WE NEED TO CHANGE THE WAY WE’RE TALKING ABOUT THE AZIZ ANSARI STORY
By Anna Tingley
Feminist mantras surrounding consent, that have become increasingly more prevalent this past year, profess that consent is the easiest equation to figure out: yes is yes, no is no. The line is drawn, finite, definite.
Once it’s crossed, there is no going back. If you clearly state you don’t want to do something, and your partner either forces, coerces, or manipulates you to do said thing, it would be wrong to classify it as anything other than harassment at its mildest categorization. And of course, these instances can travel to even scarier territories, such as assault and rape.
This simplified rundown of consent is exactly why the backlash against the Harvey Weinsteins of the world was immediate and unified, with Hollywood racing to erase the legacy of those whose wrongdoings were obvious. In just one of Weinstein’s hundreds of sexual assault cases, a leaked video recording proves (without a shadow of a doubt) that he used his power to coerce a woman to watch him shower. She clearly says she’s uncomfortable and adamantly says no many times. His break on the above equation is clear: she said no, he did said thing, he assaulted her.
But what happens when that “no” wasn’t explicitly said? When there’s no recording to lay out the objective truth? When our journey towards justice is stuck in the middle of a tug-of-war between two opposing sides of what happened?
In the vast majority of cases – especially those outside of Hollywood’s spotlight and headlines – that drawn, finite line is suddenly blurred. Most recently, the viral Aziz Ansari piece that narrated a young photographer’s date with the beloved comedian — and particularly her disgusted feeling afterwards that she had done things she hadn’t wanted to — gave rise to the criticism that the #MeToo movement had officially gone too far.
Twitters and blogs ran rampant with attacks on the pseudonymous “Grace” and defenses of Ansari. The long op-eds that followed babe.net’s original expose all followed the same route of criticism: she should have explicitly said no, she should have left when she apparently felt uncomfortable, and most notably, she shouldn’t have performed the oral sex that she now claims to regret. Some argue that his attitude, at its best, can be perceived to be one of understanding and empathy; he says "It's only fun if we're both having fun" when she expresses how she doesn't want to be forced to do anything. At its worst, though, Ansari's actions can be seen as cunning coercion; Grace says the date felt like a game as he followed her around his apartment.
Atlantic columnist, Caitlin Flanagan, went so far as to propose that we're raising a new generation of weaker women. She writes, "In so many ways, compared with today’s young women, we were weak; we were being prepared for being wives and mothers, not occupants of the C-Suite. But as far as getting away from a man who was trying to pressure us into sex we didn’t want, we were strong."
What's missing from these reaction pieces, however, is a focus on the clear miscommunication between Ansari and Grace. For some reason, what he thought to be a normal date, was a tragic night for her. What he thought to be consensual, she thought to be coercion. While Ansari's actions can be, and should be, criticized with vigor, it is vital that we recognize that the issues that arose during this date are far larger than him, his actions, or the date itself. While it's valid to attack Ansari for not picking up on his date's clues, there's a reason he accepted her behavior as normal. Even more importantly, there's a reason that she played along to Ansari's rules for so long despite her discomfort.
These reasons lie in the divergent expectations and perceptions of sex that women and men hold. It's for this exact reason that the epidemic of gender inequality is an institutional problem, and not a personal one, which is why our discourse surrounding sexual consent is often so hard. Because it's just that: personal and vulnerable and intimate.
But despite this intimacy, the power struggle is very real in heteronormative sex. For one, the entire thing is so geared towards the man's pleasure, that often the woman not only doesn't enjoy sex, but often feels like she has to endure its discomfort and pain to play her part. Lili Loufbourow writes, "Women are supposed to perform comfort and pleasure they do not feel under conditions that make genuine comfort almost impossible." Looking at it this way, it's very easy to see why it took Grace so long to leave, and inversely, for Ansari to realize that she didn't want to be there.
Grace isn't weak, as Flanagan suggests. But our culture is telling her to be.
On top of the normalization of women's discomfort is the expectations we hold for the men in these situations. Men are trained and encouraged to get (and want to get) anything they can from women. This is the toxic masculinity of our culture: they're considered unmanly if they don't try to get sex anytime, all the time, from any and all women. It's clear that Ansari, and so many men, are simply filling this unhealthy role.
My friend once told me that men build the structures of their relationships with women, and women simply maneuver their way through the routes drawn out for them. This analogy perfectly captures the unhealthy ways in which men and women have been raised to interact with each other, and is exactly why dates like that of Aziz and Grace happen so often. It's also why it's impossible to put blame on any one person: both parties are contributing to the harmful patriarchal mentality that inherently gives men more power.
So yes, Ansari acted like a dick but is not a criminal. And yes, in a perfect world Grace should have spoken up, but our culture hasn't yet given her the toolset to do so.
This viral date is unfortunately not an outlier or a "bad seed," and because of that we can't attack Ansari, but rather the system that encouraged him to act in the way he did. We need to work together to build structures whose paths allow the desires of any sex to be respected.
Anna Tingley is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Tough to Tame, and an advocate for all things feminist, politics, or ramen-related. Her writing can be found at Teen Vogue, Billboard Magazine, Her Agenda, The Daily Bruin, and The Richmond Pulse. But for all the dirt, check her out on Instagram @annatationz and Twitter @annatingley.