Over the past 50 hours or so, I’ve been watching the reactions to the Babe piece on Ansari unfold. In case you’ve missed it, it’s here. In the piece, writer Katie Way narrates the experiences of an anonymous Grace who went on a date with him and accused him of sexual assault.
Ansari is a vocal feminist. He’s also one of internet’s favorite cuddly brown wokebois. The Babe piece quickly brought about two back-to-back rebuttals. Atlantic’s Caitlyn Flanagan wrote one titled The Humiliation of Aziz Ansari and Bari Weiss wrote for the New York Times a piece called Aziz Ansari Is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader.
The original piece and their two counter pieces have raised and touched upon a fine nuance in the discussion. The way they’re both framed and responses to them is very telling of people’s legal and moral discernments, and extent of normalisation of harmful behavior towards women.
The pieces and their reactions touched on three very important things:
- Understanding and distinguishing what was bad consensual sex, and what was coercion and assault when the writing sounds vindictive and exploitative.
- Different grey areas of what abuse and assault are in society, and where the line is drawn.
- The objective of the #MeToo movement.
First off, I thought the Babe piece was quite badly written. Focusing on her inability to choose the wine and the author’s opinion on Grace’s dress were quite irrelevant to the article’s larger “expose”, and served for a great first step in derailing the objective piece. The fact that Grace’s POV on Ansari’s eagerness to leave dinner paints a lopsided retrospective narrative, making him seem unfairly creepy. By all standards, that dinner was normal. The graphic descriptions of condoms, techniques, and just overall a man’s sexual eagerness was laughable and absolutely unnecessary in the piece. Reading them, it is totally understandable why someone would call it “revenge porn.” Arguably, it is 100% possible that this indeed was a revenge story and I’m happy to take my words back if newer, clearer facts emerge. However, in its current form, the story becomes more and more unpleasant after they make their way to his apartment.
There’s been a larger debate about agency and painting women as helpless. Going by the original Babe story, I believe it is safe to conclude that until the point they got to their apartment, Grace had the agency to say no and leave.
However, when inside, power dynamics of a famous man and a female fan takes over. Weiss does allude to this in her NYT piece but promptly dismisses it. He might not exert power over her in the way Weinstein did over women in the industry. He might not be able to influence her life or career, but he clearly had her admiration. It’s important to remember that it takes acts of despicable behaviour more extreme than normal for us to lower our opinions of people we admire. Grace was 22. She was fangirling (“surreal”, “excited”), so she has an image of this man in her head and because she admires him so much, hopes that he is a true gentleman, knows he speaks out against sexism, and therefore feels safe.
While it is important to not dismiss the fact that women have agency (could she have left any time if she wanted to? Yes, theoretically), it is also important to remember that different women have different backgrounds tainted by different experiences. Social conditioning plays a big role in how you react in unfavourable situations. It isn’t about portraying women as helpless, it’s accepting that in some situations, even consenting women can feel helpless, hopeful, and more. NYT has a piece here that talks about why women often freeze or become robotic when they start feeling uncomfortable or panicky. Relevant excerpt:
But in sexual assault cases, failure to resist can be one of the biggest sticking points for jurors. Often both sides acknowledge that a sex act occurred, and the question is whether it was consensual. Fighting back is viewed as an easy litmus test. But women are conditioned not to use violence.
Men and women both tend to compare a victim’s actions with what they think they themselves would have done in a similar situation, and research shows that their imagined response usually involves aggressive resistance — even when the attacker is larger and stronger. “In their heads, suddenly they know kung fu,” Ms. Valliere said.
Neurobiological research has shown that the so-called fight-or-flight response to danger would more accurately be called “fight, flight or freeze.” And even after that initial response, victims can be rendered involuntarily immobile, becoming either paralyzed or limp as a result of the brain and body’s protective response.
Most importantly, she didn’t leave because he kept giving her hope that he would behave. She says, “I didn’t leave because I think I was stunned and shocked,” she said. “This was not what I expected. I’d seen some of his shows and read excerpts from his book and I was not expecting a bad night at all, much less a violating night and a painful one.”
