Earlier this month, Aziz Ansari was accused of sexual assault, leading to a global debate about the meaning of consent. Here, three women reflect on how the allegations affected them.
This article deals with sexual assault and the details may be triggering or disturbing for some readers. Please, read on with caution if you are sensitive to this topic.
On 14 January, I woke up and scrolled through Twitter before I was even fully conscious. A story had broken overnight: a 23-year-old Brooklyn-based photographer called “Grace” had accused comedian Aziz Ansari of dubious sexual conduct on a night out.
The detail in the story, published by a site called babe, was startling. Reading it, I was breathless at the familiarity of Grace’s experience and convinced that women everywhere would be seeing their own ambiguous, frightening, alarming, confusing encounters mirrored in it. What followed, predictably, was a raging global debate about consent and sexual assault that belittled Grace and, with her, every woman who has been through something similar and not had the language to describe it, let alone the wherewithal to speak it aloud.
In the bitter conversations that have followed the Ansari revelations, we have all but forgotten Grace’s trauma and, with it, that disturbing de ja vu so many of us felt when she came forward with her experience. The truth is, wherever this conversation goes next, there are women around the world right now, still quietly processing the story and trying to reconcile that public distress with their own private memories. Memories of nights spent deflecting, cowering, grappling for the word ‘no’ in whatever way feels safest.
Perhaps the most powerful thing we can do now is to collect those memories, to air them and to share them, in the hope that we can strip them of some of their power over us. Solidarity comes from candour and we cannot forget how many women have a story like Grace’s. I spoke to three women who’ve carried theirs with them for years, unsure quite what to do with them, unable to classify or define them, unable to move on. Some who, until the morning of Sunday 14th January, didn’t realise that their own experience might be worthy of even telling. If we are going to affect any sort of constructive change in the sexual relations between men and women – in the spirit of the original #MeToo campaign – then we must show how miserably common these experiences of bad, ugly, no-good sex really are.
The Ansari story made Josephine nervous and angry, not least because it brought up an experience of her own that she hadn’t properly confronted yet.
Last summer, Josephine went to a surfing camp in Morocco. She started flirting with the instructor: a standard back and forth on Whatsapp where they agreed to meet up after a day at the beach. He arranged for a taxi to pick her up from where she was staying and take her to his house. He’d laid out candles, made her a cup of tea and kissed her: the trappings of romance.
“The clothes removal happened much faster than I expected,” she says. “I was saying ‘slow down, slow down’ right from the start. It very quickly became about him and I felt as if I could have been anybody, like I was just a body to him. He was aggressive and he didn’t stop once to ask if I was OK. He ignored me when I asked to slow down and for him to be gentle.
“I gritted my teeth and went through with it because it was the fastest and safest thing to do, to get through the experience. The quicker it’s done, the quicker it’s over and I can get out, I thought. I tried to stop him several times - I’d say ‘that hurts, that hurts’ - but he kept going. He asked if he could come on my face and I said no. He did it anyway. How could I have said no in a way he’d understand?”
Josephine has been going over this night since the Ansari allegations, trying to find her own place in a society that is recalibrating its approach to sexual assault. She makes the point that a woman’s physical presence in a man’s home should not give him license to do whatever he wants. “Yes, I went to his house, but at no point did I sign up for what happened,” she adds.
Similarly, a woman who invites a man into her home is not giving him unconditional consent once he passes the threshold at her place of residence. Alison felt trapped in her own home one night when she invited a fledgling actor over who lied to her, saying he had an audition in London just so he could see her. He insisted on staying at her place until the last tube home, clearly angling for sex. She described the evening as an endurance trial; a challenge to distract him until it was time for him to leave. They made dinner and watched TV together – but because her house didn’t have a living room, they ended up in her room. She tried to keep things platonic.
Forty-five minutes before he had to leave, he closed the laptop they’d been watching Netflix on and said, “It’s getting late, I hoped we’d talk”.
“And then he kissed me and it was awful,” she says. “I tried to tell him that I didn’t quite enjoy that style of kissing, to which he protested that his ex-wife had loved it. Then he began undressing me, and while I didn’t say no, at no point had I enthusiastically said yes. I had left my body and was just letting him do things to me. I still don’t know why. There was something about the way he’d talked about his marriage and his beliefs about relationships that made me think ‘if I refuse, his ego will be seriously bruised and he could turn nasty’.”
