The #MeToo movement is still going strong — women are having more than a moment. On Saturday night, the online publication Babe broke the story of 23-year-old “Grace,” who went on a date with Aziz Ansari, an actor famous for his sharp, humorous takes on social justice matters in his TV show “Master of None.” They met at a 2017 Emmy Awards after-party where Grace, a budding photographer, noticed they were using the same vintage camera. They flirted over phone and text in the following weeks, culminating in a date.
The night slowly devolved into an uncomfortable mess of increasingly aggressive advances from Ansari and a confused, overwhelmed, and hurt woman. They had oral sex, and in Grace’s account she went along until he wanted penetration. Grace hesitated and they kissed some more. Grace recalled being flustered by Ansari’s approaches and said she wanted to leave. So he called her an Uber, and she left.
Since Babe reported the story, there’s been a flurry of criticism and debate over whether the allegations constitute a date gone wrong or a case of sexual assault.
Admittedly, the Babe piece is obviously bad journalism for many reasons. It was unnecessary to describe her disappointment about being served white wine instead of red at Ansari's apartment. It’s merely what he had available, and it’s a detail that unnecessarily cripples and dramatizes her uncomfortable experience. Feminist blogger and the Guardian contributor Jill Filipovic aptly states the Babe article was a “bizarre hybrid of reported piece and personal essay,” because the writer strangely injects her personal opinion about Grace’s date outfit. Lastly, Babe didn’t interview Ansari before accusing him publicly and barely gave him time to respond — not good journalistic practice by any stretch of the imagination.
Sexual abuse does not operate in a vacuum — not just the “stranger attacking you in a dark alley” narrative that is often pushed as the standard. There is a gray area where trust and consent can bleed slowly or suddenly into sexual coercion. When someone you thought you knew breaks that confidence, the mind has a variety of ways of processing that break in perception and reality. Even though it also involved a celebrity, Grace’s account provokes strong reactions because it’s infinitely more relatable to the average person’s experience as opposed to Harvey Weinstein.
A lot of the criticism centers around Grace not reacting strongly enough, which indicates deeply flawed thinking around the perceived “fight or flight” response. We’re experiencing a cultural shift in discussing matters of mental health, as people are more openly talking about depression, anxiety, and the process of grieving, which were previously stigmatized and hushed. Not everyone experiences any of these emotions the same way, but that perspective is missing in the discussions where Grace is critiqued harshly for her clumsy escape from Ansari. When someone is grieving or in shock, there is a marked stage where denial takes place. The shock of reconciling a man famous for his feminism with his contradictory, tone-deaf advances can manifest as paralysis.
She also probably felt like it was difficult to articulate what she wanted since Ansari did not understand physical cues indicating resistance. She alleges that he guided her hand to his penis five to seven times, and it’s concerning that he didn’t reevaluate his advances after the first or second rejection. What’s disturbing about men like Ansari is that they know how to arrive just short of the line that constitutes sexual assault. Grace’s account isn’t prosecutable, but there is a frustrating culture of wearing down someone’s resistance that is accepted by perfectly average people.
It’s also possible that she was hoping the bad moments were a misunderstanding, and if like a sputtering engine you just gave it a couple more tries, things would progress more smoothly. It’s unfair to shame her for not being able to read into the future, as it would be to expect him to read her mind perfectly. Foreplay is a tricky dance, underlined by chemistry but supported or destroyed by the quality of communication.
Sometimes even saying no doesn’t guarantee a full stop. I was nearly raped by an ex-boyfriend in spite of me telling him repeatedly “let’s slow down” and tensing up my body much as Grace did. When I confronted him, he remarked: “When girls say no, it really means try again.”
All of this boils down to transparency and accountability. Aggressors don’t know they’re hurting or abusing someone because society portrays persistent, aggressive advances as gallant and confident. Movies and television shows romanticize pushy behavior and bad communication through witty screenplay, catchy soundtracks, and clever editing. Per their text exchange afterwards, it’s plausible that Ansari sincerely didn’t know that he had crossed boundaries.
Identifying that you're sexually abused is difficult when you lack experience, have gone through trauma that you’re having a hard time digesting, have a complex power dynamic, or even have an existing relationship with the aggressor. Grace is more than a decade younger than Ansari — the age gap and his celebrity status likely overwhelmed her.
In the end, only Ansari and Grace know what happened. This case distinguishes those who only view sexual misconduct as a strictly legal matter and those who are concerned about improving the culture of sex and dating. These stories deserve attention, because even if they’re irresponsibly reported, they reflect so many of our experiences.
Ibis Valdes (@ValdesIbis) is a Young Voices advocate and a graduate of International Law & Human Rights. She is a community organizer with a civic engagement nonprofit in South Florida that works to raise the youth voice in local elections.
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