But here’s the deal, she DID exercise her agency. After she said “Next time,” he refused to get the message and proclaimed that their second date had commenced then. Later she said “I said I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you.” I don’t know this could be interpreted in any way other than “I am very uncomfortable and doing anything now would feel like I’m being forced to do something I don’t want, so I’d rather not.” It’s a clear 100% NO. That’s a loud verbal cue that she didn’t want sex. Could she have phrased it better? Sure, definitely. But women often don’t say N-O NO because they want to avoid potential retaliation or want to be polite as is expected of them or think an outspoken intelligent idol can take the message or want to avoid awkwardness (when there clearly won’t be rape). You might disagree on what women should be doing in situations like these, but the fact of the matter is women often say no in a non-explicit manner.
And here’s where the problems begin. After having said “it’s only fun if we’re both having fun” and acknowledging she was uncomfortable, he promptly asks for fellatio. She feels coerced and performs it. If it ends there, it’s bad sex with an idiotic horny guy as most people seem to think this was, but it didn’t. After acknowledging she was uncomfortable, he took her to the mirror. Now had he asked if she was okay now and wants to proceed or wants to end the date there, it would have been consensual. She went to the mirror, but a) he said “let me show you something” and b) she was still a young fan with a man she adores and thinks might stop being creepy.
This time though, she very clearly said no — a firm no — and that she wasn’t ready to do it. His response was “How about we just chill, but this time with our clothes on?” That’s an indicator of acknowledging her lack of consent and stopping sexual activity. Would you interpret it in any other way?
Here are all the times she said no:
- “Most of my discomfort was expressed in me pulling away and mumbling. I know that my hand stopped moving at some points,” she said. “I stopped moving my lips and turned cold.”
- But he kept asking, so I said, ‘Next time.’ And he goes, ‘Oh, you mean second date?’ and I go, ‘Oh, yeah, sure,’ and he goes, ‘Well, if I poured you another glass of wine now, would it count as our second date?’” He then poured her a glass and handed it to her.
- “I said I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you,”
- I stood up and said no, I don’t think I’m ready to do this, I really don’t think I’m going to do this.
- “I remember saying, ‘You guys are all the same, you guys are all the fucking same.’”
Each of them is followed by Ansari promptly initiating a sexual act. Unless several omitted details are added to this story, in its current form it’s 100% exploitative assault. The fact that it isn’t legally defined as assault doesn’t make it normal.
It’s from this point onwards where the rebuttal pieces get it wrong. They leave out the facts to favour the argument that it is bad sex and not assault. The pieces say this:
Both pieces left out the fact that he forced sexual moves again during Seinfeld and when she exclaimed “You guys are all the same”, he forcefully stuck his tongue down her throat. Twice.
The Atlantic piece goes further and asks why she expected any different if it had happened to her many times before. What are women to do, never give anyone a chance because they’ve had bad experiences? Never move on and trust again?
Now had this been a normal casual non-celebrity date, you could totally pass this off as bad sex, asshole behaviour, and focus on the need to teach men how to exert less, listen more, and understand obvious physical cues of discomfort. It’s a broken sexual culture that needs fixing. But in this story, she’s just out of her teens, he’s a famous entertainer, and the power dynamics are completely different. She has less agency than she normally would and he has more.
Both rebuttal pieces are glaring in their normalisation of sexually assaultive behaviour by men, and the responses further reinforce this by calling it ‘entitlement’. Expecting a kiss from a woman who’s had an angry outburst and asking for it is entitlement; going ahead and forcefully taking it from her is assault.
The fact that she consented in the beginning doesn’t mean she can’t withdraw it. Consent has to be continuous. That she stupidly stayed despite knowing he tried to assault doesn’t mean she consents. This episode is a great piece of example to offer young women how coercion works and the woman can seem consenting, when you teach them to be careful. Most such episodes seem to be. But that doesn’t make it alright to blame Grace for what happened here. Most assault/abuse cases ARE on this boundary of how emphatic the yes and no were. All the women who saw Weinstein’s penis went to his room of their own volition, didn’t they? Depending on who the perp is, there often is only a “feeble expression of disinclination” (from this piece about Farooqui’s rape acquittal because “a feeble no means yes.”)
No “bad sex” should feel like violation. When a woman starts to feel the situation is out of her control, she is losing consent. Unfortunately, she was in his house, and thus the onus to make her feel comfortable was on him.
Flanagan spends three long paragraphs explaining in the Atlantic how they did it back in the 70s. Believe it or not, that was FIFTY years ago, Caitlyn. Times have changed: women have indeed become more outspoken, men have become more aware, and the internet was born. We are teaching more and more women to unlearn what they’ve internalized as normal and start speaking out.