Midway through this man going down on her, Alison jumped out of bed, wriggled back into her clothes and just started talking about something else, anything else, to stop the situation from getting more sexual or more threatening. A little in shock, he got dressed and left for the tube station. Alison felt rattled and fragile and confused. She debriefed with her girlfriends over wine and when he sent her a message the next day, she told him she didn’t want to speak about what happened between them. She would, like so many women, relive this encounter – that feeling of an out-of-body experience, that fear of a bruised male ego and what it might mean – when she read the Ansari story.
So did Christina. She was in a cab with a friend when the story broke and they both read it “in silence and disgust”. It would trigger Christina’s memory of at least four encounters, none of which she really has the language to label.
“I’ve had, sadly, quite a few Aziz-like scenarios,” she says. “I don’t know if I’d personally classify them as assault, but they all left me with a gross taste, and in some cases, a long-term emotional hangover.”
For years, Christina lived with a health condition that made sex painful. Whenever she kissed or hooked up with a guy, she’d find it really difficult to explain that it couldn’t lead to full intercourse. Sometimes she would warn the guy in advance, other times she’d have the conversation right before it became immediately relevant. Every time, she says, her announcement was met with frustration and anger.
“I remember the Christian good boy from my college who badgered me into getting naked when I told him I wasn’t comfortable with sex. He was so insistent that I eventually felt it would just be easier to lie with him there without clothes on than to keep having the discussion. Once a guy became so frustrated that he told me that I was horrible at sex, and I had to kick him out of my house. Another time, after repeatedly telling a guy I was rolling around with naked that I wouldn’t have sex, he said ‘Fuck it!’ out loud and tried to penetrate me. I pulled away in horror and screamed ‘No! I’m serious!’ He was actually horrified with his actions… I think he was genuinely conditioned to believe that ‘no’ means ‘not yet’ and never thought for a moment that I was being serious with the boundary. At the time it rolled off me but looking back, there was so much entitlement in that moment.”
Christina never realised how bad these experiences were until she met her fiancé. When she told him she wanted to wait to have sex, he was nonchalant and chilled about it, and she realised it was the first time someone had not reacted in anger.
“Creating boundaries and communicating consent is really difficult, but it’s especially difficult after you’ve learned through experience that the conversation will always be difficult, lead to disappointment, and even possibly verbal or physical abuse,” she says. “I wound up dreading those conversations so much, and in the case of a casual hookup, it’s so uncomfortable to set expectations in advance. I know there’s a lot of discussion about how conversations around consent kill romance, but if women felt like they were truly capable of being respected in the moment, we probably wouldn’t have to go through this sort of contract negotiation in the first place.”
The Ansari story really upset Christina – partly because it was personally triggering for her and partly because she was disappointed in a comedy icon who presented himself as a feminist ally. With regards to the conversation that followed Grace’s allegations, including the regular refrain on Twitter and in the mainstream media that what she experienced wasn’t assault, Christina says: “If an experience makes you feel s****y or traumatised, that’s enough to make your feelings valid. The person doesn’t have to go to prison - your feelings are valid enough to make their actions negative.”
And that is perhaps what we are missing here, as we continue to squabble about what consent looks like, or sounds like. We are looking to the man’s culpability to define the experience, rather than how the woman felt. A woman’s discomfort or fear in a sexual situation – whether she is in a state to say the word ‘no’ out loud or not – is enough to make the experience traumatic for her.
At the moment, we are caught in this predicament where we do not have the adequate language to even describe what Josephine, Alison and Christina have experienced. How do they begin to process and move on from their experiences if they do not have the assets to define and classify what happened to them? How does Grace? How can we use the allegations against Aziz Ansari to clarify what is OK and what it not OK in a sexual encounter?
We could start by listening to women. We could start by listening to stories like Josephine’s and Alison’s and Christina’s. We could start by noticing the commonalities: the fear of escalation, rape or violence if they denied a man sex, the paralysis of shock when their body language or requests to stop are ignored, their feeling of pressure to perform sexual acts even when they didn’t want to, the mute confusion that stopped them from saying the word ‘no’.
Only then do we really have a shot at changing the way we approach sexual relations so that women feel safe enough to extricate themselves from sex when they’re not into it.
If you or someone you know has been the victim of sexual assault, seek confidential help and support at Rape Crisis
Images: Erin Aniker