and misconduct—has not been destroyed by modern-day, bloodthirsty-feminist witch hunts, excommunicated from human civilization or criminalized (pending police investigations into allegations involving Harvey Weinstein and Russell Simmons notwithstanding).
Grace’s account—one that toggles between acquiescing to certain sexual acts and withdrawing from others—is a pervasive experience. While many seem to direct their ire at Grace for her decisions and at Babe for its treatment of the story, few are expressing resentment toward the societal conditions that demand we present infallible victims with accounts of sexual abuse enshrouded in an impenetrable armor of credibility to even be taken seriously in the first place.
It’s time to be honest: We are a society—a country especially—that despises victims for having the audacity to “allow” themselves to be victimized. When Grace describes her reaction to Ansari’s advances—“I stopped moving my lips and went cold”—it was hard for me to imagine that many of us couldn’t relate to that kind of dissociation. When she mentions taking a while to concede to the feeling that she’d been violated, I understood her reluctance to arrive there.
Victimhood is work. Acknowledging it, vocalizing it, deciding if it merits pressing charges, following through with seeking punitive recourse or any recourse, healing from it, moving on and preparing for the onslaught of interrogation from parties who are more than eager to discredit it—it’s arduous and painful work.
The choice to “fight back” when you are being pressured or overpowered during sexual interaction makes it all the more real that an assault is happening and could escalate, and the consequential stigma of victimhood all the more imminent. It’s no wonder so many people resent it and try to deny their own proximity.
Few sins are worse in America than being powerless. Many of us, especially those of us who may have already cobbled ourselves together after recovering from prior experiences with assault, would rather dissociate and delude ourselves into believing that our own experiences with sexual coercion were just “aggressive” or “awkward” instances that we gave into—to avoid having to add another instance of sexual assault to an already loaded plate of trauma.
The takeaway from Grace’s anecdote isn’t that we should consider every regrettable or uncomfortable sexual interaction as assault (though this anecdote described more than mere discomfort; remember, sexual assault encompasses more than rape). This isn’t about bad sex. It’s about examining how dysfunctional our sexual socialization is for us to read that instance and chalk it up to merely being a “normal” and clumsy sexual experience. There should be nothing “normal” about leaving a date in tears because you feel violated, and we shouldn’t be so content and flippant with characterizing it as such.
Ultimately, this is an incident in which many truths can exist; we can acknowledge that it’s probable Ansari’s celebrity and his public persona played a part in Grace wanting to give Ansari a chance to redeem himself during that evening, and even desiring his kindness after he made her uncomfortable. It’s just as probable that Ansari was fully aware of the leverage his celebrity granted him over a green young woman 10 years his junior who was visibly eager to go out on a date with a popular star.
It’s also very likely that a man who has written a book about modern dating in which he elaborates on his habit of determining if a woman is uninterested in him simply by the tone and response time of her text messages is capable of gauging that a woman who recoils from his attempts of getting her to touch his dick for 30 minutes and verbally expresses that she doesn’t “want to feel forced” is probably not excited about having sex with him, and consent is not static.
Furthermore, claims that men in general are unable to read nonverbal cues and that anything other than a clear “no” confuses them have been debunked in recent studies; researchers conclude (pdf) that men are, in fact, perfectly capable of reading and recognizing nonverbal cues from women who are resistant to sex. The problem isn’t that they don’t understand; they just don’t like the answer.
It’s OK to feel unsure if what Grace described as the worst night of her life neatly matches with your understanding of assault. That discussion needs to be had if we are to have a rigorous examination of our sexual politics.
However, accusations of sexual abuse are not all going to look like scandalous, easy-to-condemn, jaw-dropping accounts of egregious brutality and predation, and alleged victims are not always going to behave in ways we understand. Nor should they have to for us to engage them responsibly.
Disingenuous, lazy claims about the “ambiguity” of both consent and resistance allow sexual assault to remain ubiquitous. If nothing else, we are a society that firmly believes in questioning the credibility of alleged victims with way more fervor than we do the actions of their alleged abusers.
We have ample leg room to, instead, fix our gaze on proper ways to handle the stories and best interest of people alleging sexual assault. We can also stand to focus a harsher lens on men like Ansari who pursue rigid sexual compliance in the face of resistance and to admonish their team of toxic acolytes who are more than eager to dismiss their harmfulness.
If we are to push forward conversations about sexual abuse and all of its variations, we need to be prepared to be uncomfortable, unsure and conflicted. It’s not a precursor to anarchy or a disservice to the movement if we question what we have accepted to be normal and entertain the possibility that we have been harmed or may have also caused harm during the course of our sexual experiences.
Rest assured, we have not strayed that far from the status quo. Get uncomfortable—we have plenty of room.