The piece further goes on to blame Grace heaping assumption upon assumption in a text book case of victim-blaming. “Perhaps she hoped to maybe even become the famous man’s girlfriend. He wasn’t interested. What she felt afterward—rejected yet another time, by yet another man—was regret.” Flanagan trivializes Grace’s experiences and supportive women’s opinions with infantile language: “Apparently there is a whole country full of young women who don’t know how to call a cab..” What is actually normal is called out as being unusual: “who have spent a lot of time picking out pretty outfits for dates they hoped would be nights to remember.”
NYT’s Weiss replays her thoughts as she read the Babe piece starting with “I’m a proud feminist” and moving on to “If you are hanging out naked with a man, it’s safe to assume he is going to try to have sex with you.” She then goes on to say that young feminists are “radically redefining” the meaning of consent (The study she talks about is here). It might have been okay in her times for a man to undress undress a woman further when she says “Not right now,” but it isn’t anymore.
I have seen more tweets than I would care to count about how this piece was the worst thing that has happened to MeToo and doesn’t even fit there. Is MeToo only for women who’ve been victims of violence, rape, loss of career, or systematic suppression by ex-military forces (the last of which is an exception and not a norm)? Or does it also include everyday women who are subject to unpleasant incidents with men daily that are too small to litigate but keep pushing the boundaries on what’s acceptable? Can my colleague coming to my desk everyday and making uncomfortable with small talk or compliments, despite my stopping one step short of saying “get away from me”, be called harassment? Or should I secretly pour salt in his coffee because that’s how we did it in the 90s?
MeToo attempts to topple these power structures that cause not just rapes but also microaggressions of a sexual or sexist nature to women. In fact, the ENTIRE point of MeToo was to show that various levels of sexual transgressions are so normalized, literally all of us women have experienced some of varying degrees. I find this “So what, it wasn’t rape. It’s just a bad date” responses baffling. Why are you okay with bad dates that border on assault just because they happen frequently? (I’m not even going to go into what our pop culture and films depict here on what romance should be like.) Should we speak about Ansari only if he’s a Weinstein?
As more and more women speak out, more people we know and admire will be outed as indulging in sexual misconduct just because it is so rampant everyday, and statistically, famous people have to figure in it. A lot of the times, women who aren’t helped with well-written journalism or don’t have the courage to tweet non-anonymously will rely on bad storytelling to get their word out. It is important for us to identify which parts of such stories to take seriously. It is also important to identify our own internal bias: is something normal and acceptable just because it has happened so often to me and to women around me? Is telling a woman to be okay in a sexual situation despite her being uncomfortable, pained, or hurt the correct response? Are small everyday behaviours contributing to larger patterns of abuse by constantly raising the boundary of what is acceptable? Stassa Edwards makes a great point in her Jezebel piece about who she calls “second-wave feminists” and their resistance to change in social behaviours that the MeToo movement seems to be bringing: “Armed with a self-identified feminist conviction, they are often quick to deem the criminality of brutal physical attacks as the barometer for abuse—dismissing the precariousness of women rendered by institutional discrimination as self-imposed victimhood.”
A lot of the responses from older women seem to essentially stem from a “So what, we’ve had it worse LOL” view point. We’re lucky to be able to and want to change the norm today. It is absolutely imperative to have uncomfortable discussions about what constitutes as violations of a sexual nature when the ultimate act isn’t the extreme rape or the blatantly identifiable physical assault. Women often get caught in these grey areas because they don’t want to give the impression that they are difficult to be with and should probably adjust. It is important to acknowledge that men need to understand this and know that anything that seems slightly confusing is best left untouched. It isn’t assault, abuse, or harassment only when it is legally assault, abuse, or harassment.
The sad part of all of this is that for Grace and “young feminists”, this was a toxically unpleasant behavior causing emotional damage at best, sexual assault at worst. But for outspoken feminist Ansari, this was just another bad date, which the writers of both rebuttal pieces seem to have clearly accepted as the norm. Weinstein defended himself by saying he came of age in the 60s and 70s, and that’s how they used to do it back then. Let’s not use the same excuse to stop positive changes and acknowledgment of shitty male behaviour today.
Consent is not complicated. There is no yes that seems like a no or vice versa. There are no mixed signals. She said no but she’s naked? It’s still a no. Young feminists are right, Ms. Weiss. Consent is only consent if it is affirmative, active, continuous, and enthusiastic.