When I first read the Babe.net exposé of a woman’s experience on a date with comedian and Golden Globe-winner Aziz Ansari, I was horrified and wished I could un-read it in the same way one might wish to un-see a gruesome car accident. The unnamed woman, given the pseudonym “Grace,” shares cringe-worthy details of how she says she was treated by Ansari when they were alone in his Manhattan apartment, explaining how she “used verbal and non-verbal cues to indicate how uncomfortable and distressed she was” during their sexual encounter.
Soon after the story’s publication, it quickly became apparent that it would become the center of intense debate, in part because of Ansari’s stated identification as a feminist and his allegiance to the Time’s Up initiative (which stems from the #MeToo movement), but also because the story told by Grace veered deep into the territory of sexual assault—yet was not clearly identifiable as “illegal.”
There had already been rumblings from men and even some women, including actress Catherine Deneuve, about #MeToo going too far, with claims of “witch hunts” derailing men’s careers and criminalizing commonly accepted sexual relations between men and women. Grace’s story sparked a rift between those wanting #MeToo to remain squarely focused on ending legally defined harassment and assault, and those who want so much more: to change the dynamics of all male-female interactions, whether in the boardroom or the bedroom. Indeed, reshaping the standards for how we interact is critical, and that will happen only when both men and women take initiative.
Most women have known men like the one Grace has portrayed Ansari to be: a self-proclaimed “woke feminist” who claims to be aware and forward-thinking but ends up exhibiting sleazy behavior in private, whose eyes might linger an instant too long on our chests before reaching our faces; men who find ways to surround themselves with young, conventionally attractive women they generously and enthusiastically offer mentorship to, who claim to be good allies but enjoy watching pornography as an act of “sex-positivity”—even when this is overtly degrading to women. Assuming Grace’s description of Ansari’s behavior is true, his sexual aggression should not have shocked us. But it did, because we want to believe that there are a significant number of “good guys” out there who are attempting to redeem their sex. If a man like Ansari, who portrays himself as one of the decent men, is so grossly indecent, what hope is there for men at all?
The unfortunate reality is that far too many Americans look to celebrities like Ansari as models of appropriate behavior. Ours is a culture utterly obsessed with how the rich and famous live their lives and the philosophies they express. Which is why so many among us were excited when a well-known actor like Ansari began identifying as a feminist, calling out “creepy” sexist men and making a thoughtful, feminist and racially diverse television show.
Similarly, the only reason Babe.net published the story and got so much attention is precisely because of Ansari’s celebrity and stated ideals. And the reason so many of us, especially South Asians, felt so betrayed by what was revealed about Ansari’s alleged private behavior is that we were far too emotionally invested in him in the first place.
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As the mother of two boys I often think about how to raise sons in a world where women continue to face discrimination at so many levels. At our dinner table there is regular discussion of issues like the gender pay gap, the portrayal of female characters on television and the fact that women are capable of anything men are. But raising boys who grow up to be decent men requires more than theoretical discussions. It requires fighting constantly against the socialization that teaches that men are expected to dominate women. It also requires deep exploration of the personal bodily autonomy of women.
Men need to ask themselves if the scenario described in Grace’s telling of her sexual encounter with Ansari sounds familiar, and if they themselves have ever engaged in coercing women into sex by ignoring verbal and non-verbal cues. Men need to reexamine their own motivations around sex and sexual behavior. I imagine it is not flattering to most men to wonder if the sexual encounters that they thought of positively might have secretly been horribly painful experiences for their female partners.
Just as importantly, women need to find our voices in the bedroom. Many negative responses to Grace’s story have repeatedly included one question: Why did she not clearly articulate her disgust to Ansari and simply leave earlier? Such accusations reek of the kind of victim blaming that rape survivors have long faced. Obviously, Grace did not feel capable of fully expressing her reticence in the moment and only upon deep reflection after the night ended did she understand the full impact of the encounter. We have all experienced instances where we failed to stand up for ourselves, when bullied sexually or otherwise, only to play out a thousand clever responses in our head after the fact, wishing we could have stood up for ourselves more strongly. This hardly means we deserve to be bullied.
What such awful experiences teach us is that finding the resolve and confidence to stand up for ourselves in future interactions is critical. Just as men need to re-evaluate the manner in which they pursue women, women need to start finding ways to discard the layers of socialization that teach us to value men’s pleasure over our own, and that lead us to tread lightly in fear of offending a sexually expectant man.
The cultural shift that #MeToo has started to usher in may offer women exactly the kind of confidence-building boost we need: a public affirmation that our concerns about our place in this world are valid, and that we, too, deserve equality and respect in all things. Perhaps in a few years all the Ansaris of the world will fear being publicly labeled a predator for pushing a woman into degrading and unwanted sex. Perhaps the future Graces of the world will have incredibly low levels of tolerance for sexist and violating behaviors from ordinary men and celebrities alike, and will have excessively loud voices which they use to proclaim their wants and desires in the moment, rather than after they have been hurt. If we as a society set our standards far higher than legal definitions of abuse, we will all be better for it.