A week ago, I was preparing for an interview with Aziz Ansari. The topic: modern dating. When the idea was thrown around in an editorial meeting, I jumped at the opportunity. There was no better person to feature in our upcoming Love Issue. Besides, I had been a fan of his work for years. In 2015, I tore through Modern Romance in one afternoon. I watched all his stand-up comedy and preached to whoever would listen that Master of None was the most brilliant and compelling TV show in years. I felt he understood the trials and tribulations of dating in the digital age better than most, and it seemed as though an entire generation could relate. So, last Friday, I dutifully spent hours doing research for the interview. On Saturday, I indulged in rewatching a few episodes of Master of None. On Sunday, a headline in my Facebook feed caught my eye: “Aziz Ansari Accused of Sexual Misconduct.”
If you felt the same way I did, that headline was like a slap in the face. I had always cheered on Ansari—he was the last person I’d expect to be swept up in that side of the #MeToo movement. The accounts detailed in the story on Babe left me conflicted: Was this sexual assault? Many people, myself included, have been conditioned to excuse this all-too-common behavior. The accounts felt so familiar; it was all too easy to initially dismiss them as normal—but therein lies the problem. Few #MeToo stories have sparked such virulent debates because, in a way, many have been a lot more clear-cut. But if this story serves to teach us anything, it’s that perhaps we need to re-evaluate what “normal” means.
And so I gathered my fellow MyDomaine editors to hash it out in a roundtable discussion, and our impassioned conversation ranged from the carefully worded to the not-so-PC. After 45 minutes of back-and-forth, one big takeaway stood out from the rest: “It doesn’t disempower women to widen the scope of how we think about sexist sex versus rape.” Here’s how we got there.
Ed. note: This story has sensitive content that might be triggering to some.
Why was this story in particular so impactful?
Unlike the Harvey Weinsteins and Charlie Roses of the world, Ansari was supposed to be one of us—a self-aware millennial. He had positioned himself as a proud feminist and fellow victim of the woes of modern dating. “A lot of men who came under fire previously, other than maybe James Franco, are older men who abided by previous generational standards, whereas Aziz Ansari is our age, from our generation, and he’s a feminist,” pointed out one editor.
In other words, he didn’t fit the profile of the misogynistic, power-hungry men who had been accused before him. He had decried the difficulties of dating in the modern era, and tilted gender power dynamics were one of his central themes. As he pointed out himself in his Netflix special at Madison Square Garden, “women have to worry about creepy dudes all the time. And it’s very unfair because men never have to worry about creepy women.” He even wore a #TimesUp pin on the red carpet at the Golden Globes.
“When allegations of Ansari’s sexual misconduct broke, I didn’t want to believe them,” wrote Anjali Shrivastava on The Daily Californian. “As I read through the details of the Babe article, I found myself thinking, ‘This isn’t sexual assault.’ And in that moment, I realized I had been conditioned to justify and even excuse inappropriate behavior.”
Why is it important that Grace came forward?
During the roundtable, some questioned Grace’s speaking out: “The women who came forward and publicly shamed Weinstein and Franco came from a place where they weren’t able to have a conversation with the person who wronged them, whereas I feel like in this case, she did,” said one editor. “I don’t know why I find it really jarring, but I wonder where you draw the line between having a conversation with the person who’s done this to you and resolving it with them to spilling all to a publication.”
But, as Fiona Vera-Gray, Ph.D., a research fellow on sexual violence at Durham University who is finishing a book called The Right Amount of Panic, pointed out, “the woman spoke to the publication after seeing Ansari wearing a Time’s Up pin at the Golden Globes. I’m sure everyone could see how this would feel like a particular kind of kick in the teeth given that by that point, he knew how she had felt about what had happened—because she had told him. To see him doing this would feel like an invalidation of what she had experienced, and this speaks to the point about teaching women to not feel uncomfortable to voice out loud when they’re uncomfortable.”
It’s all too easy to put the blame on the victim. Which is why, for months, journalists and activists have pushed forward one simple request: We have to believe the women who come forward. And yet, in this instance, people were more divided than ever. None of us was prepared for the shakedown that followed. Criticisms ranged from Grace not speaking out in the moment to her destroying an innocent man’s career over a “bad date” to single-handedly weakening the #MeToo movement by anonymously coming out with a story that could be considered ambiguous at best. To this point, one of our poignant editors spoke out: “It doesn’t disempower women to widen the scope of how we think about sexist sex versus rape.” Indeed, with this broadened scope, a much more important conversation lay ahead.
