“It was sexual harassment.” “It was just bad sex.” “She should share her experiences.” “She’s a weak woman.” “Speaking out about this was anti-feminist.” “Something like this shouldn’t ruin his career.”
Reactions varied wildly after feminist website babe.net published a story in mid-January from an anonymous source — who went by the name “Grace” — about a sexual encounter with actor Aziz Ansari last September. The story marked the beginning of a new stage in the #MeToo movement, reopening fundamental questions about how to define sexual violence — questions that should be brought up and debated if we’re ever to move past gender inequality.
According to her story, Grace met Ansari at a party a few weeks before their encounter, bonded with him over their shared interest in photography and went on an awkward first date. After the date, she accompanied him back to his apartment. Ansari quickly began behaving intimately — and in the process ignored Grace’s strong discomfort, both “verbal and non-verbal.”
The questions central to this debate are “what constitutes sexual assault?” and “what is consent?” Both really go hand in hand — according to federal law, sexual assault can be any sexual contact where one party’s consent is given under constraint or not given at all, so consent is an important part of understanding sexual assault.
Ansari is a self-declared feminist, a proponent of women’s rights and the creator of an award-winning show, “Master of None,” featuring episodes specifically addressing women’s rights and sexual harassment. But based on the account featured on babe.net, even someone as presumably progressive as Ansari can make the mistake of simply being too impatient to wait and assuming silence was consent.
I’ve been a big fan of Ansari’s show. It was exciting to see the series discuss women’s struggles with sexual violence and include a prominent male character working toward female empowerment . Since he was the main writer of “Master of None,” and many of his episodes grapple with the topic of consent, Ansari seemed very aware of the frequent harassment women experience.
Yet Grace allegedly described her encounter with the actor as a repeated series of strong cues indicating “how uncomfortable and distressed she was” by his behavior. In Ansari’s official statement, he claimed the activity was, “by all indications completely consensual.”
“It was true that everything did seem okay to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned,” Ansari said. “I took her words to heart and responded privately after taking the time to process what she had said.”
His response the day after the night they experienced together didn’t seem to reflect the same level of thoughtfulness. In what appears to be a text conversation exchanged between the two, Grace texted him saying she “didn’t feel good at all” and that the experience affected her negatively.
“It would never be my intention to make you or anyone feel the way you described,” Ansari said in the alleged text messages displayed in a video by babe.net. “Clearly I misread things in the moment and I’m truly sorry.”
While Ansari at least recognized how he was wrong, that’s exactly where the problem is. There shouldn’t be anything to misread when a woman willingly gives a verbal “yes.” And even though Ansari has covered issues of sexual assault and supports women’s rights, he was too absorbed in his own sexual desires to actually consider Grace’s all-important verbal consent.
The wide discrepancies between the two parties’ perceptions of how the evening went is startling, and it shows a lack of a universally understood definition of consent. To be clear, consent is an uncoerced verbal “yes” from everyone involved.
Consent is meant to affirm that everyone involved wants to participate. Silence cannot be mistaken as consent, and neither can lack of repulsion. Consent is nothing except a confident “yes” from both parties.
Yet critics of Grace’s story ignored this basic fact, instead focusing on how the story had affected Ansari. Caitlin Flanagan of the Atlantic was quick to criticize the controversy as an example of a woman simply upset because her feelings were hurt.
“There is a whole country full of young women who don’t know how to call a cab,” Flanagan wrote in a column the day after Grace’s account was published on babe.net. “They’re angry and temporarily powerful, and last night they destroyed a man who didn’t deserve it.”
It’s unsurprising people have written off this experience as one of just bad sex or disappointment. In a culture where male sexual fulfillment seems like the sole focus of gender roles and relations, calling it internalized misogyny seems too easy — but that’s really what it is.
What Flanagan doesn’t consider is the fetishization of women and the stereotypical “hard to get” or “too easy” act expected of women in heterosexual relationships. Coupled with the inherent power imbalance in any exchange between a man and a woman, the situation is much more nuanced than Flanagan recognizes.
Bad sex is not equivalent to sex without consent, and that’s a distinction that needs to be made clear. No person should get so caught up by overwhelming lust in the moment that they can only think of their own feelings and rely on the person pulling away if they don’t actually want to continue.
To create more sexual competency, we need to further educate people on what consent is in an attempt to change the cultural norms existing today. Teaching people to ask for verbal consent is one of many possibilities to ensure all intimacy is reciprocal. And we can start even earlier by teaching kids the value of their bodies so they never feel obligated to have forced sex.
In the meantime, here’s the simple answer: if they say yes — without coercion — you have consent and may partake in sexual activity. If they simply “acted” like they wanted it, “implied” it with their actions or anything else that does not have verbal confirmation, take a step back and consider what’s really going on.