No other story about alleged sex pests in Hollywood and beyond has proved so controversial as the one about Aziz Ansari.
Harvey Weinstein? In the bin. Louis C.K.? Bye. Kevin Spacey? Cancelled to the extent that millions was spent to cut him from a movie.
But the Ansari story was different. Published by Babe – a website very few were familiar with until a few days ago – it recounted the story of Grace*, a photographer who went on a bad date with the Master of None creator.
After some fairly innocuous commentary on her outfit and the wine Ansari chose for the dinner, it gets down to the crux of the story: the uncomfortable situation she found herself in once they got back to his apartment.
Grace describes how she felt increasingly pressured to engage in sex, eventually speaking up about how she felt uncomfortable and didn’t “want to feel forced”. She says that Ansari heard her concerns and suggested they relax, but within minutes was pressuring her into sexual activities again.
This back-and-forth continued until she left, upset, crying in the Uber home – and eventually found itself on Babe, where it has been dissected more than any other piece in recent memory. [Following the publication, Ansari released a statement saying he believed the encounter to be entirely consensual.]
If this never-ending barrage of hot takes and op-eds has proven one thing, it’s that we really, really need to be talking about consent.
One of the biggest issues here is that no one’s sure about what to call the Ansari incident. Is it alleged sexual assault? Misconduct? Just a really shitty date?
And just because it (in all likelihood) isn’t technically illegal, doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of our outrage, anger or sadness. The events described by Grace are something most of us can relate to. It’s sexual activities we didn’t want to have but went along with anyway, because we were worn down or pestered or decided that, upon weighing up our options, it was easier to say yes than no.
People are mad at me for calling Aziz Ansari a "creep" because, legally speaking, he's not a rapist. Great place to draw that line, guys. I'm proud of you.
— maple cocaine (@historyinflicks) January 15, 2018
It’s also been something of a truly weird Rorschach test for how ‘bad’ we’re weighing this up to be. Sexologist Dr. Nikki Goldstein thinks it indicates a huge gap in our understanding on what consent even looks like.
“I don’t feel like growing up in this day and age, we are taught enough about what the meaning of consent is – how to give it, but more importantly, how to take it back,” she says.
“It’s not like someone goes, ‘Hi, can I kiss you? And you say, ‘Yes you may, but this is how you should kiss me and this is where your hands are allowed to be’. It’s a real grey area when it comes to saying yes and no to someone and how we do it.”
In a widely-shared response to the Babe.net’s piece, ‘Aziz Ansari Is Guilty. Of Not Being A Mind Reader‘, journalist Bari Weiss writes about what Grace should have done.
If you are hanging out naked with a man, it’s safe to assume he is going to try to have sex with you.
If the inability to choose a pinot noir over a pinot grigio offends you, you can leave right then and there.
If you don’t like the way your date hustles through paying the check, you can say, “I’ve had a lovely evening and I’m going home now.”
If you go home with him and discover he’s a terrible kisser, say “I’m out.”
If you start to hook up and don’t like the way he smells or the way he talks (or doesn’t talk), end it.
If he pressures you to do something you don’t want to do, use a four-letter word, stand up on your two legs and walk out his door.
On the surface level, this is good advice. But what if the encounter had turned more forceful? How well would this advice stack up then? Women walk through the world with the implicit knowledge that, at any moment, a man denied his sexual desires can turn violent. We also know that if this happens, the woman will be blamed (“What were you wearing? Why didn’t you leave? Could you have done something to lead him on?”). We’re still putting the onus on women to prevent sexual assault instead of on men to not do it in the first place.
These harmful stereotypes even go on to affect criminal cases, in the rare occurrence when a sexual assault leads to court.
“Even though we’ve seen improvements in sexual assault law, if you look at the cases, you can see that there’s not a lot of responsibility being placed on men to actually ask (or find out) if a woman wants to have sex,” says Gail Mason, Professor of Criminology at the University of Sydney.
“I think the problem is how the law gets applied by juries and judges. That’s where stereotypes about women and men come into play, and people’s beliefs about what rape looks like – myths like ‘it’s only rape if a woman put up a huge active fight and has the bruises to show for it’. All of those things come in to play and shape jury attitudes when they’re sitting on a sexual assault trial. I think the problem is less to do with the law itself and more about how that gets applied. It’s a lot to do with education.”
It’s clear that the huge range of responses to the Ansari story means we need to start talking about what consent looks like, how to recognise it in a partner, and how to recognise our own behaviours.
“When I was growing up, the whole issue around consent was ‘No means no’,” says Goldstein. “If someone wants to hook up with you, and you don’t want to, no means no. And that’s the problem. That doesn’t work so clear cut these days.”
She says we need to educate people, particularly the next generation, on being able to understand consent beyond societal rules or law.
“That’s the really important part. Instead of just saying, don’t do this, don’t do that, you need to encourage the next generation to think about people’s boundaries, power, how does your power or status influence [your sexual interactions].”
And let’s not forget: Aziz Ansari is 34-year-old comedian, Golden Globe winner, and beloved actor. Grace is a 23-year-old photographer.
We’re experiencing a major shift right now, and it’s important we talk about the grey areas and nuances of consent. Stories like Grace’s are an incredibly important part of that conversation.
So while we’re pushing for better sex education, or higher conviction rates, or funding for services around violence against women, or any step in the ultimate dismantling of rape culture, use this story as an opportunity to educate yourself.
Consent isn’t several “Nos” followed by a single “Yes”. It’s enthusiastically given, repeatedly and without coercion. And if that still feels like a grey area, then maybe it’s time to stop having sex until you’ve figured this shit out. Time’s up.Image: Getty Images / Mike Coppola