Aziz Ansari and Why His Misconduct Matters

When it first got legs, the #MeToo movement seemed pretty simple. Women who had been abused told their stories and were, finally, believed. Everyone agreed that men who preyed on women through rape and sexual harassment were despicable and deserved to be called out. But then it started getting more complex. What exactly is sexual harassment? What about men who were feminist allies yet sometimes behaved badly? We Americans prefer our issues to be black or white but the #MeToo movement has gray all over it.

Take, for example, the incident involving comedian Aziz Ansari. When a woman came forward saying that she’d had a horrible night with Ansari in which he consistently pressured her for sex, people were divided. Instead of automatically siding with the accuser, they were a lot less willing to believe that Ansari deserved her anger. Op-eds and TV diatribes heaping scorn on the victim were so plentiful that you could be excused for thinking the #MeToo movement had never happened.

This was because Ansari’s situation is complicated, much more intricate in a way that the initial #MeToo accusations were not. We’re all infuriated by lecherous men making demeaning remarks or gross sexual demands in the workplace. We’re all clear on how awful that is and we feel good about our shared outrage. But the Ansari case is different. It wades into the murky territory of power dynamics within romantic encounters and what exactly constitutes consent. And part of the problem surely has to be that Ansari seemed like a woke feminist when, as it turns out, he isn’t.

Ansari built a lot of his entertainment career on the perception that he was that guy, the one man in the room who got it. He was the one who would promote women’s equality and call out those men who still viewed women as second-class citizens. So, it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise that a young woman wanted to go out with him and didn’t worry too much about going back to his apartment. You never expect that guy won’t respect your wishes, especially not when he’s a celebrity. But that’s apparently what happened.

The couple went back to his apartment where they quickly began engaging in sexual activity. When he wanted to move to intercourse, she said no. According to Grace (not her real name), she both verbally and non-verbally indicated her discomfort about continuing but he kept pushing. Grace wanted something other than sex out of the encounter. Ansari acknowledged this yet relentlessly pressured her for sex until she eventually left. Neither side claims he raped her but Grace felt violated. And when she saw him wearing a Time’s Up pin at the Golden Globes, she was angry enough to tell her story to a reporter.

That’s when it got uglier. Plenty of people, including many women, were angry at Grace for making too big of a deal out of a bad date, for not leaving when she felt uncomfortable, for trivializing the experiences of “real” victims of sexual assault, for portraying women as helpless victims and for going after a celebrity who didn’t deserve it. And, of course, the “poor men will be accused regardless of what they do” excuse was trotted out. All the vitriol was deeply disturbing, particularly since it just heightened the realization that we haven’t even begun to deal with rape culture and what’s at the foundation of the #MeToo problem. So let’s go over some of the assumptions that these accusations against Grace entail.

  1. Men are supposed to push for sex, so women are responsible for controlling the situation.

Rape culture teaches that men should be the aggressors because they like sex and women have to enforce boundaries because we don’t. Popular culture shows us that it’s normal, even funny, to have to convince women to have sex. Therefore, repeated violations of a woman’s boundaries – overcoming her initial lack of interest through coercion – are an acceptable way to do this. Ironically, Ansari’s character on Parks & Rec was a master at this. Women internalize this lesson which is why we let men off the hook for their bullying and tend to feel guilty if things go badly. Instead, everyone needs to understand that the initial “No” is still a no, not the first hurdle to a yes. Ansari shouldn’t have pushed so hard and he needed to listen to Grace.

  1. Men ignoring women’s wishes should be expected.

Since men are taught to view every sexual interaction as a challenge, women understand that being disrespected by their partner is normal, inevitable and acceptable. We pretend that male entitlement is just ignorance (I thought she was into it too) and act like respecting women’s wishes is this mysterious and difficult process (How could I know she didn’t want to when she didn’t say anything?). This is a very dangerous mindset because it can and does allow predators to get away with their actions unexamined. Instead of believing that it’s women’s responsibility to fend off men, perhaps it’s time for us to change the narrative to it being men’s responsibility to listen, pay attention to body language and respect women’s wishes. Women have been listening and interpreting men’s body language for generations. Now it’s men’s turn. Ansari easily could’ve picked up on Grace’s words and body language that he needed to stop and then obeyed her wishes.

