Was it a Bad Date? Or Was it Coercion?
I’ve been obnoxiously glued to the Aziz Ansari news story the last couple of days. It’s not a pleasant story, but I can’t seem to get it out of my mind. At this point, I’ve probably read a dozen essays in response, and another 2 dozen lengthy Twitter threads dissecting the situation, and placing blame on him, or on her, or on both.
If you haven’t seen the story, it’s from a woman who is using the name Grace, and it’s about a pretty terrible date she had with Aziz Ansari. You can read the original report here.
The story has grabbed me for a couple of reasons. At first it was just because it was about Aziz Ansari. We’ve always been big fans at our house — since the Tom Haverford days. In fact a couple of hours before the story broke, my 16 year old daughter, Olive, pulled out the GQ issue with Aziz on the cover to reread his interview, and we were talking about wanting to move to Italy, inspired by a recent re-watch of Season 2 of Master of None.
That night when I was getting ready for bed, I saw a tweet about the story, and my first thought was that I hoped that somehow Olive would not see it, because I knew she would be crushed. (But of course she saw it. And of course it broke her heart.)
I think the other reason I haven’t been able to stop following the story, is because the responses are so polarized — and not in a political way. Some people have read Grace’s story, and are furious at her. They believe she was very wrong to share the story. Others think Aziz was in the wrong, and feel like this story — though it’s not violent, and not rape — opens up important conversations. And the profile of the people who hold these views is not clear cut at all, for example, there are staunch feminists on both sides. And I have dear friends who completely disagree on this.
I can see where the angry-at-Grace folks are coming from. I could feel it as I started reading the story. Since I had already seen the headline, and knew it wasn’t going to end well, it was like watching a horror movie. I could feel myself thinking: Don’t do it, Grace. Don’t go home with him. Nope, don’t let him undress you. Walk away Grace. He’s not going to listen! He’s going to keep pushing and pressuring! He clearly doesn’t care if you’re into this or not. Get out! Go home!
Of course, I can assume that part of me thinking those thoughts was because as fan, it would feel better if Aziz was never the bad guy, and it would be easier to blame Grace.
But then I started picturing Grace, who was 22 at the time. That’s not a child, but it’s still quite young. And she’s with a celebrity who is 12 years older than her, and GQ-cover famous. He may not be physically imposing, but the power dynamic is still very much in his favor. Additionally, he’s known as being a feminist ally — someone you can feel safe with.
I could imagine her hopeful perspective, even as the date got weirder. Thinking that this is a good guy. And she should want to be there, right? She should want this opportunity to hang with super cool Aziz Ansari in his apartment. She doesn’t get a perspective change until later in the evening, and once she does, she leaves. But until that perspective change, I can picture her hopeful for a great night.
In contrast, we go into the story without that hopeful perspective. And it’s easy to think she’s dumb for not seeing it, or not leaving right away. I don’t think she was dumb. I think it’s understandable.
There were several things I read that changed my original attitude about the story, and ultimately I am glad Grace shared it. Some of the stand out pieces:
I read this tweet about seeing this as an everyday normal sort of interaction:
A lot of men will read that post about Aziz Ansari and see an everyday, reasonable sexual interaction. But part of what women are saying right now is that what the culture considers “normal” sexual encounters are not working for us, and oftentimes harmful.
— Jessica Valenti (@JessicaValenti) January 14, 2018
This really struck a cord for me. If this is normal, if this isn’t something to talk about, then that’s a huge problem. Then, I read this thread by Sady Doyle, and was like woah. She goes through each argument, and rebuts it. It’s strong.
Next was a compelling heartfelt essay from KatyKatiKate, called Not That Bad. The whole thing is really good, and the line that hit me? “This is a common, normal hookup. A shitty, painful hookup where Grace’s comfort and pleasure were like #7 on the priority list. Mean, punishing sex is normal. And awful. Our normal is awful.”
That kills me. And it resonates. How in the world do we continue to keep what women are feeling or experiencing such a low priority?
And then I read this thread, where a teenage Mormon girl is coerced into performing oral sex, and didn’t dare speak up until she read Grace’s story. It reminded me how common this kind of situation is, and that it’s confusing and horrible. As the coerced person, you know you didn’t want to do it, but didn’t scream NO and run away, so maybe it’s your fault? (It’s not your fault.)
