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“What the Aziz Ansari story tells us about our attitudes to sex and trauma”

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Moya Crockett
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Not every negative sexual encounter can be classed as assault. But that doesn’t mean these experiences are unworthy of discussion, says Stylist.co.uk’s Moya Crockett.

On Sunday morning, I woke up to a WhatsApp message from a friend. It contained two words and an emoji: “Aziz Ansari :(”. My heart sank. In 2018, being presented with the name of a famous man without context can only mean one thing.

Ansari is an award-winning comedian, actor and screenwriter, the author of Modern Love, a nonfiction book about the nuances of dating in the 21st century, and the creator of the brilliant, tender and switched-on Netflix romantic sitcom Master of None. He is also the subject of an article published this weekend by babe, titled “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned out to be the worst night of my life”. In the piece, a 23-year-old photographer going by the pseudonym of Grace recounts an evening she spent with Ansari in September 2017, shortly after meeting him at an Emmys party.

Her tale is an unhappy and unsettling one, told from the perspective of a young woman who felt rushed into sexual contact and ignored when she tried to resist. Ansari removed her clothes and went to get a condom within minutes of their first kiss in his apartment, Grace says, and brushed off her requests to slow things down. She says that he repeatedly forced his fingers into her mouth, asked her to give him oral sex, and pulled her hands towards his penis, apparently not noticing – or not caring – when she moved away.

Grace complied with some of Ansari’s requests, she says, and refused others. She says she “felt really pressured”. She says that the comedian didn’t seem to pick up on her “clear non-verbal cues” that she was feeling uncomfortable, and tried to barter his way past her explicit verbal assertions that things were moving too fast. At one point in her interview with babe, she says: “He was very much caught up in the moment and I obviously very much wasn’t.”

Ansari has since issued an official response to Grace’s story. In it, he does not make any denials or apologies, but says that he was surprised to hear that she had not enjoyed her evening with him. He also expresses support for the #MeToo movement. 

It would be easy to make the argument – and indeed, many have – that Ansari does not deserve to be lumped in with the sexual abusers and harassers who have already been taken down by #MeToo. Scroll through Twitter and you’ll find endless comments asserting that Ansari is not a Harvey Weinstein, nor a Kevin Spacey, and should not be treated as such. Grace’s experience, meanwhile, is written off as nothing more than a disappointing evening.

“If we allow Aziz Ansari to be crucified solely bc of this bad date accusation, it’ll only be a matter of time before another man’s life is ruined bc he kissed a woman on the cheek,” reads one typical tweet. Another Twitter user, who identifies themselves as a woman, writes: “Aziz Ansari situation wasn’t sexual assault. That was a bad date with a clown… Not every sexual encounter is assault.”

The message, here, is that Grace should get over it; that these things happen; that she isn’t a victim, and Ansari isn’t a villain. Equally, women who see Grace’s experience as worthy of discussion have been accused of being drama queens, of ‘crying wolf’, or of broadening the definition of sexual misconduct to the point of meaninglessness. Some have argued that those who criticise Ansari’s behaviour – behaviour that is unpleasant and insensitive, sure, but far from illegal – risk undermining the important work the #MeToo movement has done in felling ‘real’ sexual predators.

It is true that not every negative sexual encounter can or should be classed as assault. It is true that not every negative sexual encounter can or should be classed as harassment. Does that mean that there is no value in talking about negative sexual encounters, of the kind that Grace had with Ansari? I don’t think so.

Our culture is long overdue a serious conversation about this kind of troubling sexual experience: one that doesn’t tip over into full-on coercion, perhaps, but which certainly doesn’t feel wholly consensual for the woman involved. Women are hungry to talk about this type of muddy, murky, traumatic interaction. Just look at the colossal response to Cat Person, Kristen Roupenian’s short story about a young woman having dehumanising sex with an older man, published by The New Yorker in December. Short stories don’t often go viral, but this one did – because it tapped into a female experience that had never before been considered worthy of discussion.