What makes consent so ambiguous?
“We don’t know how to define consent right now, and it’s changing,” one editor pointed out at our roundtable. “That’s why I think this gray area is so overwhelming for some people—because it doesn’t seem like there’s going to be a definitive answer, especially in the criminal justice system. We don’t like that. We like to have rules and specific guidelines.” The Babe story encouraged some polarizing questions, opening up a long-overdue conversation about the nuances of violating behaviors that are not always criminal. It raised the importance of renegotiating societal norms that have been deemed “normal” for far too long.
“Too often we think of consensual heterosexual sex as being about women saying yes or no to a question they do not get to set,” explains Vera-Gray. “These kinds of experiences are hard to name when our only barometer of acceptable sexual interaction is whether or not it is legal. We’ve somehow forgotten that consent is just one component of ethical sexual decision making—not the only thing that matters.”
Is the barometer for consensual sex the confidence that our partner won’t accuse us of assault? Or should it be enthusiastic enjoyment for both parties? And if, like me, most would agree on the latter, how do we get there? “Some of this is happening now in how we are finally seeing validation of some of the experiences that are very familiar for most heterosexual women,” says Vera-Gray. “Experiences where we weren’t seen as actors in the exchange but rather as something that sex is done to. Where our hands were moved as if we didn’t know what we were doing, where the fact we are not kissing someone back isn’t even recognized.”
Why is this an important narrative?
“This may be an unpopular opinion, but I actually think this story is going to end up being the most important story [of the #MeToo movement],” writer Jessica Valenti told Jordan Klepper on The Opposition. The fact that this story has many more layers and nuances than the ones that have come forth in the past, be it about Weinstein or Roy Moore, is at the core of why it’s an important story worthy of attention. As journalist David Klion pointed out on Twitter, “The Aziz Ansari story is a good litmus test for who sees sexual misconduct as a strictly legal question and who is concerned about improving the overall culture surrounding sex and dating.”
“We live in a world that frequently tells women who feel like men are overstepping sexual boundaries that we’re being paranoid or that we’re narcissistic,” Vera-Gray tells us. “We’re told the problem is us—that we’re a prude or frigid. That we misread the situation or that it was our fault anyway. The key to the problem then is not about changing how uncomfortable women feel to speak out, but changing a culture that encourages our silence and doesn’t listen to us when we do.” What the #MeToo movement stresses is that no one should ever feel silenced or ashamed of speaking out, no matter who they are or what situation they’re in.
So how do we reshape the conversation?
In the wake of these allegations, we shouldn’t focus on blaming or shaming either party. We should recognize the existing dynamics that perpetuate our broken sexual culture. If we are to continue talking about this issue, we all need to reflect on our past behavior and reassess whether we’ve ever acted in a way that silenced someone who felt uncomfortable.
“We need to acknowledge that we’re still socializing boys and girls with gender expectations that are decades old, even though dates look nothing like they used to,” Heidi Stevens wrote for Chicago Tribune. “We need to talk up enthusiastic consent—when both parties are equally eager, when no one’s wearing anyone down, when no one’s being worn down. We need to empower our girls and boys, both, to say ‘Oh, hell yes’ as well as ‘Oh, hell no.’ We need to help our girls and our boys listen for both.” We need everyone to recognize the importance of treating sexual partners as equals, and we need to understand that paying attention to their feelings and boundaries is not simply preferred, but critical. Most importantly, we need to level the playing field that is at the base of our sexual relationships.
The language that we currently have to speak about these issues, ranging from “bad dates” to “criminal assault,” fails to recognize the nuances that exist within sexual power dynamics. In many respects, it’s insufficient to redefine what constitutes consent. On her Comedy Central show Full Frontal, Samantha Bee declared, “People are worried about Aziz Ansari’s career, which no one is trying to end, but we know the difference between a rapist, a workplace harasser, and an Aziz Ansari. That doesn’t mean we have to be happy about any of them.”
It’s easy to recognize monstrous behaviors like the ones exhibited by Harvey Weinstein. It’s much harder to recognize the nuances of “sexist sex versus rape”—which is why the most important work of the #MeToo movement lies ahead.
Now we have no excuse to not be self-aware.