#NotMeToo, Why Can’t We Accept Aziz Ansari Sexually Assaulted His Date?

By the undisputed account of her date with Aziz Ansari “Grace” was harassed and sexually assaulted. Some commentators are trying to exclude this from the #MeToo movement. We need to understand why.

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Image: Kristina Flour/Unsplash

The #MeToo movement has moved from addressing obviously onerous public and workplace behavior to confronting the messier realm of consent and intimate sexual encounters, and the transition revealed some disturbing fault lines.

The article that precipitated this discussion appeared on Babe.net. In it a 23-year-old woman, using the pseudonym Grace, described a date with comedian Aziz Ansari that went horribly wrong and which she had come to characterize as a sexual assault.

I was familiar with the firestorm this story provoked before I read it. That framed my view and set my expectations. I was surprised how many commentators argued this bad date should not be lumped into the same conversation as the abuses of Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK or Mark Halperin.

The issue with consent is not that men don’t understand it.  It is that they ignore the fact they don’t have it.

I read Grace’s story expecting a real-life version of Kristen Roupenian’s recent New Yorker short story titled Cat Person, which brilliantly captures a cringe-worthy sexual liaison between relative strangers, full of miscommunication, second-guessing and a messy array of emotions.

This was not the case. There was no ambiguity in Grace’s story. Unlike Roupenian’s fictional character Margot, Grace withdrew consent. After that she was sexually harassed and eventually assaulted by a man who had no regard for her wishes.

I’ve always felt the requirement to get verbal consent for any sexual act was a slightly over-wrought solution to the wrong problem. Not all communication is verbal. If you are making out with a woman and you put your hand on her thigh and her legs close then quite obviously she is denying you access to her private parts.

The issue with consent is not that men don’t understand it. It is that they ignore the fact they don’t have it.

This is exactly what happened here. Lost in the kerfuffle about Babe.net’s reporting of this story is the fact Ansari isn’t denying the events happened as Grace tells them. He claims he misread things and thought the sex “by all indications was completely consensual.” That’s B.S. He didn’t miss any signs – he bulldozed right over them because he wanted to take the shortest route to Fucking. His own words prove he knew she was withdrawing consent.

In the New York Times Bari Weiss claimed that Ansari was merely guilty of not being a mind reader. This is ridiculous. Grace says she removed her hand from his crotch after he had placed it there on five to seven occasions. Never mind his dog, even Pavlov’s guinea pig would have figured out this was not the desired behavior by then.

A man, whose career success is predicated on his ability to read a room, doesn’t get a pass here. Constantly asking for something that was just denied is harassment.

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Aziz Ansari. Image: Tyler Ross/WikiMedia Commons

After an initial flurry of activity that included exchanging oral sex, Grace indicated things were moving too fast for her and negotiated that there would be no intercourse until a second date. Ansari suggested they chill on the couch. She was hoping he would rub her on the back to calm her down, but he motioned for her to go down on him, which she did. Grace doesn’t know why she did it, except to say she felt “really pressured.” That is bad sex.

Bari Weiss in her column and Ashleigh Banfield in a televised open letter excoriated Grace for her behavior throughout the date. Some of their criticisms are valid, some smack of being wise after the event, and some show little regard for the fact or circumstance.

But they all reinforce a very dangerous, common and pernicious stereotype that Grace was somehow to blame for what Ansari did to her.

Women are not responsible for controlling men’s desires. Men are!

Banfield and Weiss both give Ansari rather cursory treatment, like they are content to place him in a box labeled “Douchebag, but not Abuser” never to be mentioned again.

Dear Ashleigh, you addressed your open letter to the wrong person. If you want to stop abuse, men have to change. We need to be talking about what Ansari did wrong.

Men need to accept they can’t always get what they want. It’s 18 years since I dated so I’ve probably forgotten the number of times I thought I was “headed for home” only to find myself “stranded on base.” That happens. Deal with it. (And, boys, if it has never happened to you, you might want to ask yourself why the women you’re with think its either not worth it or dangerous to say no.)

Remember minutes earlier Grace had consented to oral sex and then declined penetrative sex. After she performed this second blowjob the Babe.net article describes what happened next:

“He brought her to a large mirror, bent her over and asked her again, ‘Where do you want me to fuck you? Do you want me to fuck you right here?’ He rammed his penis against her ass while he said it, pantomiming intercourse.”

jairo-alzate-45540Image: Jairo Alzate/Unsplash

Why is this not sexual assault?

Mark Halperin rubbed his erection against women without their permission. That was worthy of #MeToo and he has disappeared. But Ashley Banfield claims Grace has sabotaged the #MeToo movement and recklessly damaged Ansari’s career.

Could it be that Mark Halperin’s accusers hadn’t just preformed oral sex on him?

I’ll be honest. I “feel” this doubt, even though when I “think” through what happened it is clearly within the Department of Justice’s definition of sexual assault: “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.”

There a situations where we struggle to align this almost impossibly broad legal definition with a common-sense notion of abusive behavior. Sadly, for some people this is one of those moments. Consent clarifies these dilemmas. It is what separates the bad sex Cat Person’s Margot endured from the sexual assault forced on Grace. Without consent, once you’re naked, sex is a free-for-all.

Jill Filipovic opens her thoughtful analysis of the dynamics of Grace and Ansari’s date bemoaning that, while it was a topic we should discuss, “it was jammed into a pre-existing movement grounded in the language of assault and illegality.”

Dear Ashleigh, you addressed your open letter to the wrong person. If you want to stop abuse, men have to change.

Banfield and Filipovic want to separate this from #MeToo and keep the focus on sexual abuse within workplaces, where an abusive superior has the power to retaliate by undermining the career of a woman if she resists. It’s worth noting here, that while Ansari wasn’t Grace’s boss, they moved in the same circles. Circles in which he could have easily derailed her career by spreading the word she was difficult to work with. This is about the extent of the power Louis CK wielded over the women he targeted.

I think the problem is that what happened to Grace hits closer to home. The lecherous supervisor and the groper on the bus are in a sense public, to be dealt with by the HR Department or the Courts. Ansari was operating in a more private space. This situation is much more familiar to most people. As author Emily Reynolds observed, “Being coerced or pushed into sex you’re not particularly comfortable with is something that’s happened to almost every woman I know.”

Could it be that some of the reluctance to drag #MeToo into this space is because it is just too overwhelming? Let’s not jeopardize the gains made at work, for fear the backlash at home will swamp it. Are we worried that at a deeply ingrained level, where I felt a negative response to Grace’s going down on Ansari a second time,  #MeToo can’t win?

Maybe. But if the #MeToo movement is going to succeed, the bedroom is exactly the place it needs to go. It is the supposedly consensual intimate encounters like the one between Grace and Ansari that create a misogynist, sex-entitled male culture that is in turn the foundation of the more public abuses committed by the Harvey Weinstein’s of the world.

If we don’t change what happens in the bedroom, it will continue to leach out into the boardroom, the restroom and the lunchroom.

Grace says, “it took a really long time for me to validate this as sexual assault.” Why? Why we are more comfortable writing it off as an awkward sexual experience? Why are we focused on what Grace did or didn’t do? Why is the bar so low?

All these abuses are related on multi-dimensional continuums of power, intimacy, frequency and consent. You can’t really separate them. The fact that what Ansari did is so common and the she-lead-him-on response to it is so deep-rooted, only increases the urgency with which we must address it. A cultural reframing what is good sex, bad sex and illegal sex will not be easy.

I will start by using Aziz Ansari as an example of What Not To Do when I talk to my sons about consent.

Then, I’ll tell my daughter she should expect much more from her lovers as well has her bosses.