Over the weekend, a website called Babe published an anonymous account of a sexual encounter between a then-22-year-old photographer called “Grace” and Aziz Ansari, creator and star of the popular Netflix series “Master of None.”
In the article, Grace described the date as one of the worst nights of her life. Dinner felt rushed, per Grace’s account, and Ansari quickly took her back to his place, where he placed her on top of his kitchen counter and started kissing her and giving her oral sex. He undressed her, then himself, and Ansari mentioned he was going to grab a condom before Grace told him to slow down. The article then describes a kind of tug-a-war between Grace and Ansari, a negotiation of sexual acts where she didn’t clearly state that she wanted to stop, but where he seemed somewhat forceful and oblivious to her discomfort.
Since then, many people have decided that Ansari deserves his place on the laundry list of shitty men in media and entertainment. Others have recognized that encounters like these are all too common — a Vice article approached the issue evenhandedly, saying that “in order for #MeToo to be a success, we need to re-examine all of our behaviors around sex, especially one that at first glance seem shitty, but completely ordinary.” Other writers and pundits, notably Bari Weiss at the New York Times and Ashleigh Banfield at HLN, zeroed in on the big issue here: Grace didn’t explicitly say no, and now she’s wrongly attempting to destroy Ansari’s career and credibility.
Weiss and Banfield are right: Grace wasn’t clear about her boundaries, Ansari wasn’t threatening her career advancement, and the situation wasn’t heinously coercive. And women expecting to have their minds read doesn’t help: It creates confusion and vagueness. Why are we surprised when bad things happen?
But other commentators are also right that this is an opportunity for us to reevaluate our sexual mores. The fact that women have been taught that men enjoy the chase and that they should “play hard to get” is an obvious problem and a good place to start. When women play hard to get, it’s difficult for men to know when no actually means no, versus when “no” is the coy, meaningless word you use in the seductive game you play. Of course, in situations like these, men are also to blame: Ansari should have undoubtedly tried harder to discern whether Grace was playing hard to get or uncomfortable with the encounter.
In sex, there’s a lot of gray area: One person thinks the situation is hot and passionate, while the other person is less into it. In other encounters, someone is visibly pained or uncomfortable, but the other person is too absorbed in their own desire to pay attention to their partner. Is that criminal, is it wrong, or is it oblivious? Is it just how we’re wired, or is it how we’re socialized?
Sex is complicated — but it becomes infinitely more complicated when women don’t voice what they want.
I’m writing from a position of relative privilege compared to many women. I’ve been assertive since I was 15 years old — I’m now in my early 20s. I was taught to be strong, not polite, and I spent my time in high school and college challenging my male peers verbally in every area — I told them Bowie was better than Springsteen, capitalism was better than socialism, and that libertarianism would finally catch on with Gary Johnson running (I was wrong on that one). All of which made it easier to speak up for myself in sexual encounters. I was well-practiced.
Many women, though, aren’t taught to be this way, and they don’t feel comfortable shutting men down or challenging them or walking away. But one way to solve bad sexual encounters is to teach young women how to speak up and explicitly communicate what they want.
Let’s face it: Not all men respond well to rejection. Sometimes they get violent or aggressive when a woman says no. Sometimes they try to wear her down. It’s fair for women to have a lot of fear surrounding rejecting a man when they can’t predict how he’ll react.
In Grace’s case, at least, she had a world of options. She could have gone to the bathroom and called a friend. She could have gone downstairs to the doorman and asked him to stay with her while she hailed a cab. She could have said "No, Aziz, you’re pressuring me inappropriately and I’m leaving because you’re scaring me." And if she felt pressured and scared while in a public place, like the restaurant they were eating at, most women know that they can turn to another woman and ask for help.
Few people are disputing the argument that Ansari should have been more aware of his partner’s body language — to forge ahead as though nothing was wrong was idiotic on his part and shows he’s probably bad to have sex with, given how much of sex involves considering your partner’s needs. And no doubt, someone who has built their brand off meditations on social justice issues — someone who has starred in an episode for their own damn television show about a famed chef being accused of gross sexual misconduct — should practice what they preach.
But this wasn’t assault — this was bad communication and bad sex. We can rethink our sexual mores without irresponsibly smearing other people, can’t we?
Liz Wolfe (@lizzywol) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. She is managing editor at Young Voices.
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