I read another essay that talked about how some people are rejecting this story, because if we accept it, we have to examine all of our past sexual experiences, and maybe admit some were worse than just a “bad date.” Perhaps if we’re honest, we were pressured or coerced. Maybe we only gave in because we were too tired to stop saying no, and giving in was easier. Or because giving in was the safer option, and more likely to keep anger at bay. And who wants to have to think of that? It’s heavy stuff.
I saw someone tweet something like “if what Aziz Ansari did was sexual assault then every woman I know has been sexually assaulted” and like yeah, actually.
— Arnesa (@Rrrrnessa) January 15, 2018
As I read, I saw one commenter point out that maybe the differing responses to this news story are generational. If you’re Gen X (like me) or older, maybe you’ve been on these kinds of “bad dates” many times, so this is just sort of normalized. And since Grace wasn’t physically forced, then someone in my generation might feel that this doesn’t qualify as a #metoo story. But younger generations — like Millenials, and my own kids (Gen Z), expect better.
I was taught acquiescence was expected, that unless it got violent I was expected to go along with it and that I should be flattered by the attention. I’m proud of this generation of women for standing up and making NO mean NO.
— Carrie McK (@carriemck) January 16, 2018
A Facebook friend, Steph Lauritzen, wrote that she hasn’t ever liked Aziz, because she feels like the worlds he creates through writing show his real feelings, and that his real feelings are he doesn’t respect women. She writes, “I keep thinking that I’m not surprised by men anymore. If a man spends a lot of time talking about feminism while simultaneously creating a world devoid of gender equality, his actions in public inform me about his actions in private. Look at the art men make. Art doesn’t lie.”
Another conversation talked about the over-arching problem of our society telling men to chase, and to keep pressuring, and to achieve sex no matter what. And then, the same society not telling women how to talk about their sexual preferences at all — and not even letting women know they’re allowed to have sexual preferences.
Much of the discussion has been about communication. Some people feel Grace clearly communicated with both verbal and physical signals. Others say we’re expecting Aziz to be a mind reader, and that she should have been more clear.
On this point, I’m with those who feel she communicated clearly. I was convinced when I read a thread about how studies have been done on gender, miscommunication, and ‘soft nos,’ and the overwhelming conclusion is that men demonstrate competence in all areas, but claim ignorance when they are talking to women and the topic is sex or dating. From the study:
“Drawing on the conversation analytic literature, and on our own data, we claim that both men and women have a sophisticated ability to convey and to comprehend refusals, including refusals which do not include the word ‘no’, …we suggest that male claims not to have ‘understood’ refusals…can only be heard as self-interested justifications for coercive behaviour.”
I love how men claim to be so much smarter and better at everything, UNTIL they don’t want to know something, like how to clean the bathroom (I’m just a big ol’ dumb guy!) or how to interpret somebody pushing them away (she didn’t say no!)
— Heliotropist (@stillSTH) January 16, 2018
And yet he and everybody questioning Grace sure seem convinced as fuck that they’re reading her POSITIVE non-verbal signals properly. “She took her clothes off, that’s the same as yes! She moved away several times? HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO UNDERSTAND THIS BAFFLING FEMALE LANGUAGE?”
— Agatha (@Agatha_31_) January 17, 2018
Another topic that comes up a lot in the discussions is the concept of Enthusiastic Consent. The idea is that “no means no” isn’t even close to being good enough. Instead you need an enthusiastic YES! And you need to keep getting those yeses throughout the sexual encounter, because consent can be withdrawn at any point — meaning you might be into it at first, but if you get distracted, or uncomfortable, or remember something sad, and are no longer into it, you’re allowed to say: Never mind, I don’t want to keep having sex.
There’s also many ongoing conversations about how this story is hurting #metoo. Or how this is #metoo jumping the shark. Or how women have gone overboard now. I say: Baloney. Clearly, the responses show us we need to talk about this stuff — out in the open where we can hash things out. And I haven’t heard a single person call for Aziz to go to jail, or boycott his work. Things are not out of hand.
Am I getting this news cycle right?
1. Someone writes an article about Aziz Ansari.
2. Nothing bad happens to Aziz Ansari.
3. A thousand takes issue forth denouncing the entirely hypothetical persecution of Aziz Ansari.
— Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias) January 16, 2018
if you truly think the aziz ansari story in any way discredits the larger #metoo movement, then you were just looking for an excuse and any one will do.