Yet after Cat Person was published, a common criticism was that it was boring. When The New Yorker shared the story on their Facebook page, the comments section was flooded with people asking why such a prestigious magazine had run a work of fiction where nothing really ‘happened’. So a fictional woman had sex that left her feeling like a “doll made of rubber… a prop for the movie that was playing in [a man’s] head”. So what?

Many will read Grace’s account of her evening with Ansari and react with similar indifference. But by dismissing the young photographer’s story and Cat Person as unremarkable, these critics unwittingly hit on a crucial point. Yes, the stories are unexceptional. Yes, women go through things like all the time. But what does it say about our culture that we have yet to view that as a problem? 

“Cat Person went viral because it tapped into a female experience that had never before been considered worthy of discussion.”

The reality is that many women have not had deeply terrifying experiences like the women allegedly victimised by Harvey Weinstein, involving death threats and rape and hotel rooms and the prospect of careers being destroyed forever. But you’d be hard pressed to find a woman who has had sex with men who hasn’t gone through something quietly traumatic, like Grace. As the babe story about Ansari went viral, my phone flashed again and again with messages from female friends: “It’s scary because it’s so familiar, you know.” “Ugh. Horribly relatable.” “We’ve all been there. Grim.”

It is becoming abundantly clear that not enough men understand just how normal it is for women to find themselves in sexual situations where they feel anxious, pressured, depersonalised, powerless, voiceless and totally alone – which they would stop short of defining as assault, or even as non-consensual, but which leave them feeling shocked to their core. I’ve felt like that myself, many times, and the men in these situations were not scary strangers or threatening bosses. They were men I liked, men who I wanted to like me, men I was dating, men who I wanted to spend time with. They were ‘nice’ guys; normal guys. I have rarely spoken about these experiences, even with close friends, because they seemed… well, normal.

It is also becoming abundantly clear that not enough men are taking the time to consider whether they could make, or have ever made, women feel like this. In many ways, the Weinstein scandal allowed ‘normal’ men to let themselves off the hook. They could reassure themselves that they were one of the ‘good’ guys, because they would never dream of deliberately distressing, intimidating or humiliating a woman before, during or after sex. They could free themselves from the need to self-scrutinise.

This lack of self-scrutiny can have damaging consequences. Ansari, a self-proclaimed feminist, apparently failed to notice – or chose to ignore – Grace’s discomfort while they were together. In his official response to her story, he stressed that he had a different interpretation of the night’s events. Whether conscious or inadvertent, this obliviousness is deeply disturbing.

Aziz Ansari in Master of None, the sensitive and socially conscious sitcom he created.

So where do we go from here? For starters, we mustn’t accept the argument that the Aziz Ansari story is a distraction from the wider #MeToo conversation about harassment and assault. Harmful sexual attitudes and behaviours all occur on a spectrum that is deep-rooted, wide-ranging and rotten, and we should aspire to eradicate them all.

We should advise the men around us to start thinking carefully about how they treat the women they date and have sex with. That might mean sharing this article on social media; it might mean starting conversations with male friends that we’ve never had before. We should ask them to consider the possibility that they might have scared or hurt someone before. We should demand that they pay much closer attention to women’s body language in the bedroom, and that they remember that women might not always feel able to verbally retract their consent (not least because refusing sex has been known to have dangerous consequences for women).

We should tell men, again and again and again and again, that they should only pursue sex with women who consent enthusiastically: who show them, with their words and with their actions, that they really want to be there. And we should remind men that women have begun to speak out about the men who fail to treat us with sensitivity, respect and care – and that now we’ve started, we’re not going to stop.

Images: Rex Features / iStock

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Moya Crockett

Moya is Women’s Editor at stylist.co.uk, where she is currently overseeing the Visible Women campaign. As well as writing about inspiring women and feminism, she also covers subjects including careers, podcasts and politics. Carrying a tiny bottle of hot sauce on her person at all times is one of the many traits she shares with both Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton.

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