  1. Power dynamics don’t influence people’s behavior in dating situations.

Power dynamics matter in personal circumstances too. Women are socialized to be the keepers of the relationship, to soothe troubled waters. Girls learn early that it’s rude to reject boys (Don’t get mad; he’s just acting that way because he likes you.), that we should let them down easily in case they get upset. We learn to give other people what they want and put our desires second, especially when it comes to sex. This can make it difficult for some women to be comfortable with being assertive. Unless you’ve had a lot of practice speaking up, it just isn’t that easy. And a lot of women have reason to be afraid of rejecting men. Situations can sometimes get ugly when that happens (witness the recent school shootings), so it’s difficult to know which men will accept it and which ones won’t. Clearly we need to do a better job of teaching women assertiveness skills but we also need to train men how to graciously accept disappointment. Ansari is a male celebrity who was older than Grace. He had the power in this situation and should’ve used it wisely.

  1. In times of stress, people will accurately assess the situation and know exactly what they should do.

I really love it when people comment upon what they would’ve done differently in a difficult situation. They make it sound so simple. What they’re forgetting is that they’re examining the situation without the stress, emotion, or urgency that’s present during the actual incident. The reality is that no one truly knows what they’ll do until they’re in it. Events can happen quickly, so it may take some time for your brain to catch up. There could be a period of denial (Is this really happening?) where you question whether what you’re experiencing is accurate. And then there’s your brain’s response to a crisis. Some of us freeze, others run and still others fight. Our reactions depend on a lot of different factors including training, expectations and the options available. Women are trained and expected to give men the benefit of the doubt. Ansari was supposedly a woke celebrity and Grace wanted a nice night with him. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that she was taken off-guard and hoped things would get better.

  1. There’s a fixed definition for what sexual assault is and what it isn’t.

For some reason, people want to play the Rape Olympics, as if only the most brutal violations count. Sure, some assaults are more violent than others but that doesn’t mean we should just ignore the less severe actions like Ansari’s. Assault is a continuum. If anything, we should be taking a closer look at this dynamic because it’s considered socially acceptable. His coercion, his refusal to listen to her, leads to making it OK to not listen to women. Ignoring women’s wishes and their right to say no can lead to more violent assault. Grace didn’t need to be raped to feel traumatized. She didn’t need to be harassed in order to feel less than. When what you want ceases to matter – particularly when it has to do with control over your own body – it negatively affects your mental health. It’s all part of the same problem which is why we need to have this conversation. If we can stop these types of situations from happening at this level, then maybe they won’t escalate.

  1. Enthusiastic consent doesn’t matter.

Consent is a huge issue in sexual situations yet rape culture teaches that it’s a mere technicality. Sex is intended to be pleasurable but, when consent is removed, it becomes something else. Yet instead of treating consent like an integral part of the experience, we act like once a woman has said yes to one thing, she’s agreed to anything. That’s not how it works in other situations and it shouldn’t work like that with sex either. Every time a woman’s feelings or decisions are ignored, her experience is invalidated and she’s primed for something worse. This point is especially important because even “nice guys” engage in behavior like this that is damaging to women. Rather than requiring men to only seek technical consent, we need to educate them to ask for enthusiastic consent where both partners want to be there every step of the way. Everyone needs to learn that getting consent is not only essential but that it can be sexy and checking in can be hot. Popular culture shows romance/sex being spontaneous and wordlessly acted upon but that’s not what responsible adults do with one another. If Ansari had kept checking in with Grace and actually cared about her feelings, then we wouldn’t be here.

While it wasn’t as bad as some of the #MeToo stories we’ve heard about or experienced, the Ansari situation is no less important because this is where it all starts. If everyone let go of preconceived gender stereotypes and romantic misconceptions, then sex might be better for everyone. The #MeToo movement was a beginning, one in which we recognized that there is a problem. But that’s only the first step; the Time’s Up for us to just ignore all aspects of the issue. Now the tough work of healing and change begins. And it doesn’t start with the big stuff. It starts with the small.

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