— Joel D. Anderson (@byjoelanderson) January 16, 2018
When someone says they don’t want #MeToo to be “derailed” or “muddied,” all I hear is that they don’t want to do the hard thinking necessary for a nuanced cultural shift.
— Jessica Valenti (@JessicaValenti) January 16, 2018
Interestingly, the articles I’ve read from bigger publications have all been sympathetic to Aziz, and really quite condemning of Grace:
Caitlin Flanagan wrote in The Atlantic, The Humiliation of Aziz Ansari. Caitlin thinks women are being bullies.
And Bari Weiss wrote in the NYT, Aziz Ansari Is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader. Bari thinks women are being helpless weaklings.
But some of the smaller (but still powerful) publications have been the opposite:
Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote in Salon, Aziz Ansari and #MeToo backlash: We won’t stop talking about consent. Mary responds to both Caitlin and Bari and says;
“So are we helpless or power-mad here? Snowflakes or bullies? Whatever you may think of Grace’s narrative, or her use of the unquestionably loaded word “assault,” it’s clear that the eagerness to demand that women limit what we share has become increasingly intense — as if self-policing isn’t exactly what we’ve been doing all our lives.”
And Anna North wrote for Vox, The Aziz Ansari story is ordinary. That’s why we have to talk about it. Her final paragraph:
“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.”
Me personally? I have mixed feelings. But for sure, I feel sympathetic to Grace. I feel like I can imagine some of the thought process she might have experienced. Maybe something like: I’ve communicated I just want to chill, and I think he’s a good guy, and I want this experience to be cool because celebrity and awesome comic genius, so if I can just navigate this, I’m hopeful we’ll have a great night…
And at the same time, she may have combined that thinking with: He’s relentless. He keeps pressuring me, maybe it’s easier to just do this? He’s a good guy, right? So why does this feel so confusing and coercive?
I also feel sympathetic in a small way toward Aziz — it must be awful to have your sexual preferences and peculiarities shared all over the news. But mostly I think he should have stopped. He was the more powerful person in that duo. Within minutes of the first kiss Aziz wanted to go get a condom, and Grace said, “Whoa, let’s relax for a sec, let’s chill.”
To me, that’s a clear NO. And at that point, Aziz should have said something like: Okay. Sounds good. Let’s hang out and watch TV or something.” And then not pushed for sex unless and until she was enthusiastic about it. Or, a much harsher but straightforward response would also have worked. Something like, “Cool. I won’t get the condom, but here’s the thing, I really want to have sex with someone tonight. And preferably right away. So if you’re not into it, let me call you an Uber, and we can end the night before one or both of us gets frustrated.
Why are so many people asking why this woman didn’t leave & so few asking why he didn’t stop?
— Jessica Valenti (@JessicaValenti) January 16, 2018
Yes, she could have left too, but I can see how it would have been harder for her to do that. Twenty-two years old is young enough to not have had other dates like this; for this to be a first. To not understand right away she should leave. Plus, women deal with dozens of micro-aggressions every day, we’re socialized to be polite, we’re taught by our culture that being sexualized is connected to our self worth, and we live with the real fear of violent retaliation. We’d like to think we’ll always be bold and walk out of a bad situation, but sometimes, all those things can make it really hard to leave.
I would love to live in a world where women feel safe saying NO, loudly & clearly every time they feel uncomfortable but that’s something that is often impossible for women. After all, the word no hasn’t been taught to us. We haven’t been given the freedom to say no all the time.
— Arnesa (@Rrrrnessa) January 15, 2018
The Aziz Ansari stuff is a perfect demonstration of how rape culture works and how men are socialized to feel entitled to sex. No, there was no rape, but this thing where men pester women for sex and don’t let up, even when it’s clear she isn’t into it, IS RAPE CULTURE.
— Meghan Murphy (@MeghanEMurphy) January 15, 2018
I realize others see this story differently than I do. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you been following this story? Or is it new to you? And have you read the original report? What’s your take on the whole thing? Do you feel like this negatively affects the #MeToo movement? How about consent? At what age do you think parents should talk to their kids about it?
P.S. — As a parent, I was sad Olive read such an awful story about one of her heroes, and I was also sad that by reading this story, she would get a very weird idea of what a typical